One rogue pupil held up my class for a year

21 November 2004
The Daily Telegraph
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The way that Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, has attempted to discipline the wayward Prince Charles makes me wonder how he would have dealt with Lancel Hendricks – one of the most difficult pupils I have ever taught.

Mr Clarke is fuming because he believes that the Prince’s views about education are "old-fashioned and out of time".

He would clearly like the Prince to shut up, having said that the heir to the throne should "think carefully" before criticising the "child-centred" values of the education system.

Clarke’s ratty impatience with the outspoken Charles perfectly illustrates what is wrong with the Education Secretary’s latest policy initiative, which has been forgotten in the furore.

This policy, which will now force all schools to take their quota of pupils who have been expelled for bad behaviour, is terribly wrong because these miscreants cannot be simply written off like Prince Charles, they have to be taught in classes where they can harm the education of all the other pupils.

I know a great deal about this policy – it has been operating for years in the London boroughs where I have worked as a teacher.

Perhaps the most striking example of it was my encounter with Lancel Hendricks. His behaviour and language was rather more colourful than the Prince’s, but I had to be much more patient with him than Mr Clarke has been with our future king.

I couldn’t slap him down in public, I couldn’t tell him to "think more carefully" about his language, I couldn’t even insist that he left my classroom.

Let me explain. For a few months I had been teaching a Year 9 English class with reasonable success in an average London comprehensive – not dissimilar to thousands of schools throughout the country in terms of intake and results – when Lancel arrived.

Lancel had been permanently excluded from his previous school for pulling a knife on another pupil and systematic bad behaviour.

The school I was teaching in was obliged to take him because the local education authority had a policy of "inclusion": that is, it didn’t have any "special schools" where it could send emotionally and psychologically damaged children.

It was clear from the start that Lancel was in severe psychological distress: his eyes exuded anger. He sat hunched up as I told the class to read the beginning of a Roald Dahl short story in pairs, then snatched his partner’s book before he could even start reading, flung it on the floor, and let out a throaty laugh as his partner – a perfectly affable 13-year-old boy – protested.

It soon became clear that Lancel did not have the reading skills to cope with the text, nor the concentration.

Since I was one teacher dealing with 30 children, I asked a particularly patient girl to read to him. While my back was turned, he told her to get lost. Then he began to walk around kicking the backs of the pupils’ chairs and shouting loudly that he had done nothing when they complained to me about his behaviour.

Over the year that I taught Lancel, his behaviour – of which the first lesson was typical – made it very difficult to carry out the tasks that the class had been accustomed to doing because the other pupils were constantly on the look-out for Lancel.

He soon found a contingent of pupils who revelled in his antics and that made the whole class’s behaviour deteriorate over the year as pupils came to the lesson prepared to watch my quiet battle with the boy.

I had been told that on no account should I annoy him, simply note down his behaviour and report it on a detailed and complex form, which was then circulated to numerous agencies.

By now, Lancel was expert at knowing how to handle schools, so he never did enough to get himself permanently excluded – he didn’t "deliberately" hit pupils or swear at staff – but he was always disruptive, wandering around the class, flinging books on the floor, making loud protestations of innocence, cursing under his breath, "accidentally" knocking pupils, arguing with staff.

By the end of the year, the school had enough documentary evidence to exclude him permanently and he went on to another institution, where no doubt he did exactly the same.

He was, in a way, unscathed by the experience: he had hated the school when he arrived and he hated it when he left, but he’d managed to hamper the progress of a lot of children in my class because I had had to spend so much time supervising him.

The truth is that Lancel would have been much better off in a "special school". These are schools that are set up to deal with "challenging pupils".

Professionals who are trained to deal with pupils with all sorts of disabilities teach at these schools and often achieve remarkable results. There are usually two teachers to about four or five children and the curriculum is designed to cater for pupils who struggle.

They are very expensive to run, which probably explains why more than 400 such schools have been closed in the past two decades. Mr Clarke pretends that his new initiative is for the good of the pupils but the real reason for it is that it will save the Exchequer billions of pounds: there are more than 1,000 special schools that could close.

While this is happening, he’ll continue mouthing the mantra that "including" challenging children in the mainstream system is beneficial, as thousands of pupils, parents and teachers mourn the loss of their special schools.

Mr Clarke needs to let teachers in mainstream schools teach their subjects and deliver the curriculum. His Government also needs to fund properly a decent system of "special schools" that caters for pupils who cannot cope.

His fury at the Prince might be because he knows our future king is right: the Government must stop insisting that teachers should be nannies to difficult children, and start valuing them as pedagogues.

If he himself can’t cope with a harmless whinger like the Prince of Wales, how would he have dealt with a Lancel Hendricks in his department?

Luckily for Mr Clarke, the Prince of Wales is safely ensconced in Clarence House and the minister is no doubt surrounded by "on-message" New Labour toadies. The teachers in England’s schools do not have this kind of luxury. We have to pander to the Lancels of this world because Mr Clarke says we must. He doesn’t know how lucky he is.

Francis Gilbert’s I’m A Teacher, Get Me Out Of Here is published by Short Books. The pupil’s name in the piece has been changed.

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