So, recently I became a tutor. I am probably one of very few who are doing this for free. I’ve never wanted to be a tutor, but I have been put in a position where I feel I can’t refuse. Let me explain.
I would like to introduce you to my student, Oliver (not his real name). He is fourteen years old and has moved schools three times in his secondary career. But he is now off-roll.
Oliver has a temper. He has answered back; he has been in fights. He accepts that. His mother accepts that. Oliver has asked for extra support to deal with the anger which only explodes inside the school gates; mum has asked for extra support to help her son deal with this volatile behaviour. He talks to her about his feelings towards school, towards his dad, towards his future. But they both acknowledge external, professional support is needed here. This, however, is no longer on offer. The focus has been on punishing his behaviour following a strict, zero-tolerance policy rather than enabling him through counselling or mentoring, for example, to understand and manage his behaviour in order to tackle those issues arising in the school context. Vital services such as CAMHS have been reduced to a bare minimum and support teams, such as learning mentors are becoming a thing of the past where once they were so essential during the school day for many students, and therefore so valued by teachers and parents.
Now, I have known Oliver for two years. His younger brother is one of my youngest son’s best mates. There is no doubt he had his guard up on first meetings. He didn’t make eye contact, he reluctantly answered questions directed his way and he quickly removed himself from the space to avoid more following. But I think this can be explained and understood. I think all his behaviour can be explained and understood. And I will say at this point that during our three tutoring sessions so far, I have seen Oliver start to trust me, to smile and to feel comfortable offering interpretations and asking numerous questions. He will say when he doesn’t know, he will have a stab in the dark and happily seek support. The ingredients surely for a model student.
Anyway, mum refused to send him to school when he was told he would be in isolation, questioning its benefit when both she and her son had repeatedly articulated their need for support, not just the same ineffectual punishment. Fixed-term exclusion was then threatened. At this point, she’d had enough. This was the last straw in what she felt was a losing battle. His mother, holding herself together, asked if I would tutor him a few weeks ago, but the tears in her eyes gave her desperation away. She is a single mum with an ex-partner who occasionally makes an appearance, offering little support and no regular, reliable parental input. She is studying full-time to achieve her dream of working in the health sector whilst also working as a care-worker to pay the bills, including the rent for their small flat above the shops on the local high street, and, of course, she is bringing up her two sons.
I have only heard her side of the story, but I fear that I have heard the other side of the story via reports exploring the off-rolling of vulnerable students in the media. If you watched Dispatches a few weeks ago on the subject, you will have seen children with ADHD and autism amongst other special educational needs, sitting at home with parents who, as one said, had felt ‘like a burden to the school’. Oliver’s mum said to me, ‘I can’t keep fighting.’ She talks a lot about the system, about feeling pushed around by ‘It’ and how ‘It’ doesn’t listen to her. So, now her son is sitting alone on his laptop in a small flat and she is paying a weekly fee to an online tutoring company to prepare him for his GCSEs. His visit to my house once a week is his one excursion in education and during my time with him, it is evident that this boy needs school.
He is becoming socially isolated. One of the triggers for his behaviour many years ago was becoming the victim of ongoing bullying. Initially, he fought back as instructed by dad. He got in trouble. He was then told not to fight, so he stopped. But the bullying didn’t stop. Now, he is able to hide away. He feels safer, but he is becoming a recluse. On leaving my house when we first discussed our plan for English tutoring, he was concerned because it was 3pm and he might bump into his friends on the bus. This was alarming to hear from a fourteen-year-old boy. He should be on that bus, travelling home from school, sharing grievances and speaking irritatingly loudly, as all good teenagers do.
