Not Bad For A Bad Lad: Josh’s Story

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It’s a cliche, but ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ holds up in my line of work.

For a lot of young people, school can be a place of engagement, understanding and acceptance. For others, that’s simply not the case.

As an education consultant, I work with students – particularly boys and young men – who are profoundly disaffected and uninterested in attending school. I deliver one-to-one tutoring and coaching to help them see and fulfil their own potential.

One such student was Josh, who I tutored for just under two years. I could tell you plenty about this young man (as could his teachers, support workers and other agencies, no doubt) but I don’t believe that’s anywhere near as important as what he has to say about his own story.

No more judging a book by its cover. Here’s Josh in (more or less) his own words.

Michael Morpurgo was on to something …

“You can look at it both ways, can’t you?”

Josh and I are sitting opposite one another as we record our conversation, which is part interview, part book review for his Functional Skills course. We recently finished Michael Morpurgo’s Not Bad for a Bad Lad, so we start with Josh’s interpretations of the protagonist, the unnamed Bad Lad.

“Sometimes he can be bad, but sometimes he’s good. Everyone made him out to be bad, but he wasn’t really a bad lad at the end, to be fair. He was good.”

I ask him if you get treated differently if you’re a bad lad. “By some people, yeah,” he answers, “Some people just don’t give people chances. Maybe if they had, they wouldn’t see him as being as bad as they thought.”

The frustration of having to live down to the labels you’re given

Josh knows how it feels to be labelled. He’s familiar with the frustration of being judged at school, either for his past actions or something completely outside his control.

As we read the book, Josh and I reflected on how you live down to the labels that you’re given. If you’re labelled a bad lad, you’re going to be that bad lad. “But if someone says you’re a good lad,” Josh suggests, “then maybe you’ll change?”

Year 6 was a particularly difficult one for Josh. When asked what advice he would give to his school to help ten-year old Josh, he believes nothing would’ve made a difference.I dunno … They just thought ‘his whole family’s bad, so he’s bad, they’re all the same.’ I think no one in the school liked me.”

“I remember when we had to go to a meeting with the Headteacher and the Deputy about a Managed Move to a new school. Before we went in, Mom said I had to behave really well and to keep quiet.

“So we went in and I kept quiet. But then the Deputy started saying he could tell how naughty I was just by looking at me and that I didn’t even say ‘thank you’ when he opened the door for me. I said I was just trying to keep quiet and they didn’t know anything about me. I walked out and the move never went ahead.

“It really blags my head when teachers do that. They should believe kids more.”

What does it mean to give someone a chance?

It’s not hard to understand why Josh feels trapped by the labels he’s assigned at school. He remembers a moment when he was on holiday with his mom. Her mobile started ringing and when she answered, it was the local Community Police Officer informing her that Josh was, at that moment, down in the woods setting fires and police were en route. The fact that Josh was sat right next to his mom on a beach in Wales hadn’t put them off assuming that he was at fault.[1] 

During our conversation, we talk about the power of giving someone a chance. In the book, Bad Lad is given a chance by Mr Alfie, who gets him caring for and riding horses at the Borstal.

“Mr Alfie’s probably seen what he’s been through, seeing that everyone’s called him a bad lad and just thought, ‘Well, he can’t be that much of a bad lad because I see him running past the stable every day and he ain’t doing any harm to me, so I might as well give him a chance.’ Mr Alfie’s got faith in him, hasn’t he? He thinks, ‘If I help him, maybe he’ll change. He won’t be such a bad lad.’”

Josh remembers one TA in particular who gave him a chance. “He was my best mate’s dad and he knew everything that’s going on in my life.

“I used to fight with this one lad because he’d say stuff like, ‘Oh your dad’s never coming out of prison’. When we’d get caught fighting, I’d get blamed for it all. But then that TA would come up and say, ‘Hold on a minute, I’ve just seen that lad start on Josh. Josh didn’t start anything.

“If that TA saw me in the corridor when I was kicked out of lessons, he’d walk with me round the playground. He did loads of work with me, too. He actually gave me a chance. He knew everything that went on in my life. He knew that I wasn’t actually a bad kid.”

What happens when a ‘bad lad’ gets the right help and support?

When I ask again what Josh really needed from the teachers at school, he expands on his earlier answer. “To actually help me. Say, if me and a lad had done the same thing, you should give him the same punishment as you give me. Don’t punish me differently.”

Like many students, Josh sometimes struggled to concentrate on what his teachers were saying. “The only time I’m really interested is when I’m actually doing the work. I don’t listen when the teacher’s talking, I just mess around with my mates. But maybe if they’d put me in a room with just me and another teacher, that could’ve helped. Then I would have actually done the lessons instead of just getting kicked out.”

“Tutor [with Mark] is the best school I’ve had. We do small bits at a time and there’s no detention or staying behind. He’s really good at explaining things, the work makes sense. If I don’t get it, Mark doesn’t make me feel bad about it, we just go through it.”

Finally, I ask Josh what the best approach is when a kid is stressed or having a bad day at school. His answer comes far more quickly and easily than when I asked how he ought to have been treated. “Just talk to them nice and, like, respect them. Have faith in them, maybe?

“Tell them that everything’s gonna to be alright and they’re not that bad. They can change, and that we’re going to give you a chance.”

A massive thank you to Josh for giving me permission to share his thoughts and part of his story. It’s difficult to quantify the true impact of the support I provide my students because (much like their own potential) it’s effectively limitless.

It’s not easy, but it is always worth it. And as Josh pointed out, there’s not really any such thing as a bad lad: just a lad who hasn’t yet been given a chance.