Gus John, Chair of the Communities Empowerment Network (CEN) announces another annual report (2012/2013) and sets out the challenges facing this charitable, community-based organization that deals with almost 1,000 school exclusion cases each year:
The current education climate is such that CEN’s work and purpose become more crucial in the struggle to defend children’s fundamental rights and support the self-empowerment of parents/families as partners in their children’s schooling, education and personal development. Communities struggle perennially to encourage schools to see themselves as important spaces and places not only for their students but also for the communities to which those students belong.
Given the complexity of those communities and of the challenges students face as part of them, it is legitimate for parents and students to expect schools to have due regard to the community’s aspirations and the diverse needs of the student body, especially given the range of obstacles students must overcome if they are to set, believe in and realize their high ambitions.
A schooling system in which 135,000 school age children are out of school at any one time and where one section of the population, black students and boys in particular, features at the bottom of the league table decade after decade and is to be found in disproportionate numbers in the nation’s prisons is a schooling system in crisis. Unlike most of the other government services that impact upon children’s lives, schooling is compulsory. Parents face sanctions, including being sent to jail, for not making sure their children attend school, irrespective of whatever parenting challenges they themselves might be grappling with.
School students are not a homogenous group any more than parents and families are. They come from a multiplicity of backgrounds defined by ethnicity, social class, gender, disability, language, religion and belief, geography, post code, level of literacy of parent(s), their own experience of the schooling system, etc.
Different categories of schools have admission procedures that act as a filter, ensuring that they admit only those students whose backgrounds they see as compatible with the regime they are operating and the profile they want to project to the ‘market’. At its root, our schooling system is one that extends and perpetuates social exclusion, both in its admission and its exclusion practices.
Crucially and irrespective of their background, one thing is common to all school children: they bring what they are and they are what they bring to the classroom and to the wider learning community. Some are competent learners who know how to learn, how they learn best and how to challenge themselves and stretch teachers to enable them to perform to the height of their ability. Others are challenged by learning and lack the capacity to form positive relationships with their teachers and other learning facilitators. They are often beset by anxieties about matters at the forefront of their minds, e.g., their own vulnerability in their neighbourhoods, which get in the way of their learning.
Some take responsibility for creating a safe and supportive environment in which teachers and students could teach and learn. Others make it their business to create the chaotic environment in which they function best and which makes no demands on them but hinders others’ capacity to teach and to learn. That latter group typically shows no regard for their own Right to Learn and set out to deny that right to their peers, not to mention teachers’ Right to Teach.
Irrespective of their disposition, however, ALL are required by law to attend school. This raises a number of key issues and questions:
What is the purpose of schooling and education?
Does every child have an education entitlement?
When do they forfeit that entitlement?
Does EVERY child really matter?
When do they cease to matter enough so as not to have their needs met, however complex, and their rights safeguarded?
CEN’s core values are founded upon the answers to all of those questions and they inform the way we value and respect students and parents/families and encourage them to value and respect themselves and others; the way we guide students not to let schooling practices, their own behaviour, or the demands and conduct of their peers make them less than they know they can be.
Ours is a narrative about social justice, about ensuring that no child gets written off by the schooling system, about children’s rights and commensurate responsibilities, about the need in every generation to safeguard and extend rights, about commonly shared values that make us fit for living in civil society, about the power of collective action in pursuit of change, about the capacity of each and every one of us to make a difference.
For all these reasons, CEN was pleased to welcome the Children’s Commissioner’s School Exclusions Inquiry reports on school exclusion: They Never Give Up on You; They Go the Extra Mile and Always Someone Else’s Problem. This latter report on the extent of illegal exclusions, including the practice of ‘sanitising’ the school in preparation for Ofsted by sending home ‘problem’ students, is long overdue and confirms what families and CEN have been struggling against for years.
Given the relentless pace of change in schooling introduced by government and the challenges they pose for children and families, CEN was delighted to receive funding for 4 key posts in the last year. We have been fortunate to attract excellent candidates for those posts and they have already made a huge difference to the services that CEN provides, as is evidenced in this report. I applaud especially the representational work the team does in support of excluded students and the expanded advocacy training CEN has been able to offer.
We continue to forge effective partnerships with other organizations that share our core values and objectives and have organized joint programmes with Race on the Agenda, the Runnymede Trust, SE1 United and the Alliance for Inclusive Education.
All this is made possible through the financial support of our funders, including: the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, the Henry Smith Charity and the Big Lottery Fund. We thank them for their continuing support for CEN’s vision of a more inclusive schooling system that is capable and organized to deliver students’ educational entitlement.
We continue to enjoy a productive partnership with Lilian Baylis Technology College and with those schools that increasingly look to us for guidance with respect to strategies for keeping and supporting in school those students who are identified as being at risk of exclusion.
Warm and plentiful thanks are due to our hardworking staff and volunteers and to members of the Management Committee.
Thank you, also, for your support for CEN and for our effort to ensure that all children are valued and assisted to perform to their highest ability and that children and families have the knowledge and information to empower themselves and hold schools to account.
Picture (home): “Students in Classrooms at UIS 9-14-10” by Jeremy Wilburn (Flickr – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)