Thirty-three years ago I volunteered to undertake my final student teaching placement in the Secure Wing of a children’s residential home. One of my abiding memories from that experience was waiting to go into a classroom when ten boys started to sing – in what we would now call a ‘flash mob’ – the haunting track from Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick in the Wall’:
We don’t need no education
We dont need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone
Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone!
All in all it’s just another brick in the wall.
It was the intensity of the first line that remains with me to this day “We don’t need no education”, and which came to mind again when reading the results from the Sutton Trust which drew the correlation between poverty and poor reading skills – especially for boys.
During my experience at the Secure Wing, which housed boys under the age of 16 who were ‘locked up’ for committing serious offences, I had the privilege of being able to accompany ‘John’ on a rare home visit. John was a boy who had real ‘potential’ – he was lively, curious, articulate and a natural leader, but who had been failed by the system and by education in particular.
These were all boys who were passionately antagonistic to education. They didn’t see any point or benefit to be had from education and felt isolated from the purpose of schooling from the very outset. Most were able to describe their common journey through primary and secondary schools that involved their humiliation, regular exclusions and sense of isolation, which they only overcame through associating with others who had suffered from similar experiences and backgrounds.
So why is it – 33 years later – that schools still do so badly in making a positive impact upon such children? How come – in this day and age –there are so many boys who leave primary school with negligible reading skills which prevent them from accessing the secondary school curriculum and leads to their inevitable isolation, probable exclusions and negative destinations?
Research tells us that interventions in children’s early years make a real difference, but that if they are not maintained that their benefit rapidly decays. We know that interventions focused upon helping parents to be actively involved in their children’s learning can make a real difference in attainment. However, we also know that if parents and young people believe that they can have a positive influence upon the future through their own efforts and actions – then young people will do well at school.
It’s this last factor that proves to be such a challenge to schools and others who can put a variety of well-intentioned interventions in place to support parents and young people but which inevitably focuses upon the symptoms – rather than the root causes of poor attainment. It’s this notion of self-efficacy – or belief in oneself to succeed – that is a major determinant in academic success. If a child comes from a family where the overwhelming belief is that the future is dependent upon others and that their own efforts will have a minimal effect, then what possible incentive could there be to apply yourself to study or to work.
Set against this self–determining (or should that read self- defeating) element are the expectations of others in the system and the impact they have on those who do not share their same sense of self-belief. Consider the child who starts primary school and whose clothes smell dirty from the outset and whose mother can’t engage in conversation with other mothers at the school gates. How long will it be before other children recognise these differences and start to call them names? How long will it be before they are placed in the ‘triangles’ group for every learning activity? How long before their mother is called into school to discuss their child’s inability to concentrate, or their regular outbursts against their classmates or teacher who was merely asking them to complete a simple task?
And so it goes on. “Perhaps it might be best for John to stay at home in the afternoons until he has settled down”. “We’ll try to get an auxiliary to sit with him during class time but we don’t have one in the class all of the time”. “I’m left with no alternative but to exclude John for a week and ask that you bring him back to school on Monday morning at 9.30am for a meeting where we will set out our conditions for readmission”. “I’m afraid we can’t let John go on the school trip as he is a risk to himself and others”.
Yet before this all starts to sound like a diatribe against schools – consider the position of teachers and head teachers who have to satisfy the quite reasonable expectations of other parents; parents who hear on a daily basis what ‘John’ has been up to today; parents who find out how the learning experience of their child was disrupted yet again because the headteacher had to be called. I’ve been at the sharp end of these concerns as a teacher, as a headteacher and as a Director of Education – and there are no simple remedies.
Yet I’ve also seen teachers and head teachers who come from a different starting point; teachers who establish unambiguous and challenging expectations for ALL children regardless of background; and headteachers who are NOT prepared to give up on children – regardless of their behaviour.
Schools that claim their children and their families as their own are the schools that transform the lives of the young people and their parents respectively, and are the schools who challenge the self-fulfilling expectation that poverty leads to poor attainment.