‘I don’t know’ by Heather Geddes.

Many children underachieve and disengage from education but Young Offenders and Looked After Children continue to cause alarm about their educational performance. They are at the severe end of the performance continuum with an average reading age of 7 for Young Offenders. We know these young people often suffer extreme adversity in terms of social and emotional and developmental experience and their vulnerability is not difficult to spot in Early Years. Schools are often very challenged by their behaviour and seek to support and intervene despite the demand on resources and the uncertainties of how to make a difference.  Training of teachers which enhances insight into the meaning of the behaviour and the factors underlying the difficulties can make a considerable difference (www.caspari.gov.uk).

However I would like to briefly reflect on an aspect of their experiences which I think may be relevant to our thinking about interventions – the curriculum.

It was my fortunate experience that for some time to be the teacher in a social services unit for very ‘at risk’ young people in a London borough. Their experiences were of abuse, neglect, offending, care and they all had in common an absence of engagement in schools. As young teenagers none of them had skills which could be applied in a normal classroom. Their poor skills at reading and writing and numbers was at first the evident weakness but as time went on I became aware of how little they understood about the world they lived in. Despite ‘dealing’ on the streets, engaging in sexual activity, challenging police authority, skilfully manipulating the system to meet their own needs, they were quite appallingly ignorant – teaching in this knowledge vacuum was very challenging. It seemed as if there was nothing to hang new skills and knowledge on to – as if their understanding was so full of holes, any new experience or information just ran through. Yet when we abandoned a conventional curriculum and asked them what they wanted to learn about, they were full of ideas about what they wanted to know about the world and so the new curriculum began and in time was very fruitful.

However at the heart of the new curriculum was the core issues that I felt had to be addressed even if disguised within a new framework and the core issues were identified as ‘Who am I, where am I and what time is it’. It seemed as if they had no awareness of themselves either emotionally or physically, could go on the bus from the estate to the nearby shopping mall but had no sense of how the two places were connected and were apparently oblivious to time, dates and sense of their own history. As if life is a series of disconnected incidents.

As a result of later training and research I have often returned to this issue and have come to believe that the holes arise from early experiences in the context of relationships. In Attachment Theory terms, attachment, separation and loss may have been at the heart of their ‘holes’. The absence of the one to one intimacy with an attuned person who understood them so that they developed a sense of who they were, the experience and confidence that the person would be relied upon to return when absent and the reliance that time can be measured by the reliable return of the attachment figure seemed a disturbed experience leaving them with profound holes in their most primitive and basic experiences. It is as if our self awareness, awareness of time and of distance is developed within the context of early awareness and reliability which becomes the foundation of future understanding of knowledge.

Upon this briefly argued premise, I propose that the content of the curriculum for such profoundly vulnerable young people is addressed before any further plans to impart experience and knowledge begins. The pre-curriculum before the actual curriculum. As teachers we are rich in ideas about imparting learning and it was not difficult to prepare experiences and projects which addressed ‘who am I’ beginning with ‘what am I’. Working with a large outline drawing of their own shape they filled it in with organs and systems copied from books and supported by videos (yes it was some time ago) of how the body worked. The classroom filled up with new objects, a skeleton hung behind the door, they peered down a microscope at their own tissues, gasped at the idea that pregnancy resulted from two tiny cells joining together. The most wonderful moment was when they exchanged x and y chromosomes on cards to see whether their joined cells would make a boy or a girl baby. It was if the mysteries of the world were being revealed for the first time. Later they made models of the area and marked on where they lived, photo-ed their houses and streets and worked out on maps, what the places were that they passed through on the bus. More work went on about time – when is lunch, how long did it take, what time do we leave, time lines of their lives with details of the days and months of their birth – wars, disasters, festivals that they had heard about were added and very gradually a picture of themselves began to emerge which linked them into the real world and the world of others. The holes began to join up and so we began the City and Guilds maths group, what they wanted to learn about began to make sense and the possibility of joining up information into a coherent understanding became possible.

Later work has led me to appreciate the importance of houses, bridges, games, stories, play which help to express and clarify the issues blocking the learning process. But my basic proposal for beginning work with such profoundly disengaged children is that we address the foundations of ‘who am I, where am I and what time is it’ before we seek to erect the building of knowledge.

Heather Geddes