Anyone watching the news earlier this week may have caught classroom scenes of teenagers jumping up and down on desks, throwing items at teachers, fighting each other, shouting and swearing. This pandemonium was not a glimpse of some progressive, edgily immersive approach to teaching drama. No, it was just another day in the life of something known in the trade as alternative provision: schools which cater for pupils who are subject to fixed-term exclusions from mainstream education. In other words, teenagers who have been so disruptive, unmanageable and downright dangerous that they have had to be removed from normal schools.
According to the BBC report, research has revealed that these sanctions in the most deprived areas of England have risen by more than 70 per cent since 2014. This is four times the rate of increase in the least deprived regions. It said that almost 50,000 pupils are now taught in alternative provision because of behavioural issues or illness that may be short or long term. Thinking by the Department for Education is that the arrangements, which cost the taxpayer £12,000 a year for each pupil – twice what it costs in mainstream – can be ‘a lifeline for children and parents, offering smaller classes and more tailored support’. Certainly, with ‘forty-eight kids and six qualified teachers’, nobody can say there’s a problem with class sizes.
Though it seems there’s still a problem with funding. Yes, always the funding. In spite of the fact that the state spends twice as much here as on other children, the headteacher was still able to point to a hole in the wall caused by a vandalising pupil and then complain that the problem was really about money, about resources. More specifically, he chose to bring grammar schools into it. He said these were in receipt of central government funding, when there really needed to be awareness that there was also a very different side of education to be thinking about. Well, there may be a few of us who believe that if there were a little more discipline, rigour, respect for authority, teacher-led methods as regards knowledge and skills, and high expectations when it comes to behaviour, academic achievement might be improved in this sort of place. Currently, less than one in twenty youngsters in alternative provision gain a grade C or above in English and Maths. By any standards, that is hopeless.
There is no question that many of these unhappy, failing teenagers are damaged with lives that have been, and continue to be, chaotic, broken and dysfunctional. Who knows what grim home situations many return to at the end of the day? Indeed, one member of staff did say that sometimes their charges have been sleeping rough and need a bed, plus feeding and watering.
The fact remains, however, given the evidence provided by the cameras, that whatever alternative provision is doing it certainly is not working. As the reporter observed from the corridor, ‘teaching comes to an end after ten minutes’. That kind of normalised unravelling of classroom management is simply not in the interests of these apparently doomed adolescents. In all likelihood it is not going to make much, if any difference to their lives. The illiteracy, innumeracy and lack of self control on display for the cameras point only to a future of continuing juvenile delinquency and a fast track into the criminal justice system.
It is children from the very worst situations who need the most (old-fashioned word but let’s go with it) strict boundaries in schools. They may well have drugs, gangs, alcohol, and awful inclinations to self-harm influencing their volatile and dangerous behaviour. That, however, is no reason to carry doggedly on with the methods that are currently in play.
What needs to change is the approach to actually educating. Allowing such turmoil and chaos, presumably on the grounds that this is to be expected from such ‘vulnerable’ and ‘challenging’ teenagers, serves nobody at all. The staff would be well advised to take a look at the tough love style deployed by Ray Lewis. He turned around the lives of young black boys, many of whom had been suspended or excluded, such that many aimed for university and some won scholarships to public schools. At the Eastside Young Leaders’ Academy, punctuality was a requirement, there were press-ups for failing to meet behaviour standards, there was Saturday morning school, and holiday work that involved community tasks in care homes, decorating, gardening and volunteering for charities.
The very different daily structure and culture of expectations in alternative provision as shown here made this a far less promising place than Ray Lewis’s. The cacophony in one room was so overwhelming that one poor boy had to ‘take time out’ and stand in the corridor away from all the noise and mayhem. Troubled and intermittently disruptive though he himself was, he was still able to reflect that ‘Kids who misbehave stop the learning.’ Well, yes. And it’s been going on for decades, that’s the trouble, as a result of the child-centred learning that became core to educational orthodoxy in the 1970s. It was usually joined at the hip with Mixed Ability.
It’s all very well one member of staff, compassionate and well-meaning though she clearly was, saying she felt it was job done if she could save just one (though she hoped to save them all), but what is her definition of ‘save’? Was it a place at Harvard? Or just not being detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure? It’s idealistic enough and sounds laudable but it’s pitifully misguided in its methods. When will those that need to see this actually see it? When will they see that they are not helping in any meaningful way but just continuing with all that is failing? All they’re doing for most is containing threatening behaviour and seeing their charges off into the world without a single useful educational qualification to their name.
Don’t expect the tough love approach any time soon, however, even though this might stand a chance of creating the kind of classroom conditions where actually learning something might take place. No, stick with the counsel of despair unconvincingly dressed up as travelling hopefully. Much easier to say it’s about insufficient cash. One thing above all though: don’t mention the parents. Never suggest that the terrible mess of some children’s lives is down to poor parenting. Don’t tell the truth. Which is that in the absence of parenting in any meaningful way, the most caring thing an alternative provision school could do is bring on the tough love.