Issue 198 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 1996 Copyright Socialist Review

Feature Article: Education:Turning the tables (2)

John Lockwood

Recent events in Nottingham, Tyneside and elsewhere show that the NASUWT are going all out to make the running on the issue of disruption and discipline in schools. Their rationale draws heavily on a tired old right wing agenda: the collapse into lawlessness in society in general and the need for a robust response in defence of decent folk.

The solution to this allegedly unprecedented rise in violence in schools, they claim, is greater freedom to permanently exclude 'problem' pupils so that those who wish to work can be protected from the violence and disruption of those who don't.

A more sober analysis would reveal an astronomical increase in exclusions over recent months (projected at 380 percent in Warwickshire) but, contrary to the headlines, no significant increase in violence against teachers. We are witnessing not so much a descent into 'Mad Max' territory as one into the madness of the market.

The combination of the effects of local management of schools, open enrolment and the publication of league tables has created a market within which competing units struggle to secure a market advantage in able pupils. The high cost/low achieving 'special needs' children, particularly those who present behavioural difficulties, threaten the school's position in the league tables - and thus its potential income - and so are the prime target for removal. This is doubly attractive to entrepreneurial heads since the expense involved is transferred directly to the competition: the schools down the road.

As this system drives forward the process of concentrating the greatest need into the schools with the least resources we should not be surprised to see some teachers looking in despair for any apparent solution, even one which casts the victim as villain. It is an irony that the demand for greater freedom to exclude is a demand for further aggravation of this problem for teachers.

The sense of despair felt by some is made worse by the main unions' refusal, for fear of embarrassing Blair, to campaign for national class size action. A fight to secure guarantees of class sizes at a maximum of 30, combined with a formula for reduction below this to facilitate inclusion of youngsters with special needs would undercut the NASUWT reaction.

A circular from the Department for Education recommended class sizes of seven for the 'maladjusted'. Where three or four such youngsters exist in a mainstream class it is clear that pro rata the total class should not exceed 17-20. As socialist teachers we hold to the comprehensive ideal. We repeat at every opportunity the results of the government's own research, conducted at a time when the ruling class had sufficient confidence in capitalism to demand a quality education for all. The expansion of the system required far more educated workers than could be distilled from the small number allowed access to a full education under the grammar school system.

One important report, the General Household Survey, covered the period before, during and after comprehensivisation (1954-1978). This showed that even measured purely in their terms (exam results) comprehensives produced massive improvements across every occupational grouping. When the Tories pontificate that comprehensives have failed, it is doubtful that any greater falsehood could be crafted from the English language.

The denial of access to comprehensive education for children with behavioural special needs - implicit in the clamour for more exclusions - is tragic and backward because the young people involved are overwhelmingly drawn from the most brutalised of the oppressed. There are, of course, exceptions but the overrepresentation of children who have experienced physical and sexual abuse, children from extreme poverty and, of course, from ethnic minorities, ought to make any socialist stop in his or her tracks. It is tragic and backward because it indicates a view which says that these youngsters can't change themselves: they must just be removed for the common good.

For socialist teachers it should be an obvious and basic principle - we should demand the inclusion of all those it is feasible to include. The evidence of specialist research in the area of behavioural special needs suggests not only that inclusion of children with special needs into mainstream education is feasible, but that only inclusion is viable.

The old term for behavioural special needs was maladjustment. The preference for the former term rather than the latter, however, is more than euphemism or political correctness. The notion of 'maladjustment' implies a deficiency located purely in the individual child.

Like a carburettor which needs tuning, the 'maladjusted' child by implication might just require the careful engagement of a screwdriver on a grubscrew somewhere behind the ear.

But behaviour implies an interaction between a child and the external world. For example, it might just be that government impositions, cuts and increased pressures on teachers are part of the problem. Looking at senior management and whole school policy is often part of the process.

A further shift in emphasis which runs parallel to this is one from psychiatric investigation - 'what has s/he got?' - to a behavioural analysis - 'what is s/he doing?' and 'what are the things which occur prior to the behaviour?' The shift from psychological speculation to behavioural observation reflects a move to greater objectivity.

The evidence of much experience over recent years working with difficult and disaffected youngsters suggests that children showing behavioural difficulties need to be maintained in mainstream education. It is often necessary to remove pupils temporarily on a part time basis from the classroom, but to change his/her behaviour it is essential to maintain contact with positive peer group role models. Specialist support workers can give assistance negotiating behavioural management programmes with classroom teachers, while also working on the enhancement of self image, counselling on the control of anger responses and teaching appropriate assertiveness.

The alternative is to remove these children to 'the unit'. It seems that whatever it is called and despite the best efforts of teachers, those who matter will call it 'the place for nutters'.

In my workplace we maintain children in the mainstream wherever possible but several youngsters who find themselves (often illegally) declined access to alternative schools are educated full time on our site. The contrast in behaviour could not be more marked. In recent years there has been no assault on staff involving the part time groups, but assaults are a regular weekly event involving those permanently denied access to socialising mainstream education.

The demand for the removal of difficult children to off-site provision suffers from a further practical difficulty. As the first layer of disaffected youngsters is removed, a short period of calm may result. Within weeks, however, other previously semi-compliant pupils will percolate up through the pecking order to replace those removed. There is virtually no limit to the ability of schools to supply such youngsters. This demand for off-site provision ignores the interaction that goes on in the classroom and the rest of society.

Where we agree with the NASUWT and those in the NUT who support their position is that none of this can be achieved without resources. The Nottingham teachers are right to fight against the unreasonable demands made upon them to teach unteachable classes. In this situation we should demand that industrial action is taken to reduce class sizes to a level which allows the full inclusion of all special needs children.

The argument has not been easy to tackle as feelings run high. Many good socialists in schools no doubt wish it would just go away. However, seasoning intellectual pessimism with a generous portion of optimism of the will, it seems to me that this could be a situation where individuals can make a difference. A few individual socialists in schools arguing from a position of principle can go beyond merely heading off a reactionary strike, but can offer an alternative which uses the collective power of teachers to fight for the resources and support from the government that schools need, without blaming the children who are in reality the victims of the situation, not the cause.

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