Saturday, February 24, 2007

Oliver's educational twists: a foster carer's despair

evil Ollie

Part One

On February 22 at 2pm I attended a pre-exclusion meeting for the fifteen-year-old lad I'm fostering, a lad by the name of Oliver Twist. Until two weeks ago I'd never heard of the term 'exclusion'. I was advised to prepare a few questions. These are some of them.

Is this a meeting to discuss whether or not Oliver is to be excluded, or is the exclusion a fait accompli?

What exactly are the reasons for the exclusion?

If the exclusion is primarily about an incident relating to the harassment of another student, David Copperfield, what exactly is the claim? Who witnessed the incident, what's the nature of the evidence?

Does the punishment fit the crime?

What happens to Oliver's education now?

If this school has such an interest in Oliver's education and his future as it claims, why has it excluded Oliver from school four times, including this occasion, resulting in 30 weeks' forced absence from school – forty weeks including this exclusion – thus effectively destroying his secondary education? Or is Oliver himself entirely to blame for this situation?

Would it not have been better to expel Oliver from the outset, so that he could set himself up in another school that had a more open and humane way of working with kids from disadvantaged backgrounds?

Whatever the 'good intentions' of the school or at least of some of its teachers, the effect of these frequent exclusions and returns is to extinguish hope and then to reignite hope, again and again. This strikes me as a form of sadism. It would have been far better to knock him out straight away, than to toy with him like this. Is this policy really meant to assist the boy, or is it intended to make the school look good by showing how many 'chances' the student has been given?

Glenunga has, I believe, a reputation as a high-achieving academic school. As such, it would naturally attract a certain type of student, or a certain type of ambitious parent. Clearly Oliver comes from a disadvantaged background – one might reasonably say a severely disadvantaged background. It's undeniable that he has been a difficult kid, and I'm sure some teachers have been sympathetic and have sought to bend the rules in his favour. However, the overall school policy would no doubt reflect its vision of itself as an elite school. Oliver would probably find himself a misfit at any school, but especially so here. Perhaps the tragedy of this situation is that he was allowed to enroll in this school in the first place. However, since he has enrolled in the school, and the school has presumably welcomed his enrolment, then the school has some responsibility in its dealings with him.

Part Two

The pre-exclusion meeting is now over. It has given me a different perspective on events, but the exclusion has gone ahead, a standard ten-week exclusion. They have agreed to review the exclusion after four weeks, but my sense is that they – or rather the acting principal, a Mr Gradgrind, who was solely responsible for the decision – are in no mind to shorten the exclusion period.

As to the questions I have set down above as needing to be asked, many of them were answered in the course of the meeting quite to my satisfaction, but there are still some issues. The very first question I set down, the question as to whether the meeting was held to decide upon the exclusion or simply to explain the reasons for an already decided-upon exclusion, this question I was able to put early on in the meeting. I was assured that the exclusion had not finally been decided upon, and that it would be decided upon at that meeting. However, after listening to the process for a while, and after hearing Mr Gradgrind giving his decision, I had to speak up and express my disappointment, for it was clear to me that the decision had in fact already been made. I pointed out that there had been no consultation between the three teachers there present before one of them announced the decision to exclude. I didn't know at the time that the announcer of the decision was the acting principal, and that he was the sole decision-maker of the three. I still felt, though, that the decision was already made, and wouldn't be changed at this meeting unless some dramatic new evidence exonerating Oliver was presented. Mr Gradgrind seemed to accept my criticisms – this was the tensest moment of the meeting, for me at least, but probably for everyone else as well.

As to the reasons for the exclusion, the incident or incidents with David Copperfield were paramount. Later, other behaviours, such as the possible intimidation of a teacher were mentioned as back-up. What rather surprised me in hearing about these events was the number of independent witnesses who verified the allegation that Oliver and his friend Artie Dodger were planning to harass young David.

Earlier, Oliver had told me that someone had reported him as saying something about 'Copper-hunting', and he was annoyed about this because he had never said those words, but of course this misses the point completely, for it seems clear that, whatever the terms used, Oliver and Artie had been conspiring more or less openly to give David a hard time. The difficulty about all this is that it may have been only 'tough talk'. The school has obviously decided that it's not worth taking any chances.

