Deborah Orr: The illusion of inclusion (and the boy who did not know that salmon and tuna are fish)

In its arrogant, blind optimism, our government thinks everyone has equal access to education
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The Independent Online

I have a friend who works in a London school that specialises in taking excluded children, and the affectionate stories he tells about the pupils are usually touching and funny, as well as shocking and sad. Like the time he had a protracted and disorienting conversation with a little boy he'd asked to name the general group that certain things or creatures belonged to.

"Salmon, tuna and herring?" he asked the boy, only to be amused and disarmed when the child shot back with: "Snacks."

Struggling onward, my friend admitted that these were indeed snacks, but were also something else. No number of clues though, could elicit the sought-after response. Eventually it dawned on my friend that the child just didn't know that these snacks had previously been living, breathing fish, swimming around wild in the water. The boy's world was tiny and it included shops, but did not include rivers or seas.

On another occasion, one of the pupils asked my friend where he was from.

"I'm from London," he said, but the child was not happy with this. "No, where were you born?"

My friend explained that he was born in the East End of London, but the child was still nonplussed. "What is your country, then?' he asked. "Well, I'm English," said my friend. "I'm from England."

The kid looked at him in confusion for a time, and then said to him quite sorrowfully: "So - you don't have a country of your own, then?" My friend realised that he might very well be the first person the child had knowingly encountered who was not a refugee or an immigrant.

Not all the stories are quite so cute. My friend tells of one boy who began to play up abominably, for no reason that was discernable until it was discovered that his mother had left the country, and instructed the child to keep quiet and look after his two younger siblings, which he'd been doing not too badly, considering he was 11 and had next to no money, for several weeks.

What can you do about this level of exclusion from general experience or general knowledge? According to my friend, you can do what he does at his school, and engage with it at a fairly intense level. These boys, and all the children at my friend's school, happen to be lucky, in one respect at least, because they are enrolled in an establishment that caters to their problems.

At this school, there is an adult-child ratio of about two for every five, discipline is strict, and a normal school curriculum is adhered to. The school Ofsteds brilliantly, and has a good record in taking children rejected by other schools, turning them round, getting them though exams and aiming them in the direction of college. A lot of emphasis, apparently, is placed on getting it across to them that it's a great idea to stay out of trouble and stay out of prison. My friend says that despite their adversities, maybe even in part because of them, they are an incredibly sparky and likeable bunch of people.

For the majority of excluded pupils, though, it is not like this. Instead of being placed in an environment that offers extra support and specialised attention, the children are often put under the auspices of pupil referral units. These are quite extraordinary institutions (as if a word so bureaucratic could capture their essence), because they are often run under an ethos that you would imagine had emerged from a vast brainstorming session focused on what definitely not to do with troubled children, and then somehow came to a decision to throw it all in and give it a try anyway.

Many are run like drop-in centres or youth clubs, with no compulsion to attend for more than a few hours a week (if that), and even then without much or any structured learning or formal classes. You don't need formal teaching qualifications to take a class in a PRU. You can more or less just turn up and have a bash with something.

Essentially, the most difficult children are placed in an environment from which they can only extract something positive if they are highly disciplined self-starters with plenty of self-confidence and a strong sense of where they want to be in the future. Needless to say, they wouldn't be there in the first place if they displayed much in the way of such qualities.

So what impact is this method of dealing with hard-to-educate children having? Some, at least, of the fall-out from this outrageously casual approach is expressed in this week's report from the London School of Economics, undertaken on behalf of the Prince's Trust.

The study, entitled The Cost of Exclusion, shows that the number of young people not in education, employment or training is more than double that of Germany or France, and is still rising. It says that a million young people, or roughly one in five, face a lifetime on benefits, running the risk of falling into crime and mental or physical ill-health. The cost to the exchequer of this parlous failure is estimated at £3.65bn a year.

The human cost, at its most lurid, is advertised in the banner headlines that tell of a continuing spate of child murder victims and perpetrators, or the smaller headlines that report Britain's recent enthusiasm for locking children up in the criminal justice system. But for each of these horrors there are thousands of more humdrum tales of talents unrecognised, opportunities unseen, and capabilities unknown.

According to the report, all that is masking this abject failure from public view is the general strength of the economy and the high overall rate of employment. Yet it is all a little more complex than that. The switch to a skills-based economy masks the problem at the same time as it is creating it. The labour market wants skilled people. But it is harder to endow some people with skills than it is others.

Our government proceeds under the illusion that since everyone is given equal access to education, everyone has an equal chance of gaining skills. Its latest pointless decision, to force people to stay at school (if they have a school) until they are 18, is a perfect example of its dumb, blind, arrogant, ignorant optimism. The almost atavistic fear of academic selection, which continues to influence Labour policy, has as its dark twin a fear of truly meaningful remedial selection. Yet it is the latter that is causing the problem, even though the former continues to drive debate.

Inclusion is everything, so much so that the Government seems almost fearful of rewarding children with behavioural difficulties by putting them into the sort of highly staffed and highly disciplined schools that many parents would want for their children anyway. But it has to be accepted that there are many children in Britain who, for all sorts of reasons, need much more help, nurture and guidance, than can be given in a mainstream school. What they usually get, at present, is precisely the opposite.