Challenging Ideas about Disaffection

5. Difference and diversity

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Schools are expected to value difference and diversity, while also delivering basic equality in learning experiences and outcomes. This throws up specific challenges in relation to pupils at risk of exclusion highlighting the need for careful thought and sensitive practice.

Personal values and difference

I think it’s just looking at the fact that we are all human beings with issues – some resolved some unresolved – and we all bring them into the dynamic, and it’s how we manage ourselves. I think it’s a great responsibility on adults because we have much more experience and knowledge and skills to manage those emotions (Paulette Douglas, Education Advocate, Communties Empowerment Network)

Inclusivity is an ideal supported by most, but it can be difficult to pin down exactly what this commitment should mean in practice. While originally defining attempts to dismantle institutional barriers to access and attainment, inclusion is now increasingly used to describe how individuals can be made to fit within established institutional frameworks. This more conservative use of the word can hide the extent to which teaching is a relationship as well as a practice, shaped by the experiences, values and expectations that teachers (a well as pupils) bring to the classroom. Ensuring that pupils from a wide range of different backgrounds and with a wide range of strengths and needs feel supported, respected and able to participate in learning requires more than a commitment to equality (or even a conscious choice to work in a multicultural school).

Some differences are commonly misinterpreted as evidence of a cultural deficit, delegitimising and stigmatising particular communities. Contrary to ‘underclass’ portrayals in the media, white working class families have a rich cultural history and pass a sense of identity and values on to their children. Similarly, Gypsy and Traveller cultures are commonly misunderstood and problematized ensuring they remain among the most deprived communities in society. Efforts to recognise diversity and multiculturalism in schools often focus on aspects of different cultures that are most visible and easy to celebrate (flags, foods, music) while more troubled dynamics of difference can remain unexplored. Placing emphasis on symbolic markers of difference can also conceal normativities around gender and sexuality that can in practice be experienced as marginalising and undermining. For example, in some cases of homophobic bullying the behaviour of the victim may be problematized because they struggle to fit with mainstream expectations of appropriately gendered behaviour.

Recognising the personal dynamics at work in learning environments can be enormously useful. This involves bringing embedded personal assumptions into conscious awareness and identifying how individual standpoints are located within and shaped by particular social, economic, political and cultural factors. It might be helpful to think through the following questions:

Understanding and valuing different home lives and cultures

The families of challenging students are often problematized and condemned as a root cause of bad behaviour. This can belie the deep value and central significance young people tend to attach to family life. In the original research most pupils expressed strong sentiments about family as an ideal and a majority described a strong bond with their mothers in particular.

Without your mum you’re nothing. (Tanisha 14 years old)

I want to be good for my mum in school and that, because of what she’s done for me (Bond 13 years old)

If someone touches my mum, I’ll probably kill them (Marcus 15 years old)

Me and my mum, we’ve, oh I’ll tell her everything. I tell her everything…I aint got nothing to hide from her, I don’t see any reason to hide anything from her. (Alfie 13 year old)

Basically your mum, you mum like brought you into this world and if you disrespect that then basically how you gonna make your mum feel like. She loves you very much. She wanted to have you and everything (Luke 13 years old)

I get on well with my Mum, anything she tells me to do I just do it (Natasha 13 years old)

Well, my mum believed me, that’s all I wanted (Max – 12 years old)

Family life (however troubled) is the seedbed of culture for a young person and is integral to who they are and what they value. Pupils can be highly sensitive to perceived disrespect towards their families. Disparaging comments about family members were amongst the most commonly flashpoints in the original research.

Bad behaviour from pupils is often attributed to poor parenting, but this conclusion can sometimes be founded on unrealistic expectations and misinterpretations. Lack of communication with teachers and a reluctance to engage with school processes are not necessarily evidence of a lack of concern. Similarly, angry responses from parents (no matter how unreasonable) often reflect difficult circumstances and an experience of powerlessness rather than a more general lack of parenting skills.

The original research identified a range of circumstances and beliefs among parents that shaped and contextualised their encounters (or lack of them) with school staff. These included:

The following questions might help guide productive and respectful relationships with parents:

Recognising and understanding racism

We need to remember that institutional racism typically isn't ugly. Rather than being expressed through racial slurs, it tends to be wrapped in noble proclamations of tradition, fairness, and high standards. Rather than being a rare incident, it is woven into the fabric of our historically racist society. EVELYN HANSSEN A white teacher reflects on institutional racism 

Promoting cohesion, challenging expectations

Race equality and education: a practical resource

 I took over the Year, and there was a group of probably about eight or nine young men African Caribbean men, boys, who were getting into lots of trouble, at risk of exclusion. Nobody had really thought deeply about why these kids might be behaving like that. Why is it, for example, that this [particular] kid [is being called]. It’s because he is about a foot taller than everybody else out there, he is a young black man, he is quite defensive in the way that he responds to authority”, You’ve got locked into this situation where he is always the one who is being called, yet there are other people around him behaving badly.  His father also felt exactly the same, and I worked really well with his dad over this, you know, we understood this, and at no point was I making excuses for this kid’s behaviour, and neither was his father.  But how can you enter a dialogue with the boy unless you’re straight with him, and say, “Look, I think I understand what you’re saying.  Yes, racism exists.  Yes, there are racist practices.  Our job really is to unpick those in your favour.  This is your entitlement, your education”, and we did quite well, collectively. 

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