This is one of several posts that I’ve started but never quite got round to hitting ‘publish’ on. Prompted by a tweet from Dawn Cox about the values we put onto children (and my recent thoughts about cultural capital) I thought it was a good opportunity. (Quick reminder that all our pupils are boys so when I refer to ‘the boys’ it’s because I naturally interchange ‘boys’ and ‘pupils’ when talking about work rather than me just stereotyping).

I started this post over a year ago in February 2016 after reading this Guardian article about white working class boys and university. I think by the time I came back to it the moment had gone and I never finished it. The article focuses on the aspirations of white working class boys and the role of universities in targeting underrepresented populations. One of the statements that caught my attention was “If these young men embrace academic success, they face entry into an unfamiliar and disconcerting world”. This is a theme I recognise regularly in our pupils.

I think for the majority of our pupils the experience they have of education is that it’s easier to fail than succeed. They know what to do when they fail – they know how to run off, know how to get told off, know how to respond in an aggressive manner, and know the sort of response they will get from adults. Quite often they find it very difficult to cope with praise (certainly open praise). If there’s a problem or issue at school or home, they will often try to get in a situation where they are stopped – physically or otherwise. It’s all about controlling a situation. They can deal with being picked on for not doing something right – can always fall back on kicking off.

As our school gets bigger there are more pupils that know each other, either from previous schools or their neighbourhoods (plus social media etc). I’ve noticed how this makes a difference to ‘showing face’ beyond what happens in school. We’re probably quite lucky in that it’s only fairly recently that the tentacles of social media have worked their way into our school – one of the benefits of having a couple of kids from each area of a whole city.

When it comes to aspirations though, why is university still seen as the be-all and end-all? There’s a massive rise in the number of apprenticeships – not just ‘trades’ now there are opportunities everywhere, but university’s seen as better. With rising fees and scrapping of grants, followed by questions about devaluation of degrees, there are legitimate reasons for not wanting to come out of university and be competing with those with three years experience for similar jobs (although I don’t believe fees and loans are any reason not to go and I do appreciate the earning potential stats). It’s not stereotyping to say that a high proportion of our boys will end up with a