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Class war zone

Aggressive and disruptive behaviour blights many state schools, and the only remedy - excluding pupi

Mohammed was only 13 years old and wasn't especially tall or powerful, yet I was terrified of him. "I'll fucking kill you. Do you get what I mean, geezer? I'll fucking deck you!" he screamed at me as I asked him to leave my classroom. He had hit a boy over the head and spent much of the lesson swearing. By this time, I was trembling with rage and fear, and was relieved when he finally left the room.

Soon afterwards Mohammed was excluded from the school and I gave up teaching. It was 1997 and the chaos he had caused had sapped my confidence. Because the school was not a stereotypical inner-city comprehensive, but located in a prosperous London suburb, I felt doubly deflated; I felt that I had become horribly soft. In fact, the school did have discipline problems, with a significant rump of children from troubled backgrounds, but few teachers there were trained to cope with the more challenging ones such as Mohammed. Rowdy classes became riotous, lessons became war zones.

Several years later, with my spirits refreshed and missing the buzz and excitement of the classroom, I returned to full-time teaching, quickly becoming a head of department at a school in Havering, outer London. In this new position of responsibility I had to teach several children who had been excluded from other schools or had been passed on to me by more junior teachers. By this time, I had become a more tolerant pedagogue, less obsessed with results, more adept at handling disruption. I was calmer and more consistent in my approach. Some of my pupils were potentially just as aggressive as Mohammed had been, but I was able to cope with them; I'd learned to "give and take", to negotiate, to form good relationships with difficult children.

One child, John, had been permanently excluded from another school but had settled well at my new school and ultimately succeeded in attaining eight good GCSEs. I recently spoke to John about his life now and was delighted that everything was going well for him. He had trained to be an electrician and was set, he said, on earning better wages than me. "What I liked about it in your school," he told me, "was that my mates and some of the teachers taught me how to deal with my anger. Sometimes I used to get so mad, I would just punch anyone who was around me, but then I learned to walk away from rucks. And I think that helped me concentrate more. The school stuck with me even though I was out of order sometimes. They didn't kick me out. That counts for a lot."

Talking to John, I began to think about Mohammed, who had been jailed soon after being permanently excluded from school. I recalled how there were times when he had been keen on learning, had even shown interest in Shakespeare and reading. He had wanted to succeed, but I, and many other teachers at the school, had been preoccupied only by what was wrong with him, meting out punishments and threats that had caused a vicious downward spiral. During my investigations in trying to find out what had happened to him, I learned from another former pupil at the school that Mohammed was still "up to no good"; he had become a drug dealer and had cut some heroin with washing powder and nearly killed a user.

Had I contributed to Mohammed's troubles? Had my old school failed him? If extra resources had been available to give him proper care and attention, would we have spared society huge amounts of money and distress in the long term?

Mohammed fitted the typical profile of an excluded child. He was male, of mixed race, had special educational needs and was in foster care. He was permanently excluded in 1997, exactly at the point when the new Labour administration swept to power promising to address the problems presented by children like him. Tony Blair's mantra, "Education, education, education", was as much about sorting out the Moh ammeds of this world, about being "tough on the causes of crime", as it was about improving results.

In spite of the government's best efforts to massage the figures, exclusion rates have remained more or less steady for a decade; on average, roughly 9,000 children or more are permanently excluded from school every year and nearly 400,000 children given "fixed-term" exclusions, according to the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Eighty per cent of them are boys. Government figures show that Roma children are three and a half times more likely to be excluded than other children, and those from black or mixed ethnic backgrounds are twice as likely to be excluded as whites. Children in care are eight times as likely to be excluded, and those with special educational needs are three times more likely to be ordered to leave their school.

After 11 years of a Labour government, school exclusions continue to affect the underprivileged.

In 2007, as many as 140,000 pupils who were excluded for short periods from school were eligible for free meals, accounting for a third of such exclusions, even though these children make up only 12 per cent of the school population. But if schools were better equipped and staff better trained to deal with the persistent disruption exhibited by children from dysfunctional and deprived households, would exclusion rates be drastically reduced?

Meanwhile, society as a whole is paying an increasing cost. Significant research by the charity New Philanthropy Capital, which offers advice on giving, reveals that the average excluded child costs society more than £63,851 a year. This figure includes the future lost earnings of the child resulting from poor qualifications, and also costs to society in terms of crime, health and social services. In total, this amounts to £650m a year. This is probably a gross underestimate, since many excluded children are not accounted for in the figures.