Considering that Artie had beaten up David the year before – for which he had been given an exclusion – and that David was seriously traumatized by the experience, it should have been clear, to Artie in particular, that no further harassment of any kind would be acceptable.

The other incident – what seems to have been the main incident, at least as far as Oliver was concerned – involved Oliver allegedly attacking David from behind, throwing him to the ground, and holding him so that Artie could attack him. Oliver strongly denies this, and says that what he did was as described in my email sent to the school two days before the exclusion meeting:

Oliver strongly contests the claim that he grabbed Master Copperfield so that Artie could hit him. He says he simply grabbed David from behind and said 'David!' to him, no doubt in an intimidating and unpleasant way, and he agrees that this was a stupid thing to do, and that it won't be repeated.

I don't think the school has a clear picture of this event from witnesses, though one girl said Oliver had pushed her into a bush during this skirmish – Oliver expressed surprise about this claim, which he denied.

So, two incidents – one in which he and Artie were overheard speaking threateningly about David. Hardly proof that the threats would be carried out, given the nature of school talk. True, Artie had already shown that he could carry out such threats, but given that he would most certainly be excluded if he did so, there must be at least some doubt that he would carry out such threats on this occasion.

The second incident is unclear. There was probably more to it than Oliver's version would suggest, but I very much doubt that it was as full-on as it was presented at the meeting. Oliver told me before the meeting that he wouldn't be so dumb as to push David down and hold him for someone to hit him, because that would obviously mean instant exclusion. Oliver is far from dumb in my judgement.

So, looking at the evidence, it's clear that Oliver was involved in an episode of harassment, though the extent of the harassment is far from clear.

Does the punishment fit the crime? We hear a lot nowadays about zero tolerance for bullying. The events described above would hardly have brought about any punishment in my day, but I went to a very different school, and I'm told that things have changed vastly in the school yard since my time, standards have risen. The effect upon the victim of such antics needs also to be borne in mind – much was said regarding the trauma suffered by Master Copperfield, with hints about medical costs and the like.

However, I strongly sensed that the school was self-servingly presenting Oliver's behaviour in the worst possible light, and that they would prefer not to have him come back to the school. Oliver is a big strapping lad, who is both physically and mentally clumsy, as well as tactless, impulsive and profoundly anti-authoritarian. In short, a nightmare for a school such as Glenunga, with its pretentions to academic excellence, and its somewhat inexpertly hidden agenda of elitism. They must be wondering what more they can do to get rid of him for good.

I also felt that there were probably other unexpressed issues hanging about in that conference room with us. What pressure is being brought to bear by the parents? What about the level of exasperation of various teachers, for whom Oliver would be much harder work than the average 'well-brought up', well-behaved student, whether genius or plodder?

Not that I don't have sympathy for the school and its teachers. After all, I've had some small experience as a high school teacher, enough not to want to pursue teaching kids as a career. I found the discipline stuff too hard. I would've preferred to share the kids' banter rather than trying to suppress it, and I was uncomfortable about the homogenizing effect of teaching large groups. I also found many kids intimidating, even when they didn't mean to be.

This last point brings me to the claim, brought up by Mr Gradgrind, that Oliver had recently intimidated a teacher at the swimming carnival. This incident occurred a couple of weeks ago and Oliver had told me about it. At the carnival Oliver had mentioned to a teacher, Mr Bumble, that this was the anniversary of a previous exclusion, which had been imposed because he'd accidentally hit Mr Bumble with a bottle [presumably plastic, and hopefully empty] aimed at a fellow-student. Of course I don't know precisely the tone Oliver adopted [Oliver insisted to me that it was all a joke], but it seems highly unlikely that there was any conscious attempt to intimidate Mr Bumble, even if Mr Bumble was intimidated. Oliver would not be so stupid [he likes using this argument]. Yet the incident was thrown in his face at the meeting, self-servingly in my view. Some kids are just inherently more difficult to deal with, and they can't be expected to wear the entire blame for it. The school will no doubt argue that they've been 'lenient' on many occasions – that is, they've diverged from general standards to accommodate this more difficult student. And so they should do, for the student body is nothing if not diverse, learning styles vary, different approaches need to be employed as a matter of course. The fact remains that Oliver has now been given 40 weeks of exclusion by this school, and I can't accept this is a good outcome or a necessary one.

