On my way in to school this morning I listened to a fascinating interview on the Radio 4 Today programme with Katharine Birbalsingh, a teacher in a south London Church of England Academy who has ceased teaching there after voicing some trenchant criticisms of the state education system at the Conservative Party conference this autumn. I would not want to comment on the rightness or otherwise of her job there ending, as I know from experience that what the media says about cases like this rarely contains the whole truth, and there are always factors under the surface which are not known to the pundits who confidently pronounce on such matters in public. However, the points she made to Justin Webb this morning echo, I think, the central tension not only in the education system but in many ways in politics and society more widely.
Ms Birbalsingh talked about behaviour and exclusion policy and practice in state schools. Her argument was that it should be much easier and more accepted for children who misbehaved to be excluded permanently (‘expelled’) from school, because, she said, unless students and parents know that their school place can be lost they will not value it and are more likely to treat it with disdain. She talked about children living in ‘fear’ of losing their place at a (possibly) sought-after school.
This approach to exclusion is the diametric opposite of the one adopted over the past decade or more by the last government, where increasingly there was ever increasing pressure on schools not to exclude students, but to find ways of managing poor behaviour internally. This pressure took the form of ever more stringent local agencies who intervened with schools who did not follow strict guidelines on exclusion, tight rules over how long students could be excluded on a fixed term basis, and financial penalties for schools when a permanent exclusion was made, not to mention the independent appeals panels which could (and still can) order the reinstatement, against the school’s and the headteacher’s wishes, of a permanently excluded child.
Of course this policy, which developed during the course of the Labour period in government, had a genuine ideological basis. The argument was that the most vulnerable children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds were most likely to be excluded from school, and when this happened the cycle of deprivation was simply perpetuated into the next generation, as, deprived of educational opportunity, these young people were likely to be without work and get involved in crime, and so on.
When a child from a disadvantaged background is permanently excluded from school, there is no doubt that the cycle of disadvantage is more likely to be perpetuated. They are also more likely to engage in criminal activity which in turn will adversly impact on the rest of society. However, if we never exclude a (disadvantaged or otherwise) child from school even for persistently disruptive or antisocial behaviour, we do undoubtedly risk creating a culture which takes education and school (and one might add all the other benefits the state offers) for granted, and not value them or make the most of them. Sometimes, perhaps, you do need to be aware of the risk of losing something good to really appreciate it. I think back to my experience of Africa earlier this year when I saw children in the most demanding circumstances valuing school very highly indeed.
The big dilemma is: how much possible damage to individuals and their prospects are we prepared to tolerate to get to a culture where there is greater self-reliance and personal responsibility, and less of a ‘take it for granted because it’s my right’ culture? Or, put another way, are the rights of the individual greater than the longer term benefit of society, or the other way round?
What is the Christian response to this dilemma? One answer is that the immediate needs of individuals always come before greater hypothetical or future benefits – the end, in other words, never justifies the means, a long standing and fundamental Christian ethical principle.
Another way of looking at it is to say that where the individual moral capacity for decision-making is ‘numbed’ by a culture of immediate need always unquestioningly being met by the state, then the individual’s capacity to see the difference between right and wrong and to freely choose right over wrong is also numbed – a kind of ‘stifling’ of human beings’ character as potentially moral beings, able to respond to the challenge presented to us by the gospel.
I will leave readers to ponder this dilemma, which we will no doubt hear more of over coming weeks, especially in the light of the long-anticipated reduction in spending on public services to be announced later this week.