His cultural capital is low. When discussing the Power and Conflict poetry cluster for GCSE English poetry, he couldn’t distinguish between the two World Wars. When I told him I had visited Auschwitz in Poland, he asked if the people were mean to me. I suggested that his mum took him to the Imperial War Museum over the half-term break and visited the exhibition on the First World War to support his understanding of the poetry we had read so far. They did. Mum was absolutely fascinated by what she saw and when I asked him about the experience, he responded with a suitably fourteen-year-old, ‘Yeah, it was okay.’ It was great to see her acting on advice, but I am so frustrated and angry as I witness this. Home-schooling is usually a choice made to offer something different from the mainstream; a desire to deliver a learning experience which is free from the limiting criteria of government-led measures. In this case, mum wants him to continue receiving mainstream provision but without the resources or the know-how. This boy needs to be surrounded by educators who exude passion and excitement for their subject and the act of learning, and of course know how to get their students to the finishing line. There is not a child in this world who does not want to feel excited about the world. But if you are made to feel like a burden or you have to fight a battle to earn your place within the school walls, I guess learning loses its magic and its appeal. Mum hasn’t chosen home-schooling. No, in this situation, it’s a choice based on a need to escape.
Amanda Spielman expressed her concerns last year about the astounding number of students who between year 10 and year 11 disappear from school data. For example, 13,000 year 10 students in 2016 had disappeared from any state funded school league table results by the end of their year 11 in 2017. Spielman commented on the need to bring this conversation into the framework so Ofsted inspectors can discuss the role of ‘pressures that unquestionably act on schools’ and result in the poor management of our more vulnerable students.
Now, Oliver appears to be a statistic in need of urgent discussion. He is in a London school and this increased pattern of off-rolling has been felt most noticeably in the capital. He also attends a school which was taken over by a Multi-Academy Trust, and the data suggests that students are being removed from more academies within these trusts than in Local Authority Schools. In fact, it is the latter which often opens their doors to those removed from these academies. But in more and more cases, we are seeing students being home-schooled as parents can no longer take the stress of defending their child’s needs and don’t want to feel like a ‘burden’. In some cases, there have been reports of coercing parents into removing their child by suggesting home-schooling may be a more appropriate option, but in Oliver’s case, the school has remained passive and simply allowed the parent to remove their child from the school roll. What has become the last resort by the parent to rescue their child from feared mental health breakdown and themselves from the inevitable feeling of being the parent who failed, has, for the school, become an easy means of shifting students with more challenging behaviour away from their league table results.
Who are the winners and the losers then? The school for one is a winner, as their Progress 8 data will be all the better for losing a student who might not succeed within their walls. The tutoring company is making a nice little profit from a woman who cannot really afford to pay this weekly bill. I suppose I get a little insight into the boy Oliver really is, which is a pleasure for me but, ultimately, I would rather a team of school teachers were experiencing this. I am encouraging mum to write to her MP and demand her support. I have made it very clear that I will tutor him for now, but this is not the long-term solution. An alternative must be found which will see him thrive academically and socially.
The losers? Well, this is obvious. Mum is stressed. She now has the teacher role and I worry about conflict building between the two of them as they sit and study together within the confines of their small living room. Will this impact negatively on the one relationship he has always had absolutely faith in? And of course, Oliver. By the age of 14 years, he believes he is a problem. He has been told by teachers that he is intimidating because he is a ‘big, black man.’ He’s a boy. A boy who has now been told, ‘Your race is going to be your issue, watch yourself’. Mum is scared to let him out now as this concern is at the forefront of her mind. So, he studies online and spends the rest of his day gaming. His world is a small flat and the virtual world he escapes to. But, ironically, he is not alone in his seclusion. There are many children across the country isolated within their homes, growing up feeling to blame for their behaviour, their special educational needs, their anxieties, their inability to fit in to an ever-decreasing set of criteria.
Every educator knows that every child who enters your space brings their mood, their concerns, their baggage so to speak. But we are told when trained that within those walls we have a duty of care, we are in loco parentis for those few hours. Policy makers must think carefully about the wider social impact of educational practice resulting from reforms; they must question priorities and consider the long-term social implications of their decisions. And let’s consider what we must prioritise here: performance measurements and league tables or our obligation under international law to guarantee a good quality education for all?