Then again, the whole nature of the secondary school system strongly discourages non-conformism, and I'm sure that Glenunga is far from being the worst offender in this regard.

So what happens to Oliver's education now? This issue was more satisfactorily addressed at the meeting. The school counselor or 'pathways officer', Mr Sparkler, pointed out that some students even benefited from exclusion, citing the case of one excluded student who became a high-powered chef precisely as a result of taking on a course while excluded. He was also interested to hear that Oliver had felt intimidated at the Flexicentre, his previous placement while on exclusion, so other alternatives were canvassed.

The place finally agreed upon was called Beafield, subject to places being available etc. It turns out this was the school Pip, my previous foster-child, attended. It's called a vocational college, and it presumably takes in, at least occasionally, kids excluded from other schools. Oliver at one point expressed anxiety about being forced into another school, but he was assured that he would be able to return to Glenunga at the end of his exclusion. He himself expressed a strong desire to do so. This strikes me as very unfortunate as I have no doubt that, given the inflexibility of the school's disciplinary processes, he will be excluded again not long after returning. My hope then is that, in the next weeks, he'll find a place much more suited to his temperament, a place he'll be reluctant to leave. While he's obviously made connections at Glenunga that are important to him, there's also a certain fear of the unknown as regards switching schools. Time will tell.

We have a right of appeal against the exclusion, and that possibility appeals, but as I would prefer that Oliver not return to the school, there hardly seems much point.


Friday, February 16, 2007

school days: on power, policy, littering and self-expression


The foster child is having tomorrow off – he has a 'take home', one of his teachers says. There have been a few niggly things, and so he has been given this time out before things escalate. The teacher suggested that the heat wouldn't have helped matters. He certainly has difficulty restraining himself, something I was a bit better at when I was his age – though I should admit I was altogether too reserved. I'm inclined to think him much misunderstood, his loudness seeming more aggressive than it is. His gangly height also makes him stand out. The issue was tackled, I think a little clumsily, by the Anglicare worker during the weekly review meeting earlier tonight, and the boy stormed out of the room. Everybody says he's greatly improved since a year ago – otherwise, they say he would never have been placed with me. I think it's fair to say I have a healthy disrespect for authority, and I'm not sure that anyone, including teachers, should command a priori respect, simply by virtue of their status. They have to earn respect like anyone else. The boy clearly feels this too, though he hasn't the power to articulate it as yet. He refused to pick up a piece of paper after being directed to do so by a teacher. His argument was that he wasn't responsible for putting the piece of paper there, so he shouldn't have to pick it up. The Anglicare rep and I both attacked the self-centredness of this argument, which he acknowledged by changing tack: that particular teacher, whom he couldn't stand, was always picking on him in this way….

When I think about this – and it takes me back to my own schooldays – the request by a teacher to a student to pick up a piece of paper is, or can be, something that carries enormously complex hidden implications. Did the teacher ask the question in a tone of disdain? Did he ask it in response to a disdainful look from the boy? Did he ask politely, timidly, angrily or contemptuously? Was the boy acting up at the time, regaling his mates with his masturbation technique or his impersonations of various teachers? Was the teacher trying to humble the boy or was he simply concerned with the untidiness of the yard? How much did this involve a battle of wills? Was the boy being set up to fail? Was the ulterior motive to break him in like some wild, clumsy but altogether too arrogant animal? Did the teacher fix him with a long stare, or did he randomly select him? What's the history between these two individuals? The answers to these questions are essential to determining the justice or injustice of the case, but considering the number of such fleeting, fraught instances, we hardly have time to disentangle each one, apportioning praise here and blame there.