The human cost of failing to deal with the problem is incalculable: carrying a knife is the most common offence among children excluded from school, and 50 per cent of men in prison were excluded. "Research shows that at the root of school exclusions, and much crime, is the inability of young people to communicate properly," says Lord Ramsbotham, former chief inspector of prisons. "If we addressed these problems in the classroom, many of our problems with antisocial behaviour would disappear.

"At the moment, what happens is that these young people, having been alienated from their families at an early age, are then excluded from school and turn to crime: drug-taking and dealing, knife crime and, in extreme but increasing cases, murder. Research shows that while poor parenting and low socio-economic status are major factors, school exclusion plays a significant environmental role in helping shape the criminals of tomorrow. The government needs to appoint a minister for inclusion to begin to address these issues."

Ofsted, in its report, Reducing Exclusions of Black Pupils from Secondary Schools: Examples of Good Practice, identified three interrelated features that significantly reduce exclusions: "Respect for the individual in school and a systematic, caring and consistent approach to behaviour and personal development, the courage and willingness to discuss difficult issues, a focus on helping pupils to take more control of their lives by providing them with strategies to communicate well and look after each other."

I know from my own experience that good mentoring really helps; the best schools allocate both "academic" and "professional" mentors to troubled pupils. The academic mentor will set clear, achievable targets twice a week which are then closely monitored, while professional mentors, usually drawn from the world of work, will show pupils opportunities beyond the classroom.

Frequently, these pupils have tailor-made numeracy and literacy lessons, and work in small groups with tutors to engage with the curriculum. Furthermore, pupils with particular psychological needs will have relevant lessons such as "anger management" classes or counselling sessions. While this may sound expensive, it needn't be: some schools have met the costs easily by getting rid of expensive management posts and reallocating the resources into buying in mentors and academic tutors. The alternative of the pupil referral unit is far more expensive; with staff ratios of one teacher to six pupils, the units mean thousands more pounds are spent per pupil than in a mainstream school.

Studies show that targeted early intervention can significantly reduce the problems caused by school exclusions. Take the case of Abby, a child who at the age of 12 was in foster care and regularly in trouble at school in south London. She was confrontational; she fought with other children and abused teachers. But she was also on the autistic spectrum, a condition that was not dealt with properly at school. Frequently, she would misinterpret the teachers' instructions, literally pulling her socks up in response to this metaphorical order. A series of fights and slanging matches with teachers led to her being permanently excluded before she could take any GCSEs. Once out of school, she quickly turned to petty crime such as shoplifting. Fortunately, her case was taken up by the National Teaching and Advisory Service (NT&AS), and some trained professionals were assigned to her who would supervise both her academic and social needs. Much to the astonishment of her former school, she attained seven GCSEs and is now at college.

"The link between youth offending and educational failure has of course been known about for years. But successive governments have failed to do much about it, although this government has undoubtedly done more than the others," says Tim Walker, the chief executive at NT&AS. "Organisations like mine can make a big difference if we intervene at the right point; we can put troubled children on the path to success."

One small but significant step to making exclusions a more constructive experience would be to grant children the right to appeal against their own exclusions, being assigned a trained "advocate" to represent them. A scheme like this has already been piloted in ten boroughs between 2005 and 2008 by Save the Children with its three-year EAR to Listen project, which gave excluded children an independent advocate to speak for them at exclusion panels and liaise between home and school generally.

That the project had an 80 per cent success rate in supporting children and young people to remain, re-enter and re- engage with education, but there is little political impetus behind spreading its good practice throughout the country. "The government has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which gives children the right to be heard and taken seriously in all matters affecting them, but we are nowhere near granting this to our excluded pupils," says Tom Burke, a spokesperson for the Children's Rights Alliance for England. Since September 2007, schools have been obliged by law to promote pupil well-being. "We would hope that new guidance on the duty, which the government will require schools to implement next year, will add further weight to exclusion panels to considering a child's rights when making exclusion decisions."

At the root of the social chaos caused by exclusions is a chronic lack of consistency. Some schools are eager to exclude disruptive pupils, while others are extremely reluctant to do so, even for serious offences. Schools anxious not to have their figures sullied by too many exclusions are choosing to operate a system of "internal" exclusions - locking pupils up in rooms with no windows, keeping them away from lessons in separate buildings, quietly telling them not to come to school at opportune moments such as when the inspectors are there. But this only creates worse problems for society in the long run; alienated and uneducated children, who are neglected by their schools and families, are left unsupervised to cause havoc.

