It is not new news that every year a significant number of young people are eased out, pushed out and kicked out of school. Along the way to permanent exclusion, and the likelihood of becoming a ‘NEET’ statistic, these young people may well have yelled out, acted out, and have walked out of the school gates, vowing never to return. The school system attributes their behaviour variously to: faulty neurological functioning; impaired cognitive/emotional capacity; inadequate parenting; feral peers and/or disconnected and depressed communities. Expert knowledges and specialist staff are brought to bear on these young people in order to ‘support’ them to learn to regulate themselves within the school. A panoply of expensive interventions are deployed to this end – among them detentions, removal from class, diagnostic referrals, official statements of ‘problem’ and the ‘treatment’ to be administered, special classes, dedicated intervention programmes, prosecution of parents and isolation from mainstream schools in alternative provision.
It’s not that policymakers are specifically out to deny an education to these troublesome youth. Quite the contrary. In a recent speech to the Policy Exchange Education Conference, Michael Gove argued that alleviating educational disadvantage was his moral purpose. He listed autonomy, accountability and teacher quality – as well as a ‘rigorous textbooks’ and improving behaviour – as his policy answer. Young people on the edges of schooling came in for specific mention:
… strengthening rules on what can be searched… making exclusion of the most disruptive more straightforward… abolishing ridiculous no-touch rules …improving alternative provision for those who are excluded…we need to tackle the root causes of truancy and misbehaviour … tightened the rules on attendance and absence figures are down.… ensure parents play their full part in guaranteeing good behaviour … stronger sanctions for those who don’t.
Minister Gove wants to give schools responsibility for carrying out key aspects of this disciplinary agenda. As autonomous units, schools will be accountable for the quality of students’ behaviour, as well as for their access to and progress in alternative provision. Thirteen local authorities are currently involved in a pilot which devolves budgets and responsibility for commissioning alternative provision to the school. The pilot is due to finish at the end of the 2013-14 school year. If it is rolled out across the country, the local authority may well have no role in exclusion and alternative provision, unless it can persuade schools it still has a function. OfSTED will inspect whether schools are catering appropriately for their troubled students; they will also examine alternative provision, looking specifically for outcome data on attendance, and test and exam results. There is the potential for the same inspection rubric of GCSE A*-C to be applied to alternative junior secondary educational provision as to regular schools, unless a specific alternative education rubric is developed.
At present, local authorities are to retain responsibility for attendance. However, policy emphasis has swung to criminalization of truancy rather than intervention. Unison, the union representing education and welfare officers, report that cuts in funding mean that there is much less capacity to provide welfare oriented support even if that were an approved activity (see http://www.unison.org.uk/news/back-to-school-but-not-for-all/*/outputFormat/reader).
There are many immediate concerns arising from this government agenda, for example:
- criminalising attendance through prosecuting parents may well lead to short-term reduction of truancy, but serious longer term effects on families. It is unlikely to turn around the lives of those living with chronic unemployment, ill health and poverty.
- there is to be less independent monitoring of what happens to the most vulnerable young people in the school system. When the set of checks and balances between schools, local authorities and families is removed, what happens? This system operated relatively imperfectly in the past, but there was a clear intention to ensure that the educational entitlement of young people designated by their schools as ‘at risk’ would be monitored and reviewed. Inspections may be a poor substitute for a third party charged with ensuring/assuring the educational entitlement of those schools find difficult to teach.
- The job of alternative providers is to hold and heal young people who have generally been bruised by their school experiences, while also turning around long-term patterns of not-learning. Alternative providers would be more fairly held to account for progress made, rather than an arbitrary ‘norm’ applied across the whole system (see http://alternativeducationresearch.wordpress.com).
It is clear that the ways in which the regular school is implicated in the production and reproduction of inequalities regularly will not be recognized in this current climate. Educational researchers, many now derided and dismissed out of hand, have systematically documented how particular curriculum, pedagogies and assessment practices combine with the administrative processes of schooling to produce and reproduce both educational privilege and disadvantage. The same system leads to both success and failure.
The direction of policy travel in England has been to consolidate the kinds of conservative educational regimes (e.g. large classes, streaming and setting, textbook driven pedagogies, a steady diet of direct instruction and whole class teaching) which have been shown to consistently (re)produce educational failure for a minority of young people. Thus, while individual schools can and do work other-wise, the current policy settlement bodes poorly for troubled and troublesome young people both now and in the future.