I just hope that those teachers responsible for the big decisions re his attending or not attending this school will recognize and accept that he isn't going to become a straightforward respecter of their authority, he isn't going to be obedient and well-behaved. Of course there are other issues, such as influence and disruption. If he's more loud and disruptive than other kids, why should he be treated with greater leniency? If he is treated with more leniency, wouldn't that encourage other kids to disrupt? He has expressed a general refusal to pick up papers [not dropped by himself], and this principle on which he stands might influence others to take a similar stand. So, imagine that, during a general 'picking up papers' session [they do actually happen] none of the students comply. This is a problem since the papers in the yard were all dropped by students.

It's more or less a given that those students who litter wouldn't own up to it. It would therefore be an impossible task to get the students who actually did the littering to pick up after themselves. What then if, rather than forcing students, most of whom are innocent of littering, to pick up the papers, the teachers simply picked up the papers, or got cleaners to do it? Quite likely if they saw teachers doing this they'd consider it a great lark, and an outbreak of littering would occur. If they saw cleaners picking up papers, they'd feel they could litter with impunity, and the littering level would rise, albeit more slowly.

What if the teachers tried this approach: they would continue to employ cleaners for the littering, but would emphasize to the students the undesirability of littering, and would punish individuals actually caught in the act.

This would seem to be a reasonable approach: it's essentially the approach adopted by the wider community. I suspect, though, that it doesn't work so well in schools, otherwise it would be adopted by them [but there's also the consideration that kids provide free labor compared to cleaners – mixing school budgetary considerations with issues of morality can be a tricky business, not necessarily beyond the understanding of the most alert students]. Kids tend to be more impulsive, less fully aware of the consequences of their actions.

So, the currently adopted approach of getting some proportion of the 1400 kids at the school to pick up papers dropped by some other proportion of the 1400 kids, seems reasonable considering the problems posed by alternative approaches. Those who refuse on principle to comply need to be able to support that principle and put up an argument for a more appropriate approach. Economic considerations should be part of the overall argument.

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Monday, February 05, 2007

class prejudice, religious blight

dastardly murder of a finally sung hero - JC's execution

Having just spent a bit of time reflecting on family and other matters, it's back to the less perilous subject of religion. Currently I'm reading two texts, The Tyrannicide Brief, by Geoffrey Robertson, and Descartes, by the philosopher A C Grayling. In both of these books, religious division and intransigence loom large, and they deal with overlapping periods, the first with the English Civil War and the restoration of the monarchy, roughly between 1640 and 1660, the second with the particularly brutal Thirty Years War, roughly between 1618 and 1648. I've already mentioned that England was a god-besotted nation in the seventeenth century, and it's clear that the same could be said for the whole of Europe.

It's important to make this point and to recognize and really to celebrate the difference between that intolerant century and our own, and particularly to note the difference in religious emphasis, for by intolerance I essentially mean religious intolerance.

Having almost finished Robertson's book which gives something of a general picture of England in the mid seventeenth century, and before that Ridley's weighty biography of Lord Palmerston, which gives a general picture of England in the nineteenth century, there's no doubt whatever that the various churches or denominations had far far greater social and political power in the earlier period than in the later one, and further that even their power in the nineteenth century is much less than today. This gives the lie to such absurdly titled books as Alister McGrath's The Twilight of Atheism: The rise and fall of disbelief in the modern world, for not only does disbelief continue to rise in western society, notwithstanding certain backwaters, but society has clearly reaped the benefits of such a rise, in terms of civility and inclusivity.

Dawkins' book is at its best when it reveals the dissociation between religion and morality or justice, not only noting the intemperate reviling of non-believers by public officials and so called law enforcers in the USA, where the lines between politics and religion have been so disturbingly blurred in recent years, but also citing the sort of evidence that the reading of history also reveals, that a far more tolerant understanding of other races, of a long-oppressed gender, of the needs of children, of different sexual orientations and so forth, has emerged in the past one hundred and fifty years, coincident with a decline in organized religion. I wouldn't say that the decline has caused the growth in understanding, of course. I'd say instead that the greater mobility of modern populations, and the success of modern liberal education over that period, has been a major factor both in religion's decline and in the growth of understanding. Science and the scientific method too have played some small part.