It is only by being "consistently caring" towards these vulnerable children that we will clean up the mess. But no one in any of the three main political parties has had the courage to argue publicly that we should provide advocates for disruptive children on exclusion panels, insist on their having the right to appeal against their own exclusions, or that we should keep them in mainstream classes, if at all possible. Projects such as Save the Children's EAR to Listen, which provide excluded children with the proper support to stay in school, have been proven to be by far the cheapest and most effective way of solving the problem. Save the Children estimates that providing advocates for our most vulnerable children should cost no more than £8.5m, compared with the £650m that taxpayers are currently paying to cover all the harm exclusions cause.

I spoke to Michael Gove, shadow secretary of state for children, schools and families, about the Tories' attitudes towards exclusions. The Conservatives have pledged to scrap independent appeal panels, the only form of outside scrutiny that schools currently have when they exclude pupils, and Gove confirmed that the party aims to make this a manifesto commitment. "We want to introduce a number of measures within schools that will stop exclusions, such as early intervention strategies that will mean pupils will be dealt with effectively before the drastic step of excluding them is taken," he told me.

"We want to give headteachers the power to exclude pupils without being overruled by outside bodies so that they are secure that their authority won't be challenged or, as is often the case at the moment, undermined."

How would he ensure consistency on exclusions? Home-school contracts, he said, would be clear about what behaviour was acceptable and what was not. This is not a new idea: Labour has attempted and failed to make home-school contracts work. In fact, such contracts are simply a list of rules for parents that have been drawn up by the school, and these can vary from place to place.

Gove was clear that the Tories would not accept the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and its insistence on a child's right to appeal his or her exclusion, but would allow individual schools to adopt this procedure if they felt it appropriate. This would give schools the chance to experiment in the ways in which they grapple with the issue of exclusion. "Our priority will be to stop exclusions in the first place," he said. "We believe our reading programme in primary school should have a big impact in this sense; the overwhelming majority of excluded children can't read properly. If we ensure that all children can read by the time they are seven, we will have cut down greatly upon the causes of exclusion.

"If we stop the causes of exclusions, we won't be kicking out kids on to the streets to cause mayhem. Our plans for improving pupil referral units will mean that all difficult children will be catered for in a supportive learning environment."

Overall, his plans seemed contradictory; and while he is sincere, I and many people in the system do not share his faith in the judgement of headteachers, on which so many of his plans rely. The Tories' plans will increase the inconsistency in the processes by which children are excluded, giving them no redress whatsoever. They will create an even angrier generation of rejects than we have now. His plans for referral units will be costly, without ever getting to the root of the problem.

Labour, anxious about being labelled "soft", has not even attempted to argue with Gove's proposals. The party prefers, instead, to sneak in guidance and legislation that bolsters children's rights in a piecemeal and inchoate fashion. The media is partly responsible for this: for all the column inches devoted to antisocial behaviour and crime perpetrated by children, there is seldom any serious attempt to look at some of the mundane root causes. Pointing out the inconsistency in schools' approaches towards exclusions and the need for proper, uniform disciplinary procedures, doesn't make good copy. Screaming about the need to expel thugs and yobs from school does. As a result, the public is never properly informed about the issues and the debate remains banal.

There are straightforward, successful and cheap measures that could drastically reduce school exclusions tomorrow. But the political and educational will to implement them doesn't exist. And so we are condemning our society to an ever rising tide of lawlessness.

Francis Gilbert's "Parent Power: the Complete Guide to Getting the Best Education for Your Child" is published by Piatkus (£9.99) http://www.francisgilbert.co.uk

Exclusion by numbers

  • 30% of permanent exclusions are for persistent disruptive behaviour (2007 figures)
  • 27% are for physical assaults on staff
  • 17% are for assaults on pupils
  • 11% are for verbal abuse against an adult
  • 5% are for verbal abuse against a pupil
  • 3% for bullying, racist abuse and damage
  • 2% are for sexual misconduct
  • 8,680: number of permanent exclusions from primary, secondary and special schools in 2006/2007
  • 363,270: fixed-term exclusions from state secondary schools
  • 45,730: fixed-term exclusions from primary schools
  • 20: number of times more likely that excluded children will end up in prison, compared to the general population

Source: Department for Children, Schools and Families

What is exclusion?

Source: Department for Children, Schools and Families

  • Headteachers have the right to remove a child from school for serious misbehaviour
  • "Fixed-term exclusion" is when the child is excluded temporarily (from one half-day to a maximum of 45 days in one school year). The school sets work for the period, which the child's guardian is expected to supervise
  • "Permanent exclusion" is when the child is ordered to leave the school permanently. The child may then have a "managed move" to another school, or go to a "pupil referral unit", to be taught in very small classes. Some may drop out of education altogether

Portraits by Natalie Pecht

This article first appeared in the 13 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The facade cracks

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When heritage becomes hate: why my home town of Charlottesville needs to address its complex past

After an invasion of white supremacists, we need to see what our history means today.

