It’s not just the truants bunking off education

Charlie Taylor’s proposals to crack down on truancy miss the point about how schools really fail children.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert

Topics Politics

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Last week’s announcement that the government is to strengthen the state’s powers to impose tougher fines on ‘naughty parents’, who condone their children truanting, represents another nail in the coffin for both adult autonomy and education as a liberal and liberating cultural project.

The practicalities, as suggested by government adviser Charlie Taylor - behaviour guru and ‘super-head’ of the Willows Special School in London - are as follows: parents of persistent absentees – that is, those who miss 15 per cent of school time per year – will be fined £60 (the previous rate was £50); if this is not paid within 28 days, the fine will double; if still unpaid, parents will either be taken to court or will have their child benefit docked.

It is questionable whether the advocates of these measures are more concerned with the causes and effects of social deprivation – which are now inextricably and irrationally linked to education in the public imagination – or the fact that around half of the 127,000 penalty notices issued for truancy since their introduction by New Labour in 2004 have been unpaid or withdrawn. So far, the only dissenting voice in the public debate has been that of Peter Gibson of the youth charity Rathbone, who argues that fines are unlikely to work and that the problem is that pupils are ‘disengaged’.

While children are indeed disengaged, Gibson’s depressing solution is that disengaged pupils need more practical skills. This will only reinforce the view of the government’s education-standards watchdog, Ofsted, that boring, irrelevant lessons and teachers are the problem. This outlook helps neither young people nor the adults charged with socialising them, be they parents or teachers (or any adult, come to that).

At stake in such discussions and measures is far more than the question of whether parents can or can’t afford the fines. Any opposition to the government’s plans on grounds of ‘diminished responsibility’ among impoverished parents will only feed into a far more problematic and pernicious discourse that often clusters around contemporary issues of parenting and education. So it is worth untangling the key trends and assumptions that lie behind the thinking of such policy initiatives.

Firstly, the most important aspect for anyone concerned with democracy is the trend to view adults as beings who are disasters-in-waiting unless checked, advised or disciplined by an officially endorsed ‘expert’, usually from one of the new strata of parenting or educational organisations. This thinking recasts every possible social problem as a product of individual incompetence, ignorance, or cultural or intellectual impoverishment and projects dystopian fantasies of doom on to society. For Charlie Taylor, explaining rising truancy figures is easy. ‘It’s poverty. I mean poverty in every sense of the word: poverty of expectations, poverty of emotions. It’s the four horses of the apocalypse in terms of social deprivation.’

This seems a somewhat alarmist, kneejerk reaction to the fact that some young people are disengaged at school. Taylor is unable to explain the causal link between bunking off and rioting. Nonetheless, he concludes the solution must be to force children to attend school in order to continue their ‘disengagement’ – but at least they’ll be off the streets. Any parent who doesn’t comply faces a fine or increasing stigmatisation.

It is important to realise that ‘compliance’ in such discourse is not really about the fines; far more insidiously, it is about having, or ‘performing’ the right ‘expectations and emotions’. Maybe Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is Taylor’s guide.

And meanwhile, back in the classrooms, decades of government interference, cheered on by many in education, have led to the replacement of subject knowledge with ‘relevant skills’. Yet children are still disengaged; despite the evident lack of success of this vocational and therapeutic turn in education, many people think the answer lies in yet more of the same. Rathbone, Ofsted and many others are united in thinking that there are some young people for whom the academic emphasis of schools is a turn off. Instead, these children just want practical skills to get a job. This has been an increasingly influential idea among politicians and a growing number of educationalists since the 1970s.

But whatever its original motivations, this thinking represents a complete failure on the part of adults to think of young people as being more than either future cogs in the economy or as potential wreckers of society unless kept busy at school. It’s worth reminding ourselves of what an ideal of education used to be.

The liberal case for education was never just, or even primarily, to mould a workforce to fit whatever real or virtual jobs may exist in society. It was to ensure that adults transmitted ideas and values they think worthwhile so that everyone, be they road sweeper or brain surgeon, would have had an introduction to a common body of knowledge. So behind this confidence lay a belief in the value of being educated to a certain level, full stop.

If children were bored or unmotivated in the process, well, at the end of the day that was just too bad. One day, years later, the obnoxious sullen teen in the corner might just remember something from a lesson condemned as dull at the time. Such an attitude regarding education indicated a level of self confidence of adults to decide what was and wasn’t worthwhile to teach.

Not all pupils enjoy or excel at an academic education. However, the enjoyment or otherwise of pupils is actually irrelevant. If a subject is considered to be worth teaching because of its intellectual content, then it is worth teaching irrespective of the ‘pupil experience’ of it. There have always been some for whom education, even a traditional liberal one, may have been more of a chore than pleasure, and they couldn’t wait to leave school. The difference was that adult society did not regard this as a sign of impeding social breakdown or educational failure.

In my first year of teaching at an inner-city school in London, one pupil (the bane of my life at the time) could not have made her contempt for school and all in it clearer. Her family ran a market stall and she couldn’t wait to leave (to be honest, we were all eagerly awaiting the day she left, too). A year or so later, I met her as she worked on the stall. I spotted her and prepared myself for some scathing or insulting comment (which was all she’d done in class). ‘Hello Miss!’ was her cheerful comment as I passed by, trying not to show my astonishment.

It was an important lesson for me. I doubt if I had tried to teach her relevant skills she would have had the same response. She didn’t need me or the school to teach her skills that her family and friends had in plenty. She did need me to try and teach her about Romeo and Juliet and, even if she never reads a book again, I think it was a worthwhile thing to have done (or tried to do). Because even a ‘cockney sparrow’ who may never choose to read a book again is a human being, not just a potential worker or rioter, and deserves to know at the very least that there is a world of beauty, drama and feeling in literature that is hers for the choosing.

While the declining opportunities for informal work are an issue for many young people today, the more fundamental problems lie at a deeper level: the weakening or absence of confidence in the authority of adults; and the idea that despite making ‘wrong choices’ and having ‘poor emotions’ adults may still manage to live their own lives. It has paved the way for the transformation of a potential liberal education system into a Foucauldian nightmare of surveillance and control.

Such reductionist thinking is also legitimising draconian interference in the way we spontaneously develop our relationships, our thinking and value – or in short, our humanity. It is now demanded of parents and teachers that they watch, monitor and assess young people’s every movement, word or emotion, real or imagined. Kids must never be left to be ‘bored’. Even at the age of two, a curriculum is on hand to ensure any possibility of future disengagement is eliminated.

Sigmund Freud would surely have had something to say about such infantile obsession on the part of adults. If parents and teachers accept such ideas, however ‘helpfully’ presented, then we risk positioning ourselves as dependents upon a newly emerging caste of ‘experts’. There will be little need for the state to dictate to us if we cast off our own responsibility and autonomy so lightly.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert is reading for a PhD in the philosophy of education. She is a member of the Institute of Ideas Education Forum.

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Topics Politics


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