Religious intransigence is one obvious source of exasperation for me when reading history, and another is class prejudice. As a person of impeccable working class credentials, who's as incapable of 'getting' the Armani suit thing as the Armani-suited Leonard Cohen is of getting the Bohemian thing [though I keep trying, and anyway I look much more like a slob than a boho], I always find myself bristling at this kind of prejudice.

And besides, who'd wanna wear a fucken suit in this filthy weather, eh Lennie?

The class thing, certainly in the 17th century, played into the religious thing too. Beneath the divine right of kings comes a lesser divine right to an aristocratic inheritance and a title, and a guaranteed job as, say, a 'Justice', distributing legal favours to his backscratching aristo cronies. I remember years ago, when as a kitchen hand I received a lift home from a smart beautiful waitress, who was studying law and is now undoubtedly in full flight as a legal eagle. I spoke a little disparagingly of the wigs and gowns get-up of the profession, which she defended quite stoutly for such a slim girl, but I should've been more forceful – I probably had the old obvious on my mind. The fact is that these aristo get-ups are a constant reminder to the poor and benighted, who are mostly on the receiving end of judgments, that the class system and the law are interminably entangled.

The story of David Hicks is a good modern illustration of this truism, but the story of John Cooke, as presented by Robertson, is far more frightful.

Cooke, an upright puritan lawyer with even more impeccable working class credentials than my own, was the man given 'the tyrannicide brief'', the poisoned chalice of prosecuting Charles Stuart, King of England, for the crime of 'tyrannicide', newly minted for the occasion, possibly by Cooke himself. However, though Cooke may have made up the term 'tyrannicide', he certainly didn't invent any of the crimes committed by the pig-headed, murderously egotistical Mr Stuart.

Stuart – okay aka Charles 1 – had been fighting tooth and nail against a parliament that wanted to, and really needed to curb his power. When it wouldn't grant him unlimited funds to do whatever, he would dissolve it, or try to. Or he would make promises to get his own way, and immediately break them as not being binding upon an absolute monarch. This of course led to greater distrust and greater rifts, until all-out war was declared between the supporters of the king and those of parliament.

After various defeats, Charles would make concessions while all the time conspiring behind the back of the victors to raise more troops to return him to the absolute power he claimed as his right. It became increasingly clear that civil strife would continue as long as he was around, and that if parliament, and its rights, were to survive at all, the king would have to go. Even keeping him an eternal prisoner would be a danger. It was a situation not unlike that of Mary Queen of Scots (the grandmother of Charles 1, and he was definitely a chip off the old block), only far more problematic, as the position of Charles was always potentially more powerful than that of Mary, and his support, due to incumbency, far greater.

So it was decided that Charles should be tried as something like an enemy of the state. It was reasonable to argue this, though of course novel at the time. It was setting precedents about heads of state who unnecessarily and unreasonably plunge that state into war, whether civil or international, a subject of great interest to me.

This is where John Cooke came in. He was a very able and conscientious lawyer of humble origin, a puritan who believed in the role of the parliament as a brake on absolute power. When the parliamentary side required a prosecutor in the case against the king he put his hand up, while most other lawyers scarpered. He performed well, and was rewarded by Cromwell, but he made enemies while trying to bring law reform to corrupt jurisdictions, both in England and Ireland. He was also an indefatigable pamphleteer for the cause of law reform and republicanism. By the standards of his day he stood out as impeccably honest, fair and diligent in his application of the law. Aristocrats, who were accustomed to decisions going their way as a matter of course, came to despise him.

So, come the restoration, John Cooke made the perfect sacrificial lamb. His fervent religiosity apart, he was a man well before his time. The story of his fate makes for depressing reading. Most depressing of all is the failure of the republic and the public rejoicing at the restoration. Fascinated though I've always been about the antics of the royals, this book has helped me clarify my own position as profoundly anti-monarchist. Even constitutional monarchy is a bad thing in my view, because it panders to that most grotesque phenomenon, the cult of personality. It would be an excellent thing if The Tyrannicide Brief could be turned into a mini-series. It deserves to reach a wider audience.

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