Watching a tragedy happening in slow motion, without any way to stop it - that’s how it has felt to be from Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017. A city that used to always get voted “happiest town in the USA” when I was growing up was the target this weekend of an ugly white supremacist movement whose roots spread far from the city.

It was a huge surprise when we won the lottery of Nazi flags, with our stupid old statues that have become icons of international fascism, with a park named after a distantly forgotten old man becoming a site of struggle for an attempted racist coup of the United States. Our first reaction is: they aren´t from here. Our second: make them go away. Our third: a realisation we need to examine the way that our own ways of life, which we thought so harmless, have inspired such horrible feelings in strangers.

Maybe for my African-American classmates at high school the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee, and the park when it was still named after him rather than Emancipation Park, always meant violence. Pulling the statue down says no more about the historical Lee than tearing down Lenin in '89 says about socialism. We've been invaded by people pretending to protect us from invasion, and the symbols of our past will never matter as much as living people do.

***

The invaders picked our town, probably, because Virginia was a confederate state, and was in fact where the southern gentry used to live. Lee exemplified this tradition. He was son of Lighthorse Harry Lee, a hero of the revolutionary war and governor of Virginia, and is a descendant of one of “Virginia’s first families,” the aristocratic Englishmen who emigrated to Virginia when it was a British colony. He is part of Charlottesville's heritage, and perhaps not even all that shameful a part. He opposed the secession of the confederacy, supported the reconstruction after the war, including giving rights to recently freed slaves. Not exactly woke, but for a confederate general, not as bad as some.

We were taught at Venable Elementary School that he fought only reluctantly, to defend his land, not slavery. In the version we learned, one would imagine Lee being very opposed to people from the Midwest coming to Virginia in cars with Ohio license plates to murder Virginians. Many non-racist Virginians, including quite a few friends, respect Lee deeply - the same is true in towns like New Orleans where other Lee statues are being taken down. Yet if once we could fool ourselves into thinking that the statue didn't represent hatred and racial hierarchies, we can't anymore. The discussion of local history has turned into one of national identity. The statue should be gone by Christmas. 

***

The real hero of Charlottesville is the town’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, who was among the most enigmatic of the founding fathers, idealistic and hypocritical - a real American, in other words. His idea of the gentleman farmer is also part of our heritage. It was an alternative to Hamiltonian industrial capitalism, but lost out in the tustle to shape American history. Much like English contemporaries such as William Cobbett, Jefferson believed in a rural ideal, reading poetry by morning, farming by afternoon, playing the harpsichord by night. His thought is also present in our beautiful "academical village" of the University of Virginia which he also founded. It is one of UNESCO’s few world heritage sites in the United States, so I guess it is part fo the globe's heritage as well, and it is also where the white supremacists stomped around with their tiki torches.

It’s time for us to stop being romantic about Jefferson, too. The statue in our minds needs to come down. We can recognize the great parts of his work, of his thought, in Charlottesville today, but we can also recognise that he allowed himself to use violence to dominate others, that he owned slaves and raped them. And we can recognise that equivalent scenarios continue to play out today, and will continue to play out until we are willing to face the truth.

There can be no more excuses. It’s not about Jefferson, or Lee, after all. We use monuments, statues, heroes, to inspire ourselves. In the end, the “truth” about Jefferson or Lee is a matter of trivia and history. Today, for every white male in America, we need to deconstruct the parts of our identity built on the graves of others. It’s not easy.

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Jefferson's gentleman farmer was the forerunner of the people who populate the gentrified Charlottesville that exists today of expensive coffee-shops and celebrity-filled suburbs. This romantic idea, much like the lifestyles of the American and English elite today, seems to engender a lot of resentment from those who can only watch helplessly, and are often gentrified out. It’s not only immigrants or, in the United States, African-Americans, who are denied access to America's Williamsburgs and Charlottesvilles, London's Shoreditches and Oxfords. In Charlottesville, descendants of white sharecroppers and black slaves alike are unable to afford $15 glasses of local Virginia wine.

The paradox implicit in Jefferson’s beautiful idea is that in the end, it’s impossible to sustain this chilled-out and happy lifestyle without the labor being done by others, be they slaves, sharecroppers, or factory workers in China. If America is in trouble now, the conflict comes precisely from the fact that our universalist ideas of freedom, equality, and liberty correspond to an economy that is anything but universal. We actually did it, keep doing it, and unless we can use these ridiculous men dancing through our streets iin Halloween costumes as a funhouse mirror to make us see ourselves as we are, we’ll probably keep doing it.

