January 17, 2015 by Paul Goldsmith
The first day I met David (not his real name) he walked very slowly into the tutor room at my previous school (a comprehensive in London) knowing he was late that day but maintaining the smile on his face that would endear him, along with his gentle nature, to so many of the peers and adults who he came across in his time at school. The last time I saw David his picture was in a local newspaper, reporting his jailing for two and half years for dealing heroin.
The story of David raises the question of what schools can actually achieve on their own. Those who seek to attack the state school system should read it and understand that no school ever operates in a vacuum. You could argue that school “let him down”, but I want to tell you about all the school tried to do for and with David and see if you still believe that.
First, some facts. David’s mother had him at the age of 17, and her mother had her at the age of 17 too. Both had left school with very little by way of qualifications. When I met him in year 9, David had a reading age of six. The Maths he was capable of was at about level 2, which is where my daughter is now at the age of 7. My daughter’s parents both have Masters’ degree. There has to be links between these facts.
David lived with his mother and grandmother, and they were both very strict with him. He was polite and friendly and listened to people well. It made people want to go the extra mile for him, and the school certainly did that. He was provided with remedial reading support and Maths support, he was given mentoring by a specialist and the learning support department spent a lot of time helping him develop the ability to cope with the work he had to do. Teachers worked with him in their breaks and after school to help him, and he was certainly never abandoned. In Year 10 and 11, David chose to do a construction course at a local college (something on offer to some students) in order to get some skills for a trade, knowing that an academic path might not be for him. He got careers advice and advice on what he should do at 16. Although the school system at the time didn’t offer a huge amount of choice, there were still plenty of options.
His mother and grandmother came to parents evenings and were available on the phone to support the school in a way that was an example to other parents. He was rarely if ever absent from school and rarely if ever late either.
David wasn’t perfect. He could have temper tantrums, but they were few and far between and dealt with extremely sensitively by his Head of Year. Being his form tutor, I saw him every morning, and I talked to him a lot about football and other areas of his life, as well as trying to explain why a teacher for instance had an issue with his behaviour.
When he was fifteen, David came to me one morning and said he was in trouble. He had been with a group of boys who had got into an argument with a jogger, and although David was on the outside of the group, had said nothing to the jogger, and was in fact looking the other way at the time, he was arrested. Under ‘joint enterprise’ law he was treated as part of a group whose behaviour he should either have walked away from or stopped. David wasn’t like that though. These were his friends. “Don’t worry Sir, I didn’t do anything so I’ll be OK”, he said. It was only after a series of court cases that he did indeed turn out OK, but the whole case made me worry about what would happen to David once he left school.
David left school with a few GCSE passes at grades that didn’t qualify him for further education past the age of 16. I could see that he had begun to realise his future options were limited, despite all the support he had, and I feel he had almost given up on life.
It seems that faced with a choice of a series of jobs at the minimum wage or the possibility of earning much more money dealing drugs, David had chosen the latter option. Perhaps, given the same choice, you or I may have made the same decision.
The question that has remained in my head since I saw his mugshot in the local newspaper is: Could we have done more? Could I have done more? The changes to the law that means that pupils need to stay in education or training until 18 will help, but ultimately when I ask if more could have been done, I mean from the age of three or four, when David had entered the school system. But then I think about those at my old school who worked so hard for David and I think about how much his mother and grandmother supported him and I just don’t know.
The truth is that there is only so much a school can do. The most successful pupils tend to be the product of school, parents and the young person themselves. In this case I’m not sure if any of the three can be blamed.
But just because we don’t know the answers doesn’t mean we can’t keep asking the questions. How do we put a young person like David into a situation where he has options when he leaves the schooling system? How do we give him hope?