Adult authority in schools is a paper tiger which depends on students agreeing to accept it. Some children choose not to and therefore have the power to make the lives of others miserable. Over the years I’ve taught a small number of students I came to dread seeing. Every encounter was another skirmish in an exhausting war of attrition, usually a war I felt I was losing. When a student no longer cares about any of the consequences, the war is lost. What then?
The behaviour of a small minority of students’ behaviour cannot be accommodated in mainstream school without endangering staff and students. In the adult world, the behaviour of some members of society is so extreme that we incarcerate them. The only comparable safety-valve that exists for schools is to permanently exclude such students.
Some years ago, I taught – or tried to teach – a student exactly like this. Let’s imagine she was called Chantal. At every turn she was rude, confrontational and aggressive both to me and the other students in the class, many of whom were afraid of her. I tried everything in my repertoire to get alongside her, but all my attempts were met with contempt and ridicule. We rarely managed to get through a lesson with Chantal remaining in the room; sometimes she’d walk out, other times she’d provoke a situation where I felt I had no choice but to send her out. I say ‘send her out,’ but in reality, I’d usually end up having to contact a member of the leadership team to coax her out of the room, and on a number of occasions, the rest of the class and I would decamp to another room leaving her by herself. You may think the fault was mine, but I used to dread her presence in my classroom and so, as far as I could tell, did the rest of the class.
One Monday morning’s staff briefing began with the announcement that Chantal had been permanently excluded after breaking another students’ jaw. This was met with cheers. I distinctly remember the feeling of relief that hostilities were over combined with shame that we were cheering an exclusion. When the students received the news, they cheered too. Now they would have one less reason to be afraid at school and fewer lessons disrupted to the point where teaching and learning were impossible.
Maybe you feel that some children have no choice but to misbehave and that schools should seek to nurture and accommodate their unmet needs. Although some children struggle more than others, all are capable of making choices. Some years ago, I taught a boy – let’s call him Ben – with a diagnosis of ADHD. He behaved perfectly in my lessons but was hell on wheels for various other teachers. In particular his relationship with his French teacher had descended to a running feud; his behaviour towards her was appalling. In response, the school offered him a behaviour mentor, and, because I got on with him, Ben requested me. After one particularly horrific low I asked him to explain his actions. It wasn’t his fault, he said, it was his ADHD which was to blame. “But how come,” I asked him, “you don’t have ADHD in my lessons?” Ben said, “That’s ’cos you’re alright, sir.” Ben was exercising a choice. He chose when and where to behave and pay attention. He had learned that this was acceptable, but eventually he was permanently excluded after committing one atrocity too many.
What do you think caused Ben’s and Chantal’s exclusions? Were they caused by lazy, inept and corrupt teachers? Were they caused by an uncaring system that made no effort to accommodate their needs? Maybe you think they were cause by the pressures of intolerably deprived backgrounds? (In fact, both of these students came from relatively affluent families) Or were they perhaps caused by their refusal to accept any authority and dangerous, confrontational behaviour? Could these exclusions have been avoided? Possibly. Had we had higher expectations of their behaviour and not accepted excuses for violence and aggression, Chantal and Ben might have learned to make better choices.
Of course, it’s right and proper that we should feel sympathy for those who fail to fit into the system so completely, but we should also spare some, perhaps most, of our sympathy for all the others the system has to cope with. The statistics of what’s likely to befall students who are permanently excluded are terrifying and the idea that we might be condemning some individuals to lives of illiteracy, criminality, and prison is more than many can bear, but this is the wrong way to think. Exclusion doesn’t cause these outcomes anymore than the eating of ice cream causes hot weather; just because two data points correlates does not imply that one is caused by the other. The negative outcomes correlated with exclusion are more likely to be caused by the same anti-social behaviours that resulted in the student being excluded.
What exclusions actually cause is schools to be safer, calmer and more welcoming for the majority for whom mainstream education is a possibility. If we truly care about inclusion we should consider the needs of the bullied, the victims, the meek and the socially isolated. Of course society needs to find ways to deal appropriately with children whose behaviour threatens or endangers others, but this should not be the sole responsibility of schools.