Ticket to nowhere;Talkback

29th May 1998 at 01:00
Ian Roe asks what chance educational achievement for pupils whose home life convinces them the National Lottery is a better bet than school?

Simon is a nice boy. He might get a C grade in English with a bit of luck. But his attendance is a bit dodgy. He missed all of last week because his mother had a cold, and kept him at home to look after her.

When I spoke to his mother about this, she couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. She was ill and miserable, so she kept him at home for company. What else could she have done?

I put the phone down feeling depressed. I often feel I am trying to promote middle-class values in a community that has no desire to accept them.

School attendance is not a habit for many of my pupils. Children are often kept home because Mum is lonely, or to help her with the shopping, or because she just can't get out of bed. And perhaps the saddest aspect is the element of collusion it breeds. Mum or Dad will cover up the absence by telling lies - lying then gains parental approval. The concept of right and wrong is not fixed - it is negotiable, especially in matters that smell of authority. They are there to be tricked and deceived, starting with school.

As a deputy head, I am struggling to break into this attitude. A teacher's emphasis on exams and success does not reflect life as my pupils and their families see it. I am promoting a range of standards that are meaningless here - these families have their own way of life and their own values, and are deeply suspicious of the world outside.

The local celebrities are car thieves, often young men in their late 20s who are still living the same kind of life they did when they were teenagers, because nothing has ever come along to replace it.

Many of our young girls become mothers. It gives them a status and a purpose - something their partners do not share. From such aimless and wasted lives come the next generation my staff must teach.

It is the teachers who are the unusual ones, the ones with the alien values. They talk of work and commitment to children from homes with no books, no structure, no furniture, no front door, even. I know. I have been inside these houses.

And for the children, this is normality. The comfortable and cosy world of advertising is not theirs. It represents a world from which they are excluded. They know their lives are not the same, they know they are outsiders and will remain so.

They are the have-nots who ensure that others have. They are the ones who, statistically, must fail their exams so others might pass. Education is no longer seen as a means of social mobility; it is a force of social reinforcement.

In such a climate we achieve a great deal, providing a fixed point of security in an otherwise uncertain world. But for the children at the very bottom of our system, it is the National Lottery which represents the clearest and most valuable lesson. You cannot break out into a different world through your own efforts, only as the result of a capricious combination of numbers.

There is a message my pupils picked up very quickly from the National Lottery - don't work hard, it's not worth it. Just buy a ticket. At least you stand as much chance as anyone else. For, unlike schools, we are all equal when we stand before the lottery.

Ian Roe is a deputy head in Wales

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