Ben Greenhalgh describes the world of the alternative education and the young people within them.


Unhappy boy


The Unteachables

Ben Greenhalgh describes the world of the alternative education and the young people within them.

With education reform up against stiff resistance, what is education like for students who are unable to cope in mainstream education? How much focus does the government put on targets, over the realistic individual progression of students who are deemed the unteachables?


Finally the winter chill seems to be subsiding. I make my way swiftly across the road, making sure I put enough speed in my step so I don’t get run over in my attempt to reach the corner shop. Milk is my mission. Milk and sugar. They always want milky sugary tea, so will probably end up working in construction. But for once this week I put the thought of their prospective careers behind me in the queue and pay.


I hurry out of the shop and look to make another dash through the morning traffic but, as is always the way, I miss the lights. Waiting, glad to no longer see my breath frosting in the air, I watch groups of uniformed pupils chase each other towards the direction of the local school.


I was in that position not too long ago. Now a few years after university, I find my working life back within the realms of education. My aim is simple. It’s the same as the department of education: to provide.


“…all young people with (the ability) to fulfil their potential and to play a positive and active role in society”. An idealistic mantra, which I honestly do believe in, despite my underlying bitterness at such a blanket statement.


A gap in the traffic. An elderly driver taking the speed bumps with the correct velocity. I make a dash with the milk and sugar to the other side and head back to the students I work with. There is no chance of them in any uniform today, but I imagine they never wore one for long anyway.


I get to the door, the taxis haven’t arrived yet. I flick the kettle on and wait for what Michael Gove suggests is “the educational underclass”, the students who don’t cut it in mainstream. They now spend the majority of their schooling here, in one of many alternative education provisions across the country. However, despite the many tens of thousands of young people currently no longer in mainstream school it seems, at least to me, a seemingly ignored area of education.


I work at a charity -run, alternative provision in my local authority with over thirty students attending every day.


First of all you should know it’s not a normal school, and to an extent it wouldn’t work if it was. Teachers are generally hated, mainstream lessons are regarded as boring and often the subject matter within mainstream is unattainable to many of these students without constant one to one help, which schools simply can’t provide.


Yet, although this isn’t a traditional school, there is the setting of achievable goals, educational targets, logged progression, communication with referring schools and agencies, behavioural contracts, timetabled lessons, and full differentiated lesson plans as well as a multitude of other administrative systems put in place to offer the best level of support and education to those who attend.


Walking in it’s a different atmosphere to a school. A pool table, TV, and kitchen flank a selection of desks all sat around a whiteboard with the day’s lesson outlined in deep green for all to see.


Although it is not always the case, the provision exists for students when their schools steps away. The goal? To attempt to ‘reform’ and reintegrate the students we have back into the mainstream system. Get them back into ‘traditional’ schooling. Unfortunately, schools stepping away for good are the case for many of the pupils we work with and it is left to alternative provisions such as this to provide pupils with a level of education they can use to make the next steps in their lives at a fraction of the cost.


Now, let me make myself clear from the outset. I do not believe that all pupils are capable of attaining GCSE grades. Don’t faint. I know the Department of Education would deplore this statement as being an issue, purely with the level of education provided. Nevertheless, as I am sure many of you are aware, teaching is only as good, measurably, as those who listen and learn from it and very few here want to listen.


Despite my reservations about the lack of realism that all students in the UK should achieve GCSEs, I get on with the day’s session, Maths. As one of our core subjects I fully intend to give the best level of education available, helping the maths teacher deliver the session. Still, with four members of full time staff, it is still a battle to get students just to sit down and listen to a few minutes of class teaching. The rest is left to one to one support. Staff are often fully employed with single students until the work is completed, often following them around with a sheet or a pen attempting to corner and cajole them into working towards their own education. Today I expect no different so I sip my tea lovingly for the few minutes of peace I have before they arrive.


The first taxi pulls up early today and we are greeted cheerfully by one of our pupils, dressed in a full grey tracksuit, blue cap, and trainers. He’s an avid smoker and supplier of cannabis and, as is often the case, drugs construct a significant barrier to learning.


More taxis arrive with other students, all in differing styles of dress and with a multitude of issues that have arisen from the previous evening’s antics. As swearing is common, I will omit the use of it to save a significant amount of time!


‘She better not talk to me fam, I will beat her differently you hear me?’


An enchanting welcome, which I respond to with the usual unappreciated humour.


‘Fallen out with someone, have we?’


Drama is common; our groups are split due to prior histories of violence or stern disagreements. It sometimes comes to physically separating students and when a fight is looming the air is all the more tense and work tends to take a back seat for the sake of safety and emotional support.


