Tests that condemn life's losers: The last thing that 'difficult' children need is more school exams, argues Roger Graef

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The Independent Online
AS THE Prime Minister suspects, there is a hidden agenda in the protest against compulsory school testing and league tables. Many teachers are concerned that formal testing is the last piece in a tragic jigsaw of policies that will set certain children on the road to failure, alienation and, in many cases, crime.

They fear that the formal written tests demanded by the Government will reinforce the negative self-image that already afflicts a significant minority of children - largely boys from run-down estates in the inner areas and on the fringes of cities. Youths on the street are looking less for trouble than respect, mainly because they do not get respect from society, their families or from themselves.

Their lack of self-esteem can often be related directly to their failure at school. Seeing no future in a school career, they seek a sense of worth and achievement among their peers by making trouble in the classroom, the playground or on the street.

The Government hopes that testing, like league tables, will provide parents with the means and impetus to put pressure on teachers and schools to improve their standards. But testing and league tables are based on an image of children supported by parental encouragement. What about those whose parents cannot or will not take an active interest? They are placed at a still greater disadvantage. They disengage from a contest they know they will lose.

The rules are also rigged against them. Children with educational or behaviour problems need more than just instruction. They need guidance and encouragement, as well as discipline.

Studies show that poor housing, split and unemployed parents, domestic violence, alcoholism and drug abuse - plus inconsistent parenting and learning problems - are common to most persistent young offenders. School cannot make up for all these problems, but, even in the worst areas, those that provide encouragement for all pupils, not just the bright ones - and which administer rules consistently and fairly - achieve better behaviour and academic results. School can provide a lifeline at a crucial stage in the development of these young people.

The young offenders I have studied are intelligent, but all have failed at school, often playing truant or dropping out altogether - if they were not expelled. For the school, however, it makes brutal common sense in the current economic and competitive climate to cut support for the bottom of the class in order to maintain the educational survival of the rest. This means that educational social workers, school psychologists, special- needs teachers and other ancillary services are being dropped.

The sale of playing fields and the cutback in sports is especially hard on pupils who do not shine academically but might win respect in games. The decision to test only 'serious' subjects - maths, English, science - devalues children who do well at other subjects.

In some opted-out schools, experienced teachers are being replaced by younger, cheaper staff whose inexperience renders them less able to manage disruptive pupils without resorting to drastic disciplinary action, such as exclusion.

Grant-maintained schools hand the problem child, and the cost of looking after him, back to the local education authority. Many LEA schools are also managing their own budgets. They are paid per pupil, so to increase their resources they must move up the league table and attact more pupils. In effect, the Government has provided an incentive to jettison troublemakers and laggards.

The rise in exclusions has been so dramatic in the past two years, however, that even the Government is disturbed by it. When a child is excluded, the LEA has the power - soon to become a duty - to educate him or her, if necessary at home. The new Schools Inspectorate's research into 10 LEAs shows a bleak picture. Home tuition may amount to as little as two hours a week. Several LEAs even 'lost' one-third of the excluded pupils supposed to be in their care.

The alternative on offer is wholly inadequate to the problems that these youngsters must overcome to have any hope of continuing their schooling. Yet educating excluded children is expensive ( pounds 7,000 a head annually) because of the low pupil- teacher ratio. The Government plans to make pupil referral centres part of every LEA and force them to stick with the national curriculum so that reintegration into a normal school is possible. Without extra resources, this is merely wishful thinking.

Astonishingly, there are no legal criteria for excluding a child. There are 4,000 officially excluded, and no one knows how many more sent home informally. Research shows that the much-publicised classroom thugs are in a small minority. Many more children are expelled for cumulative discipline offences, or as a way to force their parents to come to school to discuss the problem. Apart from school rules, which can lead to exclusion for long hair or trainers, 'discipline' can mean insolence or 'attitude' problems - often subjective judgements.

Overworked, anxious teachers are more likely to overreact to normal misbehaviour. There is also a special problem with many Afro-Caribbean pupils, who, according to a recent report, may be expelled simply because white teachers misread the young men's body language. Averting the eyes, for instance, is a show of respect, but is seen by teachers as insolence. The high proportion of expelled black pupils is partly attributable to the collective myth among many white teachers about their challenge to authority. Such a myth transforms ordinary encounters into threatening ones.

When the youngsters or their parents protest about expulsion, they are deemed to have 'misunderstood' or to be using their protest to hide other offences. The result is more frustration and alienation: the start of the spiral of disengagement that leads to truancy and exclusion.

Once on the streets, humiliated by school, with at best a few hours a week of alternative tuition, young people are vulnerable. In place of a long struggle for unlikely recognition or achievement, criminality offers instant rewards, excitement and short-term satisfaction.

There are, of course, seriously difficult pupils who must be dealt with outside normal schools. Indeed, the Home Office plans to spend tens of millions on locking up and educating no more than 200 persistent young offenders between 11 and 15 - once they have been convicted three times of imprisonable offences by the courts.

As with the Secretary of State for Education and testing, the Home Secretary has ignored the united protests of all those who work with young offenders. They urge such investment to be put towards pre-school and family support, or to the youth services now being cut. Why must these young men - and their victims - go through that damaging process before we address their needs?

The writer is the author of 'Living Dangerously: Young offenders in their own words', HarperCollins, pounds 14.95.

(Photograph omitted)

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