Thursday, 7 January 2016

What are schools for?

This is a much more complicated question than you think.

Schools are surely for the purpose of educating children.

Except in practice, in Scotland, they are not. Or at least for far too many of them they are not. Really.

The biggest single challenge facing Scotland is the gap. The gap in expectation between those from comfortable backgrounds and the rest. It isn't an exclusively educational gap for it also shows up, at the other end, in life expectancy. That's not a small thing but it's not my topic here.

For in relation to those at the end of the life cycle, while it might be possible to mitigate the gap, it will never be possible to eliminate it. You can't turn the clock back.

But at the start at least you can try to ensure that it doesn't run too far behind.

Before I go on, I want to say two things.

The first is observational.

On 29th December, Andi and I went to see Scottish Ballet perform Cinderella at the Festival Theatre. We got the train from Croy to Waverley. We wandered about the German Market for an hour or so, with its lights, its trivial but beautiful gifts, with its generally cosmopolitan air. And then we walked up the Bridges to our “night oot”. Followed by two hours of wonderful music, wonderful staging and, insofar as I am qualified to judge, wonderful dancing. It was a brilliant experience. But it wasn't a cheap one, albeit one that we personally were well able to afford.

And over the holiday we met up with kith, kin and friends and enjoyed the vicariously the years experience of their children; their parents being our contemporaries, the “children” now being teenagers and beyond.

So we learned of expeditions to see Basketball at Madison Square Gardens in New York; snowboarding “sabbaticals” in the Canadian Rockies; “working holidays” in Australia; not such working holidays spent on the beaches of the Croatian Islands.

But I come back to the ballet. For as we walked towards it and back from it, we were surrounded with lots of little boys and girls (alright, mainly girls) literally skipping with enthusiasm at what they were about to see or, later on, had actually seen.

No education system can fix the ability of parents to be able to afford, or more likely not to be able to afford, these sort of life experiences for their children and the subsequent life advantages that these experiences inevitably bring. But it can at least try.

Which leads me to my second, more personal and cautionary point. It is difficult for a legal aid lawyer to write about his or her cases in an attempt to draw wider conclusions without betraying client confidentiality.

You will therefore have to trust me that the essential elements of what I now say are based on a true case but appreciate I have had to very substantially change the detail to anonymise it.

For they involve a child from a particularly difficult background. His paternal uncle was in prison for murder and his father, now prevented by law from contacting him, had served a period of imprisonment for assaulting his mother even before the child went to school. Where he proved incapable of overcoming his nurture, even disregarding his nature.

So, from Primary one, he was violent to other pupils. He would hit them, kick them, when once having come off worse in a fight, then present a knife towards them. Until one day, at the age of eight or so, he went “too far” and put another eight year old wee boy in the hospital with a fractured skull.

When, after an admitted suspension, “the system” suggested he should be returned to class. Whereupon the other parents in the school had had enough and occupied the Head Teacher's office, vowing to leave only when they were assured their own children were safe. Which could only happen if this child went somewhere else. Anywhere else. I'd like to say their view was that he needed “appropriate help”, but it wasn't. They just wanted to know that they could go to their work in the reasonable expectation that their own child wouldn't be stabbed in their absence. Not to their work as Social Workers or Teachers or even Legal Aid Lawyers, for few of “us” would have had a child in that school in the first place, but (just) to their work as Social Carers or Labourers or Shop Assistants. Who hoped perhaps that their children might have a bit better opportunity in life than them. And who knew that this could only come through education.

Now, I read all of the Social Work and Education reports in this case. They repeatedly referred to the value to the child himself enjoying a mainstream education. Of the extent to which he was “bright”. Of the unfortunate circumstance of his upbringing. Of the extent of his personal “innocence”.


For where were the interests of the wee boy with the fractured skull? Or of the classmates reluctant to go to school, or even too scared to go to school altogether, for fear they'd be stabbed? At best for the kids who'd conduct every Arithmetic or English class lacking concentration as a result of always looking over their shoulder for fear of an unwanted kick or punch?

Where was the appreciation of a school as a place of education, not a place for the teachers to, hopelessly, try to address the injustices of the wider world,? Or of a school as a place for the pupils within it  to attempt to do something more than, simply, survive?

There is no better example of the hard choices of politics than this. Politics' objective is surely to secure the greatest good of the greatest number. But it can't progress on the basis that there will be never be any casualties on the way. “No child left behind” is a noble sentiment but not if it translates as “Every child kept behind in consequence”.

As they are inevitably if classes need to be disrupted by other children regularly turning up late. Or held up while teachers deal with discipline problems. Or, I'm sorry, simply with hygiene problems.

To return to my given example; maybe, if returned to mainstream schooling, that wee boy might have overcome all his disadvantages and gone on to make something of himself. Maybe.

But at some point, no matter how ruthless it may sound, somebody surely needed to balance that remote chance, for that's all it would ever be, with the damage that might be inflicted on so many other wee boys and girls while failing in the attempt. Even then hoping it would only be educational damage.

I'm a great defender of the comprehensive principle. All children willing to learn should be treated equally.

But teachers are not Social Workers. And schools are not miracle palaces. If we want to even start to challenge the advantages of Basketball trips to New York, or Canadian sabbaticals, or evenings at the ballet, then a starting point has to be this: That, for working class pupils, state schools are, as private schools have always been, start to finish, places of education. Not outreach departments of Social Work. And for those not able or willing to buy into that,even if they are, personally, “innocents”? Then schools cannot be the “cheap” solution. For that solution maybe cheap for some but it is not for those other children, from ordinary backgrounds, who truly find themselves paying the price.