Educating Greater Manchester 2: Schools and other families

There’s a weird thing I hear sometimes from staff in a school. They say, ‘Oh the School should do x,’ or they’ll say in front of a student, ‘This school is rubbish.’ Students have mentioned to me how odd this sounds- as far as they're concerned the teacher IS the school, or a cell in it at least. When you hear this kind of comment, you know that the school identity is fractured.

I feel a similar way when schools talk about ‘the community’ as if they were some quarantined island, a geosphere hovering above the neighbourhoods. The school student body is overwhelmingly built from the geography of its postcode. The school is part of the community. It can try to put up a drawbridge, but it gets stormed every minute they’re open.

It’s easy to make the mistake that a school is like a supermarket where the students visit, pick up a bag of trigonometry, and leave. But it’s also an alternate dimension in their lives, that intersects messily with home and friends. And they overlap in turn, back with the school. Like the Observer Effect, it is impossible to observe a particle without affecting it. Like Osmosis, when two cells sit together, they swap matter between them. It’s not only abysses that gaze back at us when we stare. It’s other people.

I learned a long time ago that when you work with the public, expect them to drag their entire lives into your short relationships; sometimes the angry customer isn’t upset with you, but at the fact their car broke down on the way. Scratch beneath the surface of any group, and a millimetre beneath the surface lie oceans of tragedy and complexity. And how children behave in schools is enormously governed by what lies beneath.

This week showed that in technicolour. We meet Mia, a 15 year-old looking forward to both her GCSE exams and the birth of a child in the same trimester; Kodie, a school refuser teetering on the edge of dropping out, despite her obvious brains, and Katelyn, a powder keg of emotion, working out, as we all have to, who she is.

Here we see how a school is- or can be- much more than the supermarket. Mia’s family were visited at home to support where she needed to be. You could see the strain on her mum’s face, determined to make sure her daughter’s life didn't stop because of the baby. Her faith and hope for better things was touching and universal, as was Mia’s sincere and obvious joy at the prospect of being a mother. An imperfect scenario probably, but when does life grant us that luxury? We are where we are. With the school’s help, where Mia was looked a bit brighter.

Kodie struggled with other demons; loss, bereavement, anger and frustration, which she took out on herself, and her school career. Her grandfather was a living saint, raising her and being the parent she needed. It became apparent that Kodie was much more than the ‘bother’ she appeared to be; that, with support and the nudge early enough, her trajectory could be pointed at the stars instead of the launch pad. Teaching, you see a lot of girls like Kodie who appear, on the surface, to be primarily a strain. But what lies beneath? Potential is a cheap word- we all have potential. But if we all have potential, then schools need to believe in that potential, and help create it, rather than sculpt it from some imaginary clay.

What is an ecosystem?

And Katelyn, an avatar of anger, bouncing in and out of lessons like a pinball, raging and wailing in quick succession, host to a legion of emotions that she probably can't name or explain herself. When I started teaching I saw that kind of behaviour as nothing but need; it seemed selfish, a parasite on the host of the class, draining my resources from where they needed to be It took me a while to realise that their need was very much my business- as was everyone else’s. That doesn't mean give everything to one at the expense of the many. We have to perform a utilitarian calculus- what can I afford to give to each one? But that is where the greater school community comes in. Teachers cannot manage these situations all by themselves. Often, even the school cannot. But the school as a whole has a greater chance to do so than any one of us. And that’s at the heart of what communities are for.

No hospital turns away a patient for being ‘too ill.’ Similarly no school should bin a pupil for being too needy. I’ve been privileged to see a lot of schools; the best of them make every effort they can to include those who need us the most. That attitude bleeds into its attitude to all pupils: everyone matters here.

Love me tender

Of course, resources are finite, and there are a great many arguments in favour of increasing resources: mental health support, behaviour management, conflict resolution, and many more. But schools do what they can, and this school certainly did. Safeguarding teams, home visits, referrals to CAMHS, endless meetings, mentoring, curriculum adjustments, counselling. Schools are villages inside the communities within which they reside. Messy circumstances don't beget easy solutions, but here we saw some of the fruit of their endeavours, slowly slowly sprouting from the ground. Not answers, but the promise of answers; Katelyn responding to Mr Ince’s lessons, Kodie promising to give school ‘one more try’. If you read the press recently and heard about schools that sweep unwelcome students out to protect their exam results you would boil at this complete degradation of the purpose of schools, and education in general. Compare that ghastly project with what Harrop Fold attempt to do here, with what most schools try to do every day of the year.

Schools do not perform the obvious miracles of the eye surgeon or fire fighter: the blind given sight, the lost soul saved from harm. But we are blessed with the peculiar honour of being a link in the chain of their lives, and sometimes an important one. Often, transformational ones. The catch is that we often never know until years later, which means we often never know. But I know that at the end of this episode at least, Mia gave birth, and eventually went to College. Katelyn went in and out of school, now back, and Kodie got 8 GCSEs. And some of that was down to the school. And that’s not bad.