What a way to make a living | Teaching at the margins

A teacher in a non-mainstream secondary school gives her view on the daily life of teaching in a school which specialises in providing education for students whose needs are not met by mainstream institutions. 

An empty classroom photographed from the front, in low grey light.
Photo: Feliphe Schiarolli

Education as a form of liberation is usually spoken about within capitalist hegemony as ‘social mobility’. Nevertheless, the continuing dominance of fee-paying schools in shaping bourgeois elites and the decline of social mobility, particularly for neuro-divergent students and students poor enough to feature on governmental statistical records, indicate that these stated ambitions of state education are little more than lip service. 

In this article, I intend to briefly outline the general shape of my day working in a school which specialises in teaching students whose needs are not met by mainstream education. These students are frequently neuro-divergent, have experienced profound abuse during the earliest and most formative periods of their childhood resulting in long records of ‘poor behaviour’, have been excluded from multiple schools, and spent time working with various agencies involved in social care. 

Each day begins with a meeting of all the teaching and support staff. The morning meeting consists of a brief outline of the students’ timetables, including any amendments, and deadlines for documents which staff keep to track the students’ progress. These documents are predominantly qualitative. There is time in the discussion to reflect on the students’ emotional needs based on disclosures they have shared with staff and agreement on strategies to address these needs moving forward. 

I’m timetabled to spend one lesson on one site before moving onto the other site on which I work. Frequently because of delays, emotional disregulation from the students or other unplanned delays, I leave later than expected. I teach four classes of GCSE students who are not grouped according to age. The school I work in is split across many sites with around 20 students total per site. The total school size I estimate is around 140 students, with around 40 students working offsite with staff supervision.  Average class size is between three and six students. I also teach literature to a group of students assembled from various school sites, as well as chair a focus group aimed at sharpening staff confidence with literacy. 

Within school hours, I am encouraged to spend time with the students outside of structured lesson time in order to build trust. There is a good culture of leaving school on time, especially compared to my previous place of work, at which it was frowned upon if teaching staff left less than an hour before school ended. I also find that because of the smaller class sizes, my marking and planning can be more thorough and completed in less time. My planning needs to be thorough due to the increased differentiation and scaffolding necessary to compensate for the neurodiversity of the students, as well as the delay in progress arising from the long portions of time students have been out of any education. These gaps in learning time arise from delays in the process of assigning students excluded from mainstream education to new places, either in new mainstream schools or in schools outside of the mainstream sphere.

I’ve found it challenging to instigate workplace organising, not least because there is no culture of it to build on at the school. Generally, my co-workers are not unionised. In this sense, they are de-politicised, though there is a broad range of minorities employed at the school which has provided an opportunity for fruitful discussions. This being said, party and union politics are not generally discussed beyond contempt for individual party leaders. Additionally, overt political discussions are discouraged by vague stipulations in my school’s code of conduct around staff involvement in political organisations (also explaining why I chose to remain anonymous for this article). These stipulations are symptomatic of a desire to keep education as a de-politicised space. Such a position is generally defended on grounds of the need for schools to be inclusive of students and other staff members, but this is a clearly flawed approach, as these schools and their students are some of the most subject to political policy shifts of any workplace in the education sector.

Forces of increased precarity for working-class ethnic minorities under contemporary capitalism hinder serious organising, and vagueness regarding management and role responsibility make it harder to identify concrete targets for reform within the school. Work distribution is weighted towards teaching assistants, and the management state that they are contractually obliged to teach (I cannot verify whether this stipulation does exist in the legal documents). In essence this allows the school to spend less on an unqualified worker than an officially trained one whilst expecting the same results. 

The school structure of work across many sites further obfuscates the location of power by allowing staff to adopt ’headteacher’ roles without the need to follow national standards – though the head for all sites does have appropriate training. Frequently these intermediary positions of responsibility are advertised internally as a means of social mobility for existing staff, which is effective on the average staff member, who is frequently working in a disenfranchised position generally. This makes it harder to highlight the problems with management or to challenge power, since staff feel they may progress through the internal hierarchy more easily than in other settings. 

Moving forward it would seem the most apparent unionising strategy is to organise around ‘continuing professional development’ for teaching staff and extend from there. The ball is already rolling but I wouldn’t expect immediate results. Perhaps, in this case, the proverbial ball is similar to the well-worn boulder of Sisyphus.

I hope what I’ve already written has hinted at some differences between mainstream and non-mainstream schools, but I’d like to point to the most salient. I’ve mentioned the challenges that an unclear management structure poses for workplace organising, but the way in which my school seemingly sits within the structure of a prominent multi-academy trust confuses matters further. National legislation, part of Gove’s legacy from his time at the Department of Education, aims to make all schools part of these competing trusts. The school’s strategies place it partly within social care and partly within education. There is a strong dependence on therapeutic work with these students, but the workers with the expertise to provide this care are employed by the local authority, not the school. This makes it challenging to address redirection of the organisation’s expenditure regarding site management and resources. The funding relationship the school has with the local education authority (LEA) is comparably byzantine, with students having a set amount of funding attached to them established at a national level and distributed by LEAs. The local authority in which the school is located budgets for resources including the indispensible therapists and the sites on which teaching happens.

The unrepresentative nature of my school ought also to be described in terms of its position within London. The diversity of ethnicities both within the staff and student body is not reflected in many parts of the country, and this makes it particularly subject to racialised educational policies such as the Prevent scheme. Though there is a breadth of diversity in terms of class, children from low income families and children in care are overrepresented at my school. Many have experienced gendered violence and are not ready to be in classes with boys. These complex needs to enable learning, alongside the multi-agency approach across LEAs, mean that the general poor state of funding for local government, acutely felt outside of London, have a profound effect on the school, and on the most vulnerable in our society.

The position of the Prevent scheme in my school warrants further comment. The recent focus from police on ‘county lines’ criminal activity proposes a significant difference between gang involvement and other forms of radicalisation. If ever there was an indication of the racialised framing of this strategy, this is it. Following a steady increase in referrals for far-right activity, Lord Carlile was appointed on the 12 August 2019 to conduct an independent review into what he described as the ever-changing nature of the terrorist threat. Indeed, whilst Prevent was constructed to address particular forms of grooming for violent action by individuals, with a focus on the perceived threat of Muslim radicalisation, the far-right radicalisation affecting the students at my school is very widespread and the materials for this radicalisation are publicly available on popular social media sites. 

I hope my reflections provide insight into the state of education in a non-mainstream school. It is clear that there is a need for a dramatic shift to provide genuinely liberating education for the students I teach, but my coworkers’ commitment to education and care for the vulnerable has never come into question during my time at my place of work. The students with whom I work are nothing short of inspiring, and it is out of respect for them that their needs ought to be taken seriously and met with more success than they currently are.

What a way to make a living is a fortnightly series, in which people in different working-class jobs to tell us about their working lives, how they feel about their work, what struggles they face at work and how (and if) they have tried to overcome them. You can read the previous pieces here and here.


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