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.



At 2:06 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. This surprises me. I'm an ex-student of Glenunga (I graduated a couple of years ago), from the Ignite program, and whilst I was in Year 10 I was the victim of bullying and intimidation by a group of girls in the grade above me. I spoke to the teachers about it - and they did nothing. Either GIHS has REALLY cleaned up its act since then... or they're still as hypocritical as I remember.

At 9:01 am , Blogger Stewart said...

What's the Ignite program?
I suspect Glenunga, like other schools, is floundering in trying to maintain a consistent policy around bullying - sometimes over-reacting, sometimes under-reacting - and that much depends, in particular instances, on the pressure form parents one way or another.

At 10:51 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Ignite program is a gifted education program, formerly known as SHIP (Students with High Intellectual Potential). Boy, was that a bad idea - "Hey kids! Look, these are the 'smart' ones students! Now, let's keep you obviously segregated to begin with, and then see what happens when you have to mix in the playground or in senior school classes..."

Yeah. Some consistency would be a very good thing, for the sake of EVERYONE involved. I wouldn't be surprised if bias plays some part, though - I should've have to point out to you that they seem to wish that they were a private school. During my time there I noticed a lot of the kids from tougher backgrounds had a hard time trying to get the powers that be to play fair with regards to bullying, legitimate absences or extentions for assignments, etc. They're too obsessed with their image.

To be honest, I didn't graduate from GIHS - I left and studied Year 12 at a different school. I wish I'd gone sooner. ;-) Maybe this will ultimately be a good thing for your foster son.


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