Just last week, a boy who I’ll call Tom burst into my office, squeezed himself into the gap between my cabinet and the wall and yelled, “I’ve had enough of this fucking school and everyone in it!” After the pressure of the tight space had calmed him, he agreed to come out and we talked things through.
It emerged that he had offended two girls by swearing at them during a lesson. The incident had been referred to Head of House and there had been an impromptu restorative conference, in line with school policy. The girls had told him how upset they were by his behaviour and he had apologised. However, they had since withdrawn their acceptance of this apology and Tom’s meltdown was triggered by his continuing to press the issue without success.
Tom has Asperger’s. He has already given a presentation to his form about this, telling peers about his associated struggles with anger and anxiety, about the fact that he was permanently excluded from his last mainstream school and about his experience of special education. He wanted to be accepted and understood.
I reassured him that I would speak with the girls and the situation would be resolved. In the meantime, he would work in the learning support area – to avoid any further episodes.
Like Tom, both girls are mid year transfers which is perhaps why, for the full hour that I spent discussing the situation with them, we seemed to be speaking different languages. We are at my school up-front and celebratory in our commitment to inclusion. At the start of the new academic year, the Headteacher’s assembly, ‘Every Child an Equal Chance’, reminded students that to have a genuinely equal chance, some people need more help – more adjustments – than others. This unequal treatment is not unfair, he explained, but actually the only true basis for equality of opportunity. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “There is nothing so unfair as the equal treatment of unequal people.”
By and large, our students don’t just accept this philosophy, they embrace it; they are proud to be part of an inclusive community school because they are regularly reminded that without their compassionate and intelligent participation, there could be no inclusion. Equally, staff are proud to have developed skills in managing learners who present with a wide range of needs. Inclusion might be hard and relentless work, but it does make everyone who contributes to its success feel very good.
However, the girls did not want to hear any of this. The bottom line was, they wanted to see Tom punished for his foul language, just as they felt would have been punished. These views were expressed in the most vociferous terms, through tears. I invited my deputy SENCo in to talk about her son, who is also on the autistic spectrum and finds it difficult to control angry outbursts, but it made no difference. Two minds were closed against us.
I remained troubled for the rest of the day and it was difficult to know quite what to do next. Contacting parents to discuss the deadlock was one obvious strategy and I had resolved to do this when there was a tap at the door. It was one of the girls; the angriest.
She looked quite transformed. She explained that she had reflected and she felt really, really bad about the things she had said and the way she had spoken. She said that she had no idea why she had been unable to understand Tom’s difficulties that morning. Smiling, she said that she had just now accepted his apology and given him a hug.
We talked a little about why she had been so angry. She owned that her volatility had been a major issue at her previous school, hence the move. (Jumped before illegally pushed.) So I introduced her to one of the school’s counsellors and they arranged to work on this. She left saying that her mum would be really happy that she would now be getting some help.
People will take different things from this series of events. For me, though, they serve as a powerful reminder that our decision to implement restorative practice five years ago was the biggest, boldest, most transformational thing we ever did for inclusion.
If Tom had been punished, according to a set of inflexible ‘do this and you’ll get that’ rules, he would not have had the opportunity to practice the skill of apologising and he would already be questioning his ability to succeed within the mainstream. If Tom had been punished, the girls might have felt vindicated for a short time – but they would have missed out on the deeper, more lasting pleasure that comes with reconciliation and forgiveness. If Tom had been punished, they would have learned nothing about autism and one of them would not have left school with a lighter heart and some good news for her mum.
Most important of all, without that swearing in class and the restorative process it triggered, there would have been no hug and our school community would be one relationship weaker.