When experience sees no benefits

17th November 1995 at 00:00
Kevin Fitzsimons wonders about the cost effectiveness of forcing the unwilling to school

In the week before half-term, a boy in my 11th year tutor group. let's call him Mark, turned up at school for the first time this year. In his previous four years he has been no better than a spasmodic attender, usually arriving for a day after the education welfare officer has warned Mark's parents that condoned truancy can result in a fine.

There is nothing unusual in this. All schools have pupils whose parents see no real benefits in the experience of school. These young people have found more rewarding ways of spending their time.

The question is, how much more "time" (here synonymous with resources, that is, money) should the education service "waste" on Mark ? There is an obvious analogy with the decision by a local health authority not to treat Jaymee Bowen, the 11-year-old "Child B" in the well-publicised cancer case. How far should the institution carry its duty of care? At what point do we say, "We have finite resources and this is where we draw the line"?

In Mark's case drawing the line was comparatively easy. He is an undemanding, generally co-operative pupil of limited ability. He falls into the not-quite-remedial category of children that the (now forgotten) Swann report said schools neglected most.

The pupils who get most attention fall into one or more than one of three categories; the extremes of intelligence, the talented and the disruptive. The clever ones are easily noticed and unconsciously favoured; the remedial ones are withdrawn to smaller groups or given learning support. The talented ones receive the benefit of extra attention outside the classroom. The disruptive ones claim attention in the classroom and from the pastoral staff.

Energy spent on pupils in the last category is the most frustrating and often unproductive.

I once sat in the headteacher's study for 50 minutes of my lunch time with 18 other members of staff discussing one pupil; the only recommendation was to sit her at the front and give her the attention she wanted. She is now in a special school where there is a ratio of one-to-four.

Mark does not fall into any of these categories. He quietly drifts through school until he votes with his feet and becomes one of the 18 pupils who will not be entered for examinations but who will be counted for the purposes of our school's place in the league tables. In other circumstances he might never have "counted " at all.

Then Mark's head of section brought me an idea, an initiative. We have arranged 10 one-day-a-week placements with local companies for habitual truants in an effort to entice them back into school.

I had to contact Mark, which I did through his friends, one of whom said: "That's not fair. If I stay away from school, will I get a placement?" The next day Mark turned up and asked if he would have to come to school if he took the placement - implying that he would not accept if he had to attend. I have not seen him since.

What lessons are there to learn, what morals to draw?

Pupils perceive the purpose of schooling differently, from each other and from educators. Mark sees the opportunity to experience work as more relevant than sitting in a classroom, but not as important enough to sit in the classroom in order to be given the opportunity. Other pupils see the offer of work experience as a reward for truancy and resent it being offered to Mark.

If, then, work experience is perceived as offering such an enticing prospect, why is there not an intense and urgent dialogue between employers, schools, pupils and their parents, and the Government?

Let us give children the opportunity to make their own comparisons. If they prefer "school" to "work" that is something they have learned; if they prefer "work" to "school" then there is something there that we should learn.

Kevin Fitzsimons is head of faculty in a northern comprehensive and has taught for 22 years

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