Episode 1 of the BBC’s new documentary, “Excluded: Kicked out of School” introduces viewers to the Bridge AP Academy, as “a school, but not like any you can think of”; it is a “place for kids that normal schools don’t want.”
Normal schools, comprising what comes to be called, ‘mainstream’ education, play little role in the program, which finds it convenient instead to situate children thoroughly in their altered incarnations as excluded pupils, to be documented, and exposed to viewers as cautionary tales.
For the show precociously ventures beyond mere contextualisation of their misbehaviour, to what seem like attempts at explaining it. And the moralistic message conveyed is that excluded pupils are excluded pupils, precisely because they lack the necessary embrasure of self-responsibility which education ought to represent.
It is to be doubted how useful such narratives are in framing the predicament which the excluded children featured actually face. For whilst viewers may well be comfortable articulating a sense of their own educations as a transitional period of increasing responsibility and character formation, such self-reportage is probably uncritical. Most viewers will have had far more resources invested in their educations than those on the program, and unilateral steps which viewers might consider themselves to have taken towards independence will usually have been extensively supervised by parents, and qualified by relative economic privilege.
Viewers, that is, will not in fact have confronted the stark reality of having to invest in themselves, in the sense impressed one student featured, Jessica. Un-insulated from failure, and unable to rely on anyone else to invest in her, she confronts a stereotype which unhelpfully haunts her and the other children, throughout the program – that of the jobless failure. What may, to the show’s producers, have seemed therefore a clever gambit to render the children relatable to viewers, as common participants in a universal kind of education – a kind from which one graduates into society, responsibility and a job – proves clumsy, and tin eared to complexity.
In this lies the program’s central failing. At precisely the point when viewers are encouraged to congratulate themselves on a perceived talent for diagnosing the ‘real’ reason why children are excluded – namely an unhealthy lack of responsibility – they are farther than ever from confronting the potent cocktail of economic disadvantages, learning disabilities, social impairments, and personal histories which render each child a unique case.
This complexity is elided in favour of homogenising the children featured as interchangeable samples of a non-existent species – the excluded child.
Viewers are encouraged to participate in a taxonomy of their behaviours, as the camera offers uncomfortably personal encounters with their more explosive outbursts. Viewers are further indulged by the camera angle as now being able to interrogate the staff over the supervision of the school and particular students, or now able to play the role of privileged confidant to children elsewhere demonstrating an inability to connect even with trained professionals. Such strategies, whilst congenial to the documentary’s entertainment value, and flattering to the viewer, do not constructively introduce them to the realities of the challenges such pupils, or the obstacles which those that work with them, face.
So the program lurches on from one incident to the next, as if in a representative view of the school. Bridge AP Academy comes across as a kind of madhouse, locked in an immobile state of unruliness, lack of achievement, and moral dilemma. As every child who has been excluded knows however, specific incidents merely punctuate the wider mystique which cumulative misbehaviour cultivates around a child; a mystique which challenges educators unable to fit such children into the usual categories, to adapt and respond.
Too often the response is a simplistic appeal to the kinds of stereotypes which exonerate parents, educators or society from responsibility, stereotypes referring problematic children back to themselves, instead of causes which in reality are often simply too complex to unravel. Where the show locates its scrutiny after such adaptations have failed, if attempted at all, it relieves viewers of the burden of evaluating the schools from which the students originated, lamely observing at the outset that such schools are for ‘normal’ students, which, as a subsequent montage of lost tempers busies itself implying, the children featured are not.
The program conspires then, to present to viewers a kind of excluded child which they already knew – the kind which they pride themselves on not having become, when they themselves graduated into adult life. The revelation that another student, Mille, was once a prefect, an inquisitive member of her class, before her mother and sister died, is calculated to draw a line for the viewer, from one side of which they are comfortably situated to observe her, stranded on the other. Mille’s difficulties are linked back, in a sloppy explanatory gesture, to a transformative moment of grief that stripped her of the normality she otherwise successfully inhabited.
Viewers are thereby relieved of the burden of empathy; of confronting the possibility that ‘even’ normal students are liable to fail, and descend into such reinforcing misbehaviours as pitifully elicit from various voices in the program what becomes an alienating chant: those that don’t work become bums.
By imprisoning those students featured in the aftermath of their earlier educations, the message is reinforced; there is a type of student that simply needs to be excluded, and schools need only identify such types, to be justified in ushering them into more appropriate surrounds. Such students need not be accommodated, for their proper accommodation is elsewhere.
It is the place of projects like The School Exclusion Project to contest this attitude, and fight for a child’s right to resist an institutional version of pass the parcel. Few students are incapable of responding to re-engagement by educators, nor does subjecting excluded children to such voyeuristic and self-congratulatory societal disapproval as the program gleefully caters to, comprise, in this writer’s view, the kind of education they need.