“Defying expectations”, the subtitle of this chapter, could make a very good slogan for one of the schools I work with. It is the Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) for Special Educational Needs (SEN) schools in our area. For those not au fait with educational acronyms, what that means in practice is that the young people who attend this school have significant special needs, and also challenging behaviour which has resulted in them being permanently excluded from a Special School. Each young person has at least 1:1 support, and many need to have 2 adults with them at all times. It has a maximum of 10 pupils at a time.
It is, in all sorts of ways, a very special Special School. And one of the things which makes it most special is the way it sets out to enable its students to defy the (very negative) expectations people have of them, and which often they have of themselves. At this school, there is no such thing as a hopeless case, and no such thing as a last chance – every day (sometimes every moment) is a new chance, a new start. It is – though not a church school – the very embodiment of persistent hope, consistent forgiveness, and unconditional love, the very values of God’s kingdom which should be (but too often aren’t) the hallmark of our churches and church schools.
I was at this school earlier in the week for their Christmas performance, during which every single student did a solo musical performance of some sort. To achieve this the staff, and especially their lovely music therapist, had deployed a great deal of resourcefulness and lateral thinking. Those who couldn’t bear to be in a hall full of people were videoed. Those who couldn’t or wouldn’t sing or play an instrument were encouraged to dance or participate in other ways. Those who find it hard to stay in any room for more than 20 seconds were filmed in short bursts, and the film edited together. But the point is, every single one of these young people was able to perform in some way – not only to be included, but to contribute to everyone’s enjoyment of the event. I’ve never clapped so hard in my life, nor wished so much that I’d remembered to put a tissue (or several!) in my cassock pocket. When I stood up to speak at the end, all I really wanted to say was “The kingdom of God is like this…”
This is testament to the hard work, endless patience and positivity of the staff, as well as to the hard work and persistence of the students. But it is also the product of a mindset – pervasive in that school, but sadly absent in many contexts – that defying expectations is not only possible, but essential, in order to enable each young person to flourish and be valued for who they are. And it is a reminder to me that “defying expectations” is very often where God is to be seen.
This year for Advent Book Club we are reading “Unearthly Beauty” by Magdalen Smith. Join in on Facebook or Twitter using #AdventBookClub.