I resent Jefferson for his hypocrisy, because in truth, I would love it if America looked more like Charlottesville than the industrialized and nasty-looking Interstate 95 highway that leads up the East Coast, the aftermath of Hamiltonian industrial-revolution factory America. The New Jersey towns, the gas stations, what we contemptuously call “McMansions,” suburban Northern Virginia... none of it is really authentic enough. Parallel to the rich and ugly suburbs, are poor and ugly towns, the sort of places with unemployment and discounts on cereal that tastes like sugary trash in the supermarket.

The residents of these towns don’t hate the residents of more gentrified towns for our organic granola, they hate the world for the structures of oppression that they can’t escape, even as an international class, an educated class, a well-meaning class, escapes without even needing to. We coexisted in the same place but not the same set of opportunities, and we glided on to new and bigger worlds of possibility, ones denied to those of different class backgrounds, regardless of their ethnicity.

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Some of my African-American classmates at Charlottesville High School were likely descendants of Jefferson’s slaves, coming from poorer neighbourhoods and housing projects and taking "standard" level classes, with honors and AP classes for students whose parents worked in the University (very liberal, of course), a genteel place where every year, some kid wears blackface or a Nazi outfit to a party - as a joke, of course. While my classmates in AP and Honors classes got help from our teachers in applying to Ivy League schools, the general level classes saw black and white students who shared poorer backgrounds acting out to get attention from harried teachers. This was public school, but Charlottesville’s many excellent private schools, of course, didn’t even have the general level students at all.

Despite some southerners such as Lee supporting the post-war “reconstruction,” white resistance to racial equality led to a Jim Crow system that wasn’t much better than slavery, and an American South which dozed in sweaty decline while the rest of the country industrialised and modernized. From 1865 to 1965, not much happened in the South. True, there were intellectual movements like the Agrarians, whose 1920s manifesto “I’ll Take My Stand” I found one high school afternoon in the local bookstore, we had our Faulkners, our occasional geniuses. But as a society, it was stagnant. 

It was only when the civil rights movement began that the south began to actually rise again. UVa went from being a minor regional school to being a world-class one. Charlottesville went from being a mediocre gentleman’s club to a place that people of all backgrounds could make lives for themselves in the public service. And we, the public, gained so much - that’s why my family chose to live there.

I remember as a child strolling the beautiful downtown mall to go to dinner al fresco with my parents, my father pointed out a man in a turban; it was Satyendra Huja, a Sikh professor at the university who had planned the downtown mall, and made a useless street into one of the nicest places to congregate in town. In 2012, Huja became the mayor. I guess the former mayor of Charlottesville who single-handedly made Charlottesville one of the most charming towns in the country often gets told to “go home,” as if that's somewhere else.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday in the United States, but in Virginia it used to be “Lee/King/Jackson” day, with two confederate officers added in just as a reminder. That’s not really our heritage, and as students, we were grateful for the day but always laughed at how immature it was that the powers that be needed to block out Dr. King’s achievements so much.

***

Charlottesville is a southern town true to and even obsessed with our heritage - a place filled with museums, historians, bookstores - which wants to dissect that heritage to remove the parts of our forefathers (and mothers) lives that we can’t accept, like a sandwich that you open up, take the pickles out of, and then keep on eating. We love our heritage in Virginia. We read about it, celebrate it, live it every day. But heritage isn’t a static thing, fixed in time, and the walls between myth and history are thin. In fact, perhaps knowing about your heritage is the ultimate form of privilege. I doubt that either the descendants of slaves I went to high school  with, or the “redneck” (so-called because they got sunburned by working in the fields - “redneck” is a class slur) descendants of the illiterate sharecroppers of rural Maryland, do. 

What happened this weekend to Charlottesville could happen to any town as long as we those who are deprived of their history and who don’t feel at home in their hometown. But the Charlottesville I remember, and the one it is now, proves that you can go from war and conflict and institutionalised racism to one where people of all races and identities can coexist, for the most part, peacefully and happily. We can, if we try, honor Jefferson for his achievements without forgetting the slaves his beautiful buildings were built by. A “Memorial to Enslaved Laborers” is being built on the campus he founded.

For the first time, every one of my old friends is thinking about racism, white privilege, the origins of violence, and what we can do about it. We can honor Jefferson and General Lee’s memory best by trying to learn from their mistakes. Maybe, if it seems like we are able to solve these problems, I’ll have a child myself. I hope she goes to Venable Elementary School, and I’ll take her to Emancipation Park afterwards.

This article first appeared in the 13 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The facade cracks