Tom Bennett

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Educating Essex 3: Suffer the little children

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‘Suffer the little children to come unto me, and hinder them not; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.’
Luke 18:16
‘Listen to Iron Maiden baby, with me.’
The Kingdom of humanity, too, given time. The child becomes the man, and inherits the earth from his ancestors. But as teachers, we often see more than most the grisly, grimy ways in which the soil the seed is sown in is spoiled by neglect and the absence of a gardener.
This week’s episode was played in the minor scale, and almost entirely dismissed the Daily Mail-teasing fireworks of the first. We met Vinni (no, I didn’t know you could spell it like that either, and neither does my bloody spell-check. Down, boy) who was an odd mixture of idiot-savant: idiot because in a frantic race to press his own self-destruct button, he pressed every one else’s too; savant because he possessed something that it’s sometimes unfashionable to mention- intelligence. He sat GCSEs early, was in the top sets, and in his own words used to be ‘a good boy’.
It’s strange to see someone describe their own previous  behaviour as good, implying that now some of their behaviour is bad. That kind of introspection requires intelligence, all right.  Idiots can’t assess their own actions with the eye of the observer; fools don’t possess self-awareness enough to critique their own actions. ‘It is the mark,’ Aristotle said, ‘Of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.’ Vinni knew what his behaviour was like. Of course, Vinni wasn’t odd at all; teachers see scores of Vinnis in their paths, something that Vic revealed as much to Vinni in one of their seemingly endless rounds of pastoral discussions. The ‘good boy gone bad’ trope isn’t exclusive to Rihanna and Star Wars trilogies. Just as adult alcoholics fall off the wagon, so too do children. Progress is neither automatic nor one-way.
If Vinni’s plight didn’t touch you then I suggest you need touching more often: the smart, quick-witted boy (and he was), going off the rails like a train falling over in slow motion, by degrees, and everyone could see it, including him. The program was at great pains to suggest that the source of Vinni’s dissolution was a generational fracture; the parental break-up, the loss of paternal esteem. And maybe it was. Unlike many, I don’t feel qualified to commentate on Vinni, his home situation, OR the reasons for his self-immolation. Vinni doesn’t need my criticism or my half-baked theories. So I’ll comment instead on the television character we saw on screen on Thursday, because the moment we forget that we look through a mirror darkly on television, we lose perspective, like children unable to discern that the Teletubbies are just sweating actors in dark, furry pastry casing.
With that proviso, I can continue. The TV Vinni was a charismatic mess; dodging lessons with the practised art of Fagin, and playing everyone else for a fool. That’s the sad scary thing about a trusting, loving environment- it’s so easy to abuse. Like Ricky Gervais in the audience-repelling ‘The Invention of Lying’, if you find yourself the only dishonest man in a world full of angels, you possess an enormous advantage. I remember visiting Canada some time ago and finding that in some areas people left front doors unlocked, cars with keys ready to turn, and wallets on the sand while everyone went into the surf, and I thought, ‘I should come back with a van and some Cockneys and rob THE ENTIRE COUNTRY.’ Still do.


