Behind the counter at the off-licence there was a new face. Not
strange in itself, but he looked younger than usual. We negotiated
a difficult purchase: a bottle of beer with little alcohol for a
friend of mine who is teetering on the edge of teetotalism.
Having established a mutual confidence, he related how he had been
excluded from his school when it became clear he was not going to
achieve high grades in his A-levels. “They didn’t want me to spoil
their league tables,” he added, without signs of bitterness.
But it provoked me into asking those more directly involved whether
this experience was common practice. While the results were
inconclusive, they provided a clearer perception of an even more
It is not original – as it centres on how schools deal with one of
this country’s most serious social problems. Namely, what to do
with pupils who seem intent on not only blocking attempts to teach
them, but damaging the education of others.
From here it takes little imagination to realise that if these
“troublemakers” are allowed to continue, the reputation of those
schools will suffer. And, conversely, if they are excluded, the
school’s reputation and position in the league tables will
In spite of this, some of the state schools in my area of London,
Camden, can justly boast of their record in dealing with these
youngsters rather than chucking them out for someone else to deal
Ministers have not only identified the scale and seriousness of
this problem, but also have been relentlessly spewing out
mechanisms to tackle it. In fact, the wealth of initiatives
involving inclusion this and exclusion that – Yips, Yots, Yops,
Building Bridges, Making Links – makes my head spin.
Some seemed to have had limited success in certain communities;
some have suddenly found their funding stopped; others are a waste
of taxpayers’ money; and most have kept an amazing number of people
in employment of sorts. But I defy anyone to claim that this
hyperactive assault of acronyms and clich’s has provided any
One disturbing idea – backed recently by London mayor Ken
Livingstone – is to offer financial incentives to black teachers to
teach black pupils.
Not only do I find the concept of matching “colours” in our schools
offensive, but having fallen foul of South Africa’s apartheid laws
many years ago, I would be horrified to see another form of
apartheid introduced into British schools.
Education minister Ivan Lewis, in a Commons debate on school
attendance and behaviour earlier this year, said that almost half
of the young people in custody had been permanently excluded from
school and that about 50,000 pupils are missing school without
permission every day.
Amid a lot of tut-tutting and platitudes such as “we must never
forget that the pupils of today are the parents of tomorrow” –
which may account for the limited size of his audience – he
scattered blame far and wide. And few things are more unattractive
than politicians playing the blame game.
But there was no mention of why they had been excluded. Nor any
mention of giving the percentage of exclusions a higher profile in
the league tables. But that would involve no more than tinkering
with the existing system.
Giving schools the resources and the freedom to deal with the
problem seems an obvious first step. Others include keeping
youngsters physically stretched and engaged and – apologies for
using a clich’ myself – catching them young.
There is nothing new in this. I recall John (now Lord) Patten,
Conservative education secretary more than a decade ago, worrying
that too many primary school children showed clear signs of
becoming troublemakers – but being loath to be quoted saying
I am not convinced that today’s young people differ that much from
previous generations. There has been talk about “bad” parents for
as long as I can remember. Nor do I believe – as Labour seems to –
that the problem is confined to pupils from so-called deprived
Perhaps policy makers, educationalists and criminologists should
focus on a dilemma I have tracked ever since I suffered from it
myself in my early teens. That is a feeling of being trapped in an
environment offering little hope or inspiration while being
bombarded with images of a world full of fantastic
Sheila Gunn is a political commentator and a
Conservative councillor in the London Borough of