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Beyond the Pale – Working with Difference

Have you ever wondered what ‘beyond the pale’ means?

The term pale came to mean the area enclosed by a fence and later just the figurative meaning of ‘the area that is enclosed and safe’. So, to be ‘beyond the pale’ was to be outside the area accepted as ‘home’. In 1791 in Russia Catherine the Great created a ‘Pale of Settlement’, which was a western border region in which Jews were allowed to live. This was to restrict trade between Jews and native Russians. Some Jews were allowed to live, as a concession, beyond the pale. Pales were also enforced in various other European countries for similar political reasons, especially in Ireland (the Pale of Dublin) and France (the Pale of Calais).

Two recent events have caused me to think about this topic. First because I have just stepped down as editor of the International Journal of Pastoral Care in Education (the NAPCE journal) and was reflecting upon how things had changed in the ten years of my editorship. Then I was also conducting a review of the literature on bullying and young people with Special Educational Needs and/or Disability (SEND) with colleagues*. In both cases it is the inability to tolerate difference which seems to me to come to the fore. In thinking about education, pastoral care and SEND it seems to me that we have abandoned any notion that some pupils who are ‘difficultly different’ can or should be considered for inclusion in mainstream settings. It is now tolerable to think that pupils with emotional and behavioural difficulties who display difficult to manage behaviour are now literally beyond the pale. This is not challenged in the general discourse – it has become an idea on which there is mostly silence. We know that the modern world is full of contradictions but this acceptance runs alongside international movements of Education for All, an emphasis on inclusion and the rights of the child. However, some young people seem to have different rights and that there is no longer a strong questioning of this. The contrast between the technical goals of education seem to have made these students inadmissible and ‘beyond the pale’.

What if we look at other groups who are different? There is a lot of evidence** that confirms that children with SEN and/or disabilities are significantly more likely to be bullied or victimised than their non-disabled peers. Various reports suggest, for example, that bullying may have been experienced by:

  • 83% of children with learning difficulties (or eight out of ten)
  • 82% of children who are disfluent (those with a stammer), 59% of them at least once a week, and 91% for name calling
  • 70% of children with autistic spectrum disorders combined with other characteristics
  • 39% of children with speech and language difficulties
  • 30% of children with reading difficulties

My reading of the research is that this bullying reaction comes from fear and inability to understand the social situation which young people might find themselves in their peer group. They don’t understand the difference and so can bully in response. There has been some considerable success with educating young people about different behaviours and characteristics of their peers.

Maybe the reaction of adults to the ‘difficulty difficult’ is also rooted in an inability to understand? I would like to argue for greater understanding and tolerance of difference and the need to focus on this within schools. The social environment is also an arena for work in education. No pupils should be beyond the pale and all young people have the same rights, including the right to be included socially in their society and their peer group, to have appropriate resources for their education and not to be placed in a pale.

Colleen McLaughlin
December 2010

* McLaughlin, C., Byers, R. and Peppin-Vaughan, R. (2010) Responding to Bullying among Children with Special Educational Needs and/or Disabilities. London: Anti Bullying Alliance
**All the research is reporting in full in the previous cited report on bullying and SEND

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