Slowly a picture emerges. Very few of our students care about education and have other things on their minds. Thinking back to my psychology lectures, I am reminded of Maslow who suggested what he coined a ‘hierarchy of need’ whereby only when other basic needs are fulfilled, can a level of higher understanding and self-actualisation be achieved. It is thus unsurprising that when many of the students we have go home to crime, violence, and abuse, how to add fractions takes a back seat. However, despite these harsh realities, the attempt to get them something to break the cycle of possible unemployment is always at the forefront of the day. Despite the reluctance and often refusal to work or listen, the attempt and quality of teaching are there to be taken at all levels for students. In spite of the image I have drawn of lost hope, I must stress that when the effort and work are taken on board, it feels like a huge victory and my whole day is lifted not just for myself but also because I feel they have made progress.


I get up, after finishing my first mug of tea, and ask around if anyone wants a cup before we start the day’s session. A few hands, and a pool cue, rocket to the ceiling breaking one of the lights with a pop, followed by a muffled apology.


As I move into the kitchen one of our more charismatic students follows me in.


“Not too strong Ben, not too weak either mate – basically just right”. He grins while we discuss the merits of a fine cup of tea. “No mate it’s 5% milk and you put it in last; don’t leave the tea bag in for too long.”


I finish the tea and hand it to him asking him to score it later on after we get going with the work. We often implement deals in order to get students to work. My personal favourite is offering hot drinks.


We sit down, but before the work begins, the morning discussion takes place. This is now ritualized as debate around current events, which can range from anything from ethical philosophy, to Spiderman three. It’s my favourite time at work. They often don’t realise they have opinions and, when it’s in a lesson, they don’t care. But when you take the lesson format away, suddenly the floor of the symposium opens, (with of course no drink), and discussions commence.


The tea inspector takes a sip half way through the discussion on the Boston Marathon Bombing.

“80% Ben, for taste”.


Reminds me it’s maths this morning, differentiated work calculating percentages of alcohol consumption. A double pronged attack, percentages and alcohol awareness. It goes well, and an educational tid bit for one girl that a single unit of alcohol doesn’t mean a bottle.


Coming from a mainstream school I admit I was expecting all the students here to be quite weak academically. I was wrong when most refuse calculators because they don’t want to get up and get them and instead did it faster in their heads. Lazy brilliance!


My colleagues and I are a team. You can’t work with young people like this without support and help. We begin our own conversation on the raising the drinking age, following on from the maths work.


“Don’t drink tequila”, one of the quieter students interrupts.


A damn fine bit of advice I think to myself. It’s unrealistic to expect these young people to never touch drugs or alcohol. Nothing like that changes fast without their wish to do so.


One thing I’ve learned over a great many years working with teenagers is you can’t make someone do what you think is best for them. You can inform them as best you can and empower them to make the right choice themselves. Anything else makes you like every other adult that has told them ‘no’. At this stage ‘no’ doesn’t work. Saying it to some young people will damage your relationship with them, your only tool to get through to them, and set back any progress you have made. I choose my battles carefully in this job.


The morning conversation continues into break and the topics quickly change and adapt to those wishing to take part. Murders lead to criminal psychology.

A girl, expelled for not wearing the right uniform, begins the next topic.


“What do you think goes through their heads? It’s well interesting, bi-polar, schizophrenia. I’d love to know about that sort of stuff”. She examines the worksheet on the table, her mind elsewhere.


“I can imagine you as a psychology student” I say. Flattery maybe, but it seemed a genuine interest so I go with it.


“Really?” A smile lingers to reveal a little bit of pride. Perhaps an idea about what she wants to do post sixteen has entered her own psyche. It’s a long shot but, given a bit of motivation and direction, we might be onto something.


Then it happens. It enters the conversation with the same level of interest as cannabis legalisation. Education reform. Here’s my chance, they’re all listening, attentive and I have five more minutes before we start the next section of work.


“What do you think about the government suggesting all students your age should attain AC GCSE grades?”


A torrent of laughter pretty much answers my question. Education is a tricky subject but one I feel increasingly important to discuss with the pupils we have, especially since many will be staying in for longer. After all I love learning so it’s confusing to me why young people don’t.


A student we have had for over a year, having been out of education since leaving junior school, nips in.


“I’m not doing any GCSE’s, they can jog on”. To me this boy has made tremendous progress both academically and in his own confidence. He will achieve grades and levels he would never have had before. From that he has been given a college place and will study a trade he enjoys. Yet, for the government that isn’t good enough because, like many, he won’t get GCSEs. Instead they suggest it would be better to push him to a level he is unable to achieve, destroy any confidence and faith in education and training he has built up to make him another unemployment figure.


More pitch in on the education debate.


“Teachers, they don’t respect us, why should we respect them?” A series of snarled agreement surrounds the room.


