One of the things that is nice – although nice is far too bland a word – about teaching in a primary school is the sense of hope that infects the place. Nothing is fixed. The future is far, far away; a different land, universe, even. As an example, despite the fact that some of them have seen things that trouble them greatly (you know this, because they return to the same events again and again in conversation), despite the fact that they have so little and they play the sort of games that involve chopping up little bits of rubber with a ruler and folding them into little paper squares, (you know this, because they invite you to play) there is an innocence about them; they still believe in Father Christmas and are excited in an uncomplicated and present way about December. At this stage of their lives, there is tremendous hope, for you and for them. They are learning at such a rate and you, as their teacher, are a powerful influence in their lives. An influence for good, one hopes. Their dealings with social care, their entry on registers as a Child in Need are, by the nature of their being young, few.
But things change. I think it could be a valid criticism of primary schools and the teachers who work in them that not enough time is spent by us on thinking and planning for the adult lives of our charges. We get them to the end of Year 6 and through the SATs and then we send them off with a sigh of relief. We wipe our hands of them and get on with the next lot, giving those who have left us little thought and consideration. We, like them, are living in the eternal now. I know why this is, though. To think about them, as they are, as they must be now, rather than during that magical moment when they were ten years old, hurts; and after reading the statistics, it hurts even more.
Because if they didn’t have a special educational need in the area of mental health when they left us, they certainly do now. If they were male, working class, had anything like a traveller or Roma heritage…despite all that potential, despite the joy of Christmas and all that learning, to please their primary teachers, they aren’t making it to the end of their education. Something is going wrong for them and they are ending up on a scrapheap built from rage and violence, ready to visit it all over again on children of their own – and we seem powerless to do anything about it.
I remember the first time I wrote about exclusions. It was for TES, back in 2015. I had been chatting to my editor (the lovely Jon Severs), I remember the conversation vividly, sitting in the car on my drive, ranting on (and on) into the telephone about the state of it, about how my school, with its fluid population and league table position at the bottom of the bottom was one of the few schools in the area who would take anyone, regardless and I ended up with a commission for a feature. Mine was a school that was morally driven to serve the disadvantaged, and we were paying the price. I remember that feature well, too; all the best bits from the bit I wrote to get started got chopped, leaving me with one, lonely sentence: ‘Something strange is happening in education; children are disappearing.’ I’m glad I wrote it, even though since then, the landscape has changed, and the rates of exclusion are accelerating.
I’m not a person who is overly given to reading government statistical releases, I have to admit, but they tell a tale, and one that depresses me deeply. Because although exclusion rates are rising and the numbers of children and young people being educated in alternative provisions (that’s places of education that aren’t schools, like virtual schools, home education with tutors visiting once a week – a friend of mine does this – Pupil Referral Units and hospital schools) are increasing, this isn’t the end of the story. Oh, it’s easy to get all hot under the collar and rant and rail because it looks so bad on the surface (the large numbers of children and young people in that population who turn out to have a special educational need or a disability for starters: what kind of people throw disabled children out of school I hear you cry?), but there is complexity in them there statistics and it makes me pause and ask what I believe is a serious question: what happens to all the children?
In one sense I am glad that alternative provision is getting the attention it deserves, that the teachers who work there are getting the recognition they deserve. This is good. But it seems to me that what we are looking at is the symptom of the problem, not the cause. We are fiddling round the edges with our talk of finding ‘what works’ (with the explicit undertone that if one – exceptional – child can lift themselves out of poverty and distress by the Power of Education then so can everyone and thus save the state a fortune) and failing to address what is really the matter.
What happens to all the children? What happens to them?
You can read the statistics here.
You can read the plan for Alternative Provision here.