Beyond the mainstream, what difference have we made ?
By Moira Devlin
Date Posted: June 15th 2013
Moira Devlin, who lives in Devon, is a retired headteacher.
Beyond the mainstream, what difference have we made?
By Moira Devlin
In January 2012 I retired after 35 years of working with children who are difficult to teach. I have worked in a number of different establishments including Community Homes with education, Truancy units, Mainstream Inclusion Units and finally, Pupil Referral Units. In all this time I felt the nature of the young people I was working with remained the same. What changed was the provision on offer according to the politics and philosophy of the time. Retirement is a time when one reflects back and takes account of what difference we have made to the lives of these young people, if any at all. There are many ways now ,with target driven evidence and Ofsted reports to “measure our performance” but for me the anecdotal statements of young people who I had taught and have kept in touch with have given me the strongest and most positive of messages.
Much has been reported and recorded about the abuse of young people in care over the last decades and contrary to what could have been, I find myself in a very privileged position to know that I have worked in some excellent care and educational environments with professional colleagues who have been totally dedicated to the wellbeing and emotional growth of our “clients”.
Perhaps the most successful of these was where I had my first job at the tender age of 21. Having just finished my training as a Drama and Art teacher I was taken on at a Community Home with Education for adolescent girls. These girls were all from the London Boroughs and the placement offered was 52 week care until the age of 16. Later that was extended to half way house provision where girls were taking A levels at the local college. At the time in the 1980s, there was a constant battle with local authorities who felt we were alienating the girls from their families and culture and so they were reluctant to carry on funding the girls’ placements with us. Recently one of the young women said to me that the school had been a life saver for her. She had been “at war” with her family for a variety of reasons and ended up in care. When she left care from us she returned to her family but felt she was returning as a strong person in her own right;no longer a scape goat for family problems. She helped her mother.
If one listened to what the girls had to say it was clear that something very special had happened to them during their time with us. They had begun succeeding! For all the emotional damage and complex experiences these youngsters had had, their education had been the one straight forward,concrete thing. It was for most of the girls the first time education had been offered in a vibrant and interesting way, letting them achieve and build their self esteem. The emphasis of the curriculum was to begin their learning with relevant topics for young women and so in English we studied Maya Angelo and Alice Walker. In Drama the girls devised marvellous plays about racism and the history of immigrants. In history, they learned of the rise of fascism in the 1920s,30s and 40s. All these topics were real and gave us a platform to build and extend the girls thirst for knowledge. Soon they were immersed in Shakespeare and painting wonderful murals of The Windrush!
When I ask the girls now what was the thing that worked for them at the school they mention the exciting lessons and high expectations but they all of them say without exception, that the most important thing was the personalities of the staff. They felt they had extremely special relationships with staff which though they took time to build, were enduring. They remembered how each day was fresh and any battles were resolved and learnt from in a positive way. Laughter played a huge part in our all our lives there and seeing staff laugh at each other and with themselves helped them heal some of their hurt. They have all said they felt loved. I worked at this school for 10 years and as my career progressed the message I took from my time there was quite simple. To me love ,whether it be for family or friend is limitless and powerful. And so it was with the girls. I was would say to anyone aspiring to work in a similar setting to the one I written about that If you cannot find love for these youngsters then you are in the wrong job.