Opinion: Excluding pupils is a sign of failure to educate

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The Independent Online
Four words stuck in my mind all through last week. Spoken by a 13-year-old boy from Bilborough, Nottingham, they were; "I have been tarred."

Now the British people know about Richard Wilding. He has been demonised by the press, and we are asked "Is he the worst pupil in Britain?"

And what had he and his parents done to warrant this nationwide stigma? He had been disruptive in school repeatedly, had annoyed his teachers and bullied his classmates. A serious, but purely local and not uncommon set of circumstances that inner-city teachers face as a daily routine - and learn to resolve as part of the professional skill and commitment needed for the job.

Yet suddenly the nation knows about this Richard, and why? Because his parents acted correctly, seeking to protect their son's welfare after he was expelled. They took the only remedy provided, and won their appeal. They did what any good and loving parents would do.

Yet they have, with their son, been pilloried and "tarred" for taking recourse to their rights. For how dare they - a working-class family on income support? And the mother herself a former excludee from school. How can they be allowed a successful challenge?

Of course, there are thousands of young people in Richard Wilding's former position. There are currently 11,000 official exclusions a year. You can double or treble that when you take into account the unofficial ones. You can also reckon that every student excluded on the streets or in the shopping malls brings out two or three truants with them.

The truth is that we have lost the reality of being a nation of universal education. Thousands of our young people - disproportionately those who are black, from working-class homes or in care - are dropping or being propelled through the bottom of the state education system. Exclusion and truancy are feeding off each other, and the child-centred education system is disappearing under the separate stalls and unsaleable goods of the market system of schools.

Schools seek to outdo each other in league table positions and polishing up their image. And for many schools it is the shortest way with dissenters, disrupters and rebels, and those who rightfully object to their cultures, histories or languages being ignored or demeaned: out with them.

And the classroom, when its very purpose is to develop consciousness and creative thought, becomes a no-go area to the youth who need it most. It becomes the "delivery" room for the reception of approved and state- licensed knowledge, and thousands of rebellious, non-conformist and spirited young people can have no place there.

Exclusion is no answer. It is a rejection. It removes the act of challenge from school, where it can be answered and canalised into constructive change, and throws it on to the streets where it becomes perverted and criminalised.

Teachers know how much they need to use all their skills and experience not simply to "deliver" the curriculum, but to support the growth of all children. To find the strategies to hold disaffected young people within their schools, and with the support of parents and communities make meaning and motivation out of the positive experience school can be.

We have not become teachers to "tar" or malign children. We need to accept their challenge and scrutinise their disaffection: for our agreement to teach what we are told in the way we are told may be a part of its cause.

The writer was head of a Sheffield comprehensive school, where he opposed the exclusion of pupils. Despite fierce opposition from many of his staff, his contract was terminated early last year.