In Pushed to the Edge: Inclusion and Behaviour Support in Schools, Val Gillies lays bare the institutionalized misalignment between the de jure policies of inclusion and the de facto effects of exclusion resulting from the efforts to discipline unruly students in British schools. In her account based on three years of ethnographic work, the author portrays a vivid picture of the politics of neoliberal educational reforms in the United Kingdom. As a result, Gillies provides a lucid first-hand account of what deficit model disciplinary practices look like in schools. At the macro level, she argues that there is a nationalist desire to maximize the profitability of the next generation of minds. This has turned schools into staging grounds for the selection of those with academic potential. Correspondingly, it has also led to the removal of others who would stymie this progress. In practice, the evidence in this book suggests that a racialized, gendered, and class-based set of beliefs guide British schools in their decision making regarding the educational fate of children. Gaining access to schools required Gillies to overcome many institutional barriers. This may account for some of the limitations of her methodology, which sometimes raises questions about the authenticity of the scenes depicted in the narrative. Nevertheless, these methods are described in great detail and they make up part of the telling of this story.
Pushed to the Edge opens with a claim that may be frightening for those who are unversed in critical pedagogical theory. Specifically, the drive for higher academic standards in schools is developing an underclass of students. Unfortunately, these learners may be irreversibly destined for exclusion from mainstream classrooms. Gillies acknowledges that British propaganda claims that there is an academic environment of inclusion and support across schools. Some readers may see the removal of miscreant students from learning environments to be a necessary measure. The author points to a body of evidence suggesting that British schools operate much like the pipeline to prison that has been witnessed in America. Both in the U.S. and the U.K., critics have argued that there is a growing hyper-surveillance of students. There is also an increasing reliance upon legal authorities to enforce consequences on those who are deemed to be disruptive in schools. Gillies presents compelling evidence of the negative effects of these disciplinary practices on learners. She emphasizes the disproportionate impact they have had on different marginalized populations. In the text, the author also outlines many accounts of student resilience within these suffocating environments.
Gillies explains the measures being increasingly adopted in schools as being motivated by a drive toward productivity and efficiency. By removing problematic students, it is apparent that not only will the indicators of academic achievement improve by their absence, but the education of the willing and prepared will also be conducted more smoothly through fewer disruptions. This type of logic seemed to inform the U.K. policy initiative during the 1990s to fund a thousand Learning Support Units (LSUs) in schools for "shy, withdrawn, and anxious pupils, as well as those deemed to be disruptive" (p. 4). According to the book, this idea evolved into the implicit acceptance of behavior support units (BSUs) in most British secondary schools. These units have seemingly become depositories for students who school administrators deem to be undisciplined and even uneducable.
Early in Pushed to the Edge, Gillies explains how she obtained entry into the BSUs for three different schools. She collected data using ethnography, informal interviews, and interactive group work sessions on topics of interest to young people (e.g., arts and sports). The administrators at the schools received Gillies and her research team in starkly different fashions. Some met them with warm greetings, while others were overtly hostile. In some situations, it was evident that the researchers found themselves ensnared in the trappings of deeply seated employee conflicts and animosities. The level of detail provided here and in other parts of the text regarding specific interactions and confrontations is abnormal in research and perhaps overly personal at times. This may operate as a strength in that it offers a lens that is typically unavailable to outsiders. However, it is clear (and sometimes acknowledged by Gillies herself) that the presence of the research team at these sites was definitely noticed or felt by the students and employees. As a result, it is unclear whether the behavior of these students and employees is consistent with their typical daily norms.
In the chapters that make up the studys findings, Gillies focuses on the many contradictions that are inherent in the contemporary framing of exclusionary educational practices. She does this by contextualizing the behavior of those students who are removed from traditional classroom settings and sent to the BSUs. She outlines their pathways to exclusion and notes the overly individualizing ways that administrators understand their acts. In a section on gender, Gillies observes that the misbehavior of boys and girls is commonly framed in schools using gender tropes. Specifically, boys are typically viewed as troublesome or angry. In contrast, girls are seen as needy and vulnerable. Both overt and subtle prejudices based on race are also described across the studied schools. These sentiments seem to drive the overrepresentation of minority students in the BSUs under examination. In another section of the text, teachers and administrators are found to be using subjective constructions of inadequate parenting to explain poor student behavior. This further supports the authors contention that individualistic understandings of student behavior are the norm in British schools.
All factors considered, Pushed to the Edge is an eye-opening account of some of the troublesome truths that can be expected from the growing popularity of neoliberal drives for productivity and efficiency in schools. Its methodology is limited by the challenges of entering institutionalized spaces that school administrators would probably prefer to hide. As a result, this presents problems in interpretation. However, this may demonstrate that inclusionary and exclusionary practices in British schools need greater scrutiny in future research by their very nature. This book would be useful in undergraduate and graduate courses on evidence-based critical theory in education. Perhaps it would also be helpful in discussions of ethical research practices in qualitative methods courses.