Leading Article: Defeating the class enemy

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The Independent Online
What on earth do you do with a child who is just too difficult for teachers to cope with? Richard Wilding, a 13-year- old boy in a Nottingham comprehensive, has just provoked the entire teaching staff at his school into threatening strike action - just to get him to stay off the premises. Teaching other children in his class has become increasingly difficult. Teachers have been threatened and felt their safety was in danger. It is impossible not to have sympathy for them. They were threatening to strike for the sake of all the other children at the school. Yet Richard Wilding has to be taught somewhere, his parents think it would be best for him to stay in the school he knows and if he went to another school wouldn't that be just passing on the problem rather than solving it?

The troubling thing is that Richard Wilding is not an isolated example. One of the teaching unions, the NAS/UWT, was involved in 52 cases last year in which staff refused to teach a difficult child; the numbers are growing. The number of children expelled in England has risen from 11,000 to an estimated 15,000 in just two years.

All these excluded and expelled children are circulating in the system somewhere - perhaps spinning through another comprehensive, perhaps sidelined into a special school, or perhaps dropping out altogether. Disturbed and difficult as they may be, they can't just be kicked out on to the streets. Such a policy pursued over many years would have disastrous social consequences. The local education authority has an obligation to educate them. Another comprehensive is unlikely to solve the problem - unless the new school has additional resources and expertise to cope with the problem. Often they don't.

Special schools - or special units used in conjunction with mainstream schools - do at least have more resources to cope with the particular problems of each child. They give classmates and teachers a welcome respite from the trouble. But for many children, isolating them from the socialising effects of more balanced peers may not be the best solution.

Yet there are other people involved here, beyond the troubled child and his parents. When one of their 30 classmates is extremely disruptive, the education of 29 other children is jeopardised. If - as is often the case in difficult inner-city comprehensives - other pupils have learning difficulties and behavioural problems too, the entire class can be destabilised by the anarchic actions of one child. Excluding the most impossible children may be the only way to give the others any chance of an education.

It may also be the only way for teachers and a school to enforce discipline. When teachers decide a child should be kicked out, the governors or local authority appeals board who contemplate overturning their decision should be aware that they risk undermining the authority of the entire school disciplinary system. As a general rule, teachers need support and backing in the disciplinary decisions they make, in the interests of every other child at that school.

The solution found in the Wilding case has some merits. He will remain at the school but with a special teacher and home tuition. Many parents will wonder why the most disruptive pupils should be rewarded with such lavish resources. Yet the reality is that more resources will have to be devoted to these cases, ideally by providing more specialised teaching within schools, to safeguard the interests of the rest of the school and offer some hope of making the most disruptive pupils more manageable.