The trouble with good intentions

10th October 2003 at 01:00
It seems schools cannot win. Many have believed strongly that they should intervene to support pupils, and have acted accordingly. Indeed they have been urged to do so. Now, they are being told that some interventions are worse than useless (page four). Carol Fitz-Gibbon, a leading academic critic of government education policy, goes further and argued at a conference in Aberdeen last week that counselling traumatised pupils could be counter-productive.

The dilemma for teachers is amply illustrated by another conference held in the same city at the same time which heard that providing emotional support for troubled youngsters is an essential ingredient in their mental and educational welfare.

There is, however, a link between the two apparently contradictory positions. Some initiatives designed with the best of intentions can have negative consequences if they are inadequately thought through, half-heartedly supported, professionally inept and scarcely resourced. As the first of the Aberdeen conferences heard, teachers need to scrutinise carefully what initiatives actually do to raise attainment. And, as the second conference was told, teachers need to understand what is involved in supporting young people's psychological processes.

The classic examples of good intentions which threatened to go off the rails are new Labour's policies on social inclusion and mainstreaming.

Everybody lined up to support them and the same people lined up to say they were impossible to achieve. There are signs the Scottish Executive is acknowledging it has overreached itself, ditching the commitment to reduce school exclusions by a third, for example. Exclusion from class is one thing; exclusion from education quite another.

But the messages from Aberdeen are clear and less contradictory than at first sight: good intentions are not enough.

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