That’s kids like Vinni in a school where everyone wants to save him. They lope around from corridor to corridor, dodging the guards and the CCTV by simply playing off every teacher against every other one. I once looked up ‘Belvedere’ in a dictionary, and it said, ‘See: Gazebo.’ So I looked up Gazebo, and the dictionary said- I fuss you not- ‘See: Belvedere.’ The internet couldn’t happen quickly enough. That’s how kids manage it: ‘Mr Smith sent me here’, ‘Mr Beddow sent me here.’ ‘Mr Beddow sent me to Mr Smith,’ and so on. To be fair, it doesn’t require the wit of Fu Manchu. I used to watch war movies set in POW camps and think how the F*CK did they manage to build tunnels and forge passports IN A SHED? If human ingenuity can allow a blind Donald Pleasence to reproduce Swiss work visas from cockroach blood and wasp spit, then a child can lose themselves in the endless labyrinths of the most grid-like of schools.
‘I AM my note, Fritz.’
To be honest, even though I despaired to see the effort he put into evading education, you’d have to be made of stone not to salute the perpetually funny ‘man-walking-down-stairs’ trick when he went past the office window. But even with his undoubted charm and nerve, there was a tragic core to this story; talent and potential being wasted- an infinity of alternate possible futures collapsing into a handful of half-choices and blind alleys, and all wilfully done by the person who stood to lose most by their reduction: Vinni. Tragic, tragic, tragic.
But there’s a B-side to this ballad: everyone else. Schools aren’t vehicles fuelled by bottomless resources, they’re institutions driven by engines of necessity and invention, populated by endlessly labouring staff desperately trying to juggle as many balls as they can without letting any drop, and knowing that inevitably, some will. For every second a teacher spends on the trail of Vinni, a second is stolen from thirty other kids. If kids like Vinni (KLV) want to come into lessons ten minutes late, then everything stops for KLV, no matter the damage to everyone else’s education. Every time the Head, or the Deputy spends a minute, an hour, a day coaxing him back from the ledge is a minute invested that can never be reclaimed. This is the tight-rope act that every teacher knows and lives with. Because we all know that up to a point, it’s necessary; children are, as Mr Drew observed again, not adults. They make poor choices, and we must be robust enough to observe, perhaps roll our eyes, and help them pick themselves up. We don’t throw them to the wolves.
But a point is reached when the effort invested becomes too great a burden on the community; and in those circumstances, the community has every right to say, ‘No, we have needs too.’ You may be familiar with the policy of Inclusion, whereby efforts are made to ensure that everyone has access to a mainstream curriculum. It is an entirely noble goal, but as I frequently point out, just because a goal is noble doesn’t mean it is practical. I’d love to see every kid get a great education, and like most, I’ll fight until I’m broken to ensure it for my classes. But there comes a point in a doctor’s career when everything has been done for a patient, and he’s still arresting every five minutes. That’s the point that the surgeons and nurses put down the paddles and admit, ‘Enough. This one is beyond my resources.’ This isn’t an admission of defeat or bad faith: it’s just the truth.
Inclusion was instigated in order to make sure that children with disabilities were guaranteed access to mainstream without discrimination, and rightly so. But mission creep over the years has seen this vision becoming poisoned by the desire to include every kind of syndrome, condition or symptom as evidence of some kind of special need, identifiably medical, and therefore not the student’s fault.
I need to point out that this isn’t so: being argumentative and stroppy isn’t a condition; it’s part of character, just as being dedicated and altruistic is. Being described as ‘Having anger management problems’ is an enormous ontological mistake: it turns a normal, albeit undesirable part of the spectrum of human expression into a virus, a sniffle, a fracture; something that is done to the person, rather than part of the person. There comes a point- there must come a point, when we need to say to a student, ‘This is your fault.’
It’s a bitter place to occupy, and no teacher likes it. But if we don’t then we’re doing nothing but placate and in some ways, empower the dysfunctionality.
And we’re back to boundaries again. Mr Drew rose even further in my estimation than before this week, with his thoughtful admission that in all his years, he considered the need for boundaries for children to be more important than the need to grant them autonomy. In truth, of course, they are inextricable: we encourage children to flourish, but in order for them to do this by themselves, they need a scaffold upon which to climb so that they can reach its summit and hopefully, fly high above. But take away the scaffold and you’re left with children on the ground, unable to see horizons beyond their own eyeline, and doomed to a destiny no further than their own whims and desires will carry them. In effect, they become slaves to themselves. They can do as they please, to quote Bertrand Russell, but they cannot please as they please.
The adults that supported him- or supported his weakness, depending on your whether you subscribe to Marx or Milton Friedman- were avatars of compassion and patience, altruism incarnate. Miss Conway conveyed trust and empathy so powerfully I felt like apologising to her for my bad behaviour and getting back into a classroom. Vic Goddard himself once again demonstrated that if there were an Olympic event for caring about his kids, he would jog through the ticker tape in time for a pint before the silver caught up.
Too much though? I’m not arrogant enough to judge a man when all I have to go on is 50 minutes of telly, plus ads. But purely looking at situations like this one, I reiterate; a balance must be struck at all times with the needs of the many and the needs of the few. Because the many are, of course, a collection of the few. ‘Never giving up’ is an aphorism that trips easily from the tongue, but as professionals we don’t enjoy the luxury of utopian fantasies. Some of our patients live, some of them die, some of them miraculously recover and some do not. We can only do so much before we need to move on to the next admission, just as important as the last one. There are limits to the potions in our pouches.
We can sympathise with the difficulties that KLV experience, and yet still be forced to find alternative provision for them, with clear consciences. Sometimes schools aren’t the best places for them to be. I bemoan the great reduction in special school provision that has accompanied the ascendancy of the inclusion project, because it is a fact that stares me in the mug at times: some kids aren’t meant to be in mainstream schools, just as much as some people need to be taken to prisons, hospitals and care units. Who first thought that the bosom of the community was the best womb for everyone? An idiot, whomever.
Vinni left school, we find from the EE website, with some GCSEs, despite volunteering for care- and did you see everyone stop breathing in horror at that prospect? The state, it is true, makes a lousy parent. But with the support, no doubt, of the school and others, he made it across the very, very thin ice upon which he danced so carelessly. It was a beautiful story, well told, and reminiscent of so many others we face on a daily basis. I certainly don’t begrudge Vinni (or the Telly Vinni, remember) the good fortune he had to encounter adults as diligent and dedicated as Vic, Stan, Tina and Miss Conway. But do we do any good in the long run when we give someone five, ten, twenty-five final warnings? Have we loosened the boundaries so much that they become meaningless. ‘Men,’ Russell Crowe’s character in Master and Commander said, ‘Must be governed.’ And they must, so that they learn how to govern themselves.

