The end of school term is almost upon us, and yesterday I visited a school to meet with a head teacher colleague who has given more than forty years’ service to teaching. This week she will retire from her post and should look back with immense pride and satisfaction at the contribution she has made to the lives of so many children and families. Typical of so many committed retired teachers I meet these days, she has decided that she cannot simply walk away from some of the challenges that she sees in education, and has therefore decided to continue supporting the school in a new role, which will enable her to assist with researching the effectiveness of teaching and to identify the professional development needs of staff.
As I arrived at the school today I was confronted with an obstacle that has sadly become a feature of most schools in England today. In order to enter the premises I was required to press a button outside the school gate that should have connected me via an intercom device to the school office. The theory is that once I had established my bona fides, and proven that I was not a risk to be repelled, I could be admitted under the control of the school staff. Having made several hapless attempts via the ubiquitous button to gain the attention of anyone in the school, I was beginning to wonder whether I had been seen on the school surveillance cameras as an undesirable character most definitely to be refused entry. Eventually a boy who I would guess to have been around twelve years old, and who happened to be crossing the school playground noticed my dilemma and came to investigate me through the safety of the gate. Looking at me rather as he might have done a chimpanzee in a cage he began a brief conversation:-
“Who are you mister?” he enquired. “Can’t you get in?”
Having confirmed that this was indeed my predicament he shrugged his shoulders and after a brief stroll across the playground entered the school. A couple of minutes later the intercom crackled into action, I announced my arrival and was granted entry. Arriving in the school entrance hall I once again encountered the boy from the gate and thanked him for his assistance.
“It wasn’t me that did anything,” he said. “you must have just got lucky.”
With a cheeky grin he turned away and disappeared along a corridor. I wasn’t quite sure whether this lad had actually spoken to someone in order to have me admitted or if he really had enjoyed my situation as a visitor struggling to gain access. Whichever of these scenarios was true, I decided that rather than pursuing the issue further it was better to be grateful that I was now where I needed to be, and let the moment pass.
I suspect that my morning experience would not have come as a surprise to many of the staff at the school yesterday. As the head teacher explained to me, the end of the school year and the approaching summer holiday is often a period of tension for many children within the school. Unfortunately at this particular establishment, for too many pupils school offers the only real stability in their lives. When they are in school they are managed consistently, treated with respect and provided with a wide range of interesting learning experiences. Such a situation may well not be replicated in their lives outside of the school, and therefore the impending school holidays are not universally greeted with joy.
The school I was visiting is a special school for children who have been labelled as having social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. Many who attend have been excluded from mainstream schools on grounds of their poor behaviour, and a significant number come from dysfunctional homes where parents and siblings are under stress and family life is far from stable. When I speak to the pupils here, they are usually full of praise for the staff who work with them, admit (though sometimes a little begrudgingly) that they enjoy school and see this as a safe haven where they have friends and a consistent environment.
In an age when we would ideally wish to see all children included in mainstream classrooms, special schools such as this may be seen as a dilemma. However, there are factors at play here that need to be understood and which suggest that a simplistic view of educational provision is not helpful. The same pupils who tell me that they feel secure and enjoy attending this school, often report a very different story about their experiences in mainstream schools. When pressed on this point, it is common for them to single out the attitudes of teachers, who see them as problems rather than people, as the single most critical factor of difference. At the special school they feel valued and respected, and sadly this has not always been the case elsewhere.
Talking to a couple of boys about the forthcoming school holiday it was evident that whilst for many children this is seen as a welcome period of freedom and relaxation, this is not necessarily the case for pupils from this special school. Here they told me, we have things to do and people to help us get organised. Outside of school there is a lack of direction which sometimes results in boredom and at times ends in trouble.
As I left the school, saying goodbye to a head teacher whose dedication and professionalism I greatly admire, I found myself asking how long it would be before the children with whom I had spent a morning would not be labelled as problems, and if they would someday be welcomed back into mainstream schools. I am quite sure that this is a situation towards which we should all be working, but I am equally concerned that far too many schools are ill-prepared to accept this responsibility. This being the case, I am relieved that there are professional colleagues who are concerned to ensure that those pupils who others reject are given opportunities for learning. This is far from an ideal situation, and will I suspect continue to challenge teachers and policy makers for the foreseeable future.