I’ve heard it before, the ‘R’ word. If it were an adult saying the same I would be prone to agree. So why do I instantly want to repost this outburst from teenagers with, ‘it works both ways’.


I’ve seen teachers come into a class and instantly demand obedience which I now picture how it would work in this environment. I snigger at the vision of anarchy.


I’ve never been authoritative so that was never an option for me. I prefer people to like me and then listen to what I have to say because they know me and understand my reasons for doing so are reasonable and often in their best interests.


One boy, severely emotionally vulnerable, came to us as a school refuser. He is by far the politest teenager I have ever known and his ability to write is simply beautiful. He should be in mainstream education but he just won’t go.


“Teachers don’t make the effort to know you”.


Easily said but how hard it must be to treat a class of thirty plus all as individuals with the rigorous half rushed lessons the current curriculum requires teachers to follow. No wonder some young people who require more guidance simply don’t get it, despite teachers’ best efforts.


Before my time here I worked in a school, my old school, a good one. The lessons were three quarters of an hour and the teachers were brilliant. To me nothing is better for young people than a good teacher. The problem I witnessed, in my time there as an adult, was content. There is simply too much, too fast for mixed set classes. No time to check properly for understanding, explain homework, or take an interest in students’ independent learning.


The overriding principal for me is that it is not always a young person’s lack of interest in education; it is often a loss of love for it. Not just for students but teachers also. Yet current proposed reforms to me at least, will only widen this critical relationship.


It’s been a long day, the majority of the afternoon spent coaxing a young lady to stop dancing on the desks and look at persuasive writing techniques, all of which I implemented in my negotiations. As I drive home I wonder if it sunk in.


The evening is spent writing up evaluations to send to the referring schools, read by a handful, ignored by most. It’s not term time work and, as for many teachers, the work rarely stops at the end of the working day.


As I sit in the small window of light emanating from my laptop, I begin to flick through some of the research I printed off for this article. One report I have been putting off for weeks, the fourteen pages of the Charlie Taylor Report, the government expert advisor on behaviour. The report is concerned primarily with improving alternative provisions such as my place of work so I am instantly intrigued and slightly, perhaps prematurely, expecting my blood to boil.


I scan the initial pages with a fresh highlighter and after reading through a very suggestive introduction by which the ‘education underclass’ are linked to the London riots and, by association, become the criminal underclass I decide to read on objectively and strangely find, through small sips of yet another cup of tea, that I agree with a decent amount of it.


What concerned me however was the expectation placed upon alternative provisions that “students should make similar progress to their mainstream peers”.


“WHAT!” I shout into the void of my house. Only a few pages back in the same report this expectation is contradicted as “it is accepted that not all children attain the same level”.


I have times with students, many in fact, that drive me to the very brink of my tolerance but I understand the reasons behind such behaviour and needs and, for the one student that listens to me as I explain long multiplication, it feels like a worthwhile job.


However, what drives me to absolute frustration and anger is the expectation that these students should be getting the same grades as those in mainstream, should be making the same progress and attain GCSEs .This is a target dictated by those who should know better but clearly don’t.


It is clear to me, working in this job, that it is not the level of education these students have as being the problem but their personal ability to apply themselves in order to access and use it. This is not a problem with education but a number of vital variables seemingly ignored and the onus of creating perfect future members of society then falling directly onto schools and education providers.


As a teacher I am sure you will agree, you can’t teach someone who doesn’t want to be taught.


The pressure on schools and alternative providers of education was summed up for me in one conversation with the manager of an alternative provision in Hampshire. She told me about a year eleven student who had been referred by a school. He had been so severely bullied he used to physically shake in class and cry every day before school. He now attends full time at the provision in question and is enjoying education. He will go on to achieve accredited qualifications which he is capable of and then be given support finding a college course or an apprenticeship. However, he will not achieve A-C GCSEs. He has simply come in too late and his level too low. The words that resonate most of all were the manager’s last on the subject: “I refuse to see this as a failure, he isn’t a failure.” I am in full agreement.


This is a subject about which I am passionate about and for my own final words on the subject, at least for now, I must agree with Charlie Taylor. That with over 35,000 students now in pupil referral units or alternative provisions, according to the latest government statistics, the department of education needs to keep more than their ‘peripheral vision’ on what is clearly a growing problem.


It at least seems to me that this government has its sights on targets which are unrealistic at the expense of destroying valuable progress for the students in question. Young people who fall off the proverbial grid are forgotten and with them the people who fight to give them a chance in the mess that is our current employment system.


With education reforms coming up against such ardent protests I believe that it is not just mainstream education that needs to draw focus. Those that work with students such as this similarly need their voices heard.


Hopefully the majority of what the government advisor suggests in his recommendations will be taken seriously by the man who ultimately controls our education system but, like many of you, I’m not holding my breath.


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