‘We’re not included…and we don’t care…’

There is a frightening assumption in society these days that schools are an extension of the social services. Of course, we must liaise with such institutions because children’s lives don’t exist in convenient compartments, and Vic described how often, at multi-agency meetings, it is the school which will bear the brunt of responsibility for the child’s welfare. If they’re not breaking the law, or being specifically abused, then all else falls to us. Of course; how expected. But schools are imperfect families, and the burden of making sure that the children are fed and housed is too great for us to bear. And we’re not trained to do so. Dear God, we’re just trained enough to teach our subjects and run our own lives. If you want us to bring them up too, you’re going to have to build a bigger school. If you force us to do everything else too, then something has to give. Oh look- it’s education. Funny that.

Other Stuff:
  • Children in care get £3.10 every day pocket money. Good luck with that. But £7.50 on a Friday? I presume that’s to cover the White Lightning and 20 Mayfair. Get the party started.
  • The school choir singing ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ in the manner of Scala the Belgian girls’ choir. Then Mr Drew humming along as he went to obliterate some new law breaker. Ah, Brave New World.
  • The queue of penitents waiting for Drew to deliver his divine justice, one after another. ‘Can you tell me which teacher asked you to download ‘Thirteen Days in Hell‘ into your user area? No? You are banned from accessing the internet until January, except from a list of approved educational sites…’ This, over and over again. Beautiful.
  • The slight tension implied between Drew and Goddard in their approaches to discipline; boundaries versus autonomy. Drew chipped it out of the long grass with a masterful admission of faith in his line manager’s judgement, even if he himself had reservations. That’s not craven, that’s professional, and that’s how teams work. Save criticisms for private discussions, and work with the chain of command unless your values are irredeemably lost by doing do.
  • Vinni, asked for a note to explain his stalking the corridors: ‘I AM my note.’
  • ‘How many times have you got your skirt rolled up?’ said Drew to, apparently, one of the Saturdays. Takes a brave male teacher to tip-toe  through that minefield. 
  • Loved the ‘lunch’ montage; it was like the bit in Rocky when he’s building himself up into a comeback Titan. OK, it wasn’t very much like it.
I’ll play you out with poetry:
Philip Larkin – This Be The Verse
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
  They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
  And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
  By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
  And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
  It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
  And don’t have any kids yourself.

4 Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    Yet again Tom I find myself nodding my head in agreement. It's so easy to fall for the charms of KLV and kid ourselves that we are in some way helping them. As a profession it's about time we realized that endless cosy chats and turning a blind eye to their disruptive behaviour does not help them to deal with the difficulties that are occurring else where in their lives. Kids with difficult backgrounds need the boundaries to be set even more firmly. Like you I agree those staff involved with Vinnie were both diligent and dedicated, however over the years I have come across many teachers who, rather skillfully manage to extricate themselves out of the classroom and into roles where they dispense tea and sympathy to KLV all day long. They then proceed to 'advise' us ordinary mortals on how we should manage the student in question. This invariably consists of platitudes such as 'x responds well to praise' or 'be firm with X'. the latter of course comes with the caveat, except if it requires me to support you if you decide to confront his/her poor behaviour head on. Increasingly this role is being filled by learning mentors. I can't tell you how many times I want to headbutt my computer when I read their emails regarding KLV!

    Loving the acronym KLV.
    Liz

  2. Ooh, I do enjoy reading you #EE posts – has become an essential part of the viewing process. You should have a link on 4OD.

    The thing which gets me about KLV is the time they take away from all those quiet, unassuming little chaps who have horrible, lonely experiences of school. You know, those kids whose only interactions are with teachers and not very often with them; who try their best to avoid being noticed. KLV prevent us from noticing the invisible kids with whom we could be making an enormous impact

  3. DaddyCool says:

    This is the first of your blogs that I have read after following you on Twitter. I find little to disagree with, though can't help but feel we possibly sit on slightly different sides of the inclusion debate. I agree that too much is expected of schools, but when social care are under the pressure they are somebody needs to look out for the kids that somehow don't reach the thresholds – and schools see these kids 5 days a week. So it's hard on the adults, I'm aware of that, but they get to go home at the end of the day to a secure and peaceful environment (for the most part). That being said they should never have to do it alone and should be supported within the school and by external agencies (such as me – I'm an EP).

    Good blog – it has made me very thoughtful and reflective on this damp Sunday morning!

  4. theotheralig says:

    I was totally absorbed when reading this. I have not seen Educating Essex, but even in my Primary setting I agree with what you have to say. Thank you.

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