By Julia Howe
Today the House of Commons Education Committee published the provocatively titled report “Forgotten children: alternative provision and the scandal of ever increasing exclusions.” The report covers a complex range of factors that may be contributing to the rise in exclusions from school. These include a reduction in school finances, an increase in the mental health needs of pupils and the introduction of zero tolerance behaviour policies, in some schools.
Page 13 of the report also comments that, “a narrow curriculum can affect the engagement of some pupils with their education.” Disappointingly, this point is not picked up in the recommendations. Having spent 13 of my 17 years an educational psychologist working with a Pupil Referral Unit, it is this aspect of the report that is of most interest to me. While there certainly were young people I worked with who had complex needs and who often exhibited mental health problems, this was not always the case.
As a psychologist, the staff working in the Pupil Referral Unit wanted to me to uncover the difficulties experienced by the young people. Once these were uncovered the staff felt that they would be able to better meet their needs. However many of the young people that I met did not appear to have emotional or mental health difficulties. What they had acquired was a disillusionment with school and what it could offer them.
These young people did not lack aspirations but their school experiences had taught them that they were not as highly valued as other pupils. They learnt this through social arrangements such as setting and grouping. Rather than quietly accepting this they had chosen to reject the values of the school and showed this by a refusal to conform to the expectations of their teachers.
These young people reminded me of two classic sociological studies: Learning to Labour (1977) by Paul Willis and Schooling the Smash Street Kids (1979) by Paul Corrigan. Both are small scale ethnographic studies and the researchers suggested that the resistance to schooling displayed by the boys was a rational response to a system where they were unlikely to achieve.
These two studies were influential in my early career development working in a secondary school in a mining community in South Yorkshire. They may also have resonated with me as a result of my own working class roots. They may now seem archaic to professionals who may not even have been born when they were published. In my view their relevance in the light of today’s report is that they suggest that the unsuitability of the curriculum for some groups of pupils is not a new phenomena and is not restricted to the current curriculum. Rather, wider social forces are at work to maintain existing social divisions, that schooling alone cannot solve.
Julia is a course tutor on the initial training course for educational psychologists at the University of Birmingham.
You can find a copy of the report here: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmeduc/342/342.pdf
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