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Clever Children in Poor Schools


In memory of Dylan B

To follow-on from John Humphrys’ BBC programme Unequal Opportunities yesterday,  I want to write something about clever children in poor schools and especially about a young man who was a pupil at Handsworth Alternative School in the early 1990s, when I was headteacher there.

Ours was a poor school. We ran on an absolute shoestring and – although we delivered a good education with qualified staff – we were always having to scrimp and save. And we had our fair share of clever children.

Dylan was one of 15 youngsters recruited to a new type of school for children with social, emotional and behavioural problems in 1991. The ethos was honest  and adventurous. The syllabus: practical and holistic. The staff were rounded and grounded professionals who had done other things before teaching: more than  simply school / degree / school.

The children, though, that was the thing. For, although they were all 14-16 in age and thought they knew it all, children they were. Many had been abused, some sexually, more physically. Most used alcohol or cannabis or both, a few sniffed glue, some had quite serious addictions. Among the 72 youngsters we saw over 4 years, there were only three pregnancies – that we knew about.

Ordinary Children

These were, in spite of this litany, ordinary children. Ordinary children who had been forced to deal with extraordinary childhoods.

Most of these children were growing up in single parent households on benefits or very low incomes. Most had chronic multiple disadvantage. There was not enough to eat. They had to parent siblings. They had to parent mother. There wasn’t enough money for heating or decent clothes… The tale may sound hackneyed but the result was that school was not the most important thing on their minds.

Most shocking, perhaps, were the number of catastrophic life events that had occurred for these youngsters: far, far more than any child should have to cope with.  One girl had come downstairs one morning to find mum dead from an overdose… another child I worked with saw his dad killed with a shotgun in an attack outside a local pub.

There were, of course, other more everyday traumas, which are more commonplace but also devastating. Children coping with mum leaving home or a particularly poisonous divorce found it difficult to play the good schoolkid when everything around was falling down.

A Bright Kid in a Poor School

Dylan came to us at a time when we were introducing a course which combined Outdoor Education with Environmental Activities. That was the headline that we pushed to our students, but there were a full range of certificated academic components which they completed so that, instead of leaving school aged 16 with no GCSEs and a poor record, they left us with a hatful of certificates and a glowing reference. Or some did.

This suited him down to the ground because, although life at home wasn’t uncomplicated, Dylan was bright. His father was the only dad we ever had who was a graduate and Dylan had his brains, and his sense of adventure.

My fondest memory of Dylan was during a sail training exercise. We were both on deck at night during a Force 8 gale in the North Sea. The permanent crew of the vessel were running the boat and the rest of our party were being rather unhappy down below.

I was on deck because it was my turn on watch. Dylan was there because of the excitement. I looked across at Dylan and saw the rapt attention in his face. He was enjoying the pitching and turning, the spray, the lights. the drama.

I spoke to him afterwards and I know he valued that moment. Something that few other schools could ever have given him.

A Gaping Hole

At the end of the year, Dylan left, with a bunch of exams, a reputation for surreal jokes and nowhere really to go. Had things been different, had he been at a wealthier school, he would easily have progressed to A-levels and, I believe, university.

There is very little pick-up for children who are bright in poor schools. Still less for those who are bright but not (yet) academic. In that, Michael Gove is right.

It is a tragedy that fails thousands of children who need support beyond the age of 15, when statutory agencies tend to lose their grip.

It failed Dylan. By the age of 23, he had been killed in a motorcycle accident.

This gap in supportive provision for youngsters like Dylan may have led to the gaping hole his death left in the lives of those who knew him.

Isn’t it time this gap was filled?

  1. Poor Dylan!

    In one of my lives, I taught poor children math. What struck me most how the school already had succeeded (by grade nine) in stripping them of all hope, self-esteem, spunk and rebellion.

    Alexa Fleckenstein M.D., physician, author.

    • Ah, the warehousing theory of education. Store children for 15 years whilst teaching them how to be good workers and not make trouble… It’s what schools are for, after all…

  2. Ja – the Bernstein theory: That teachers are shepherds to their lambs. Who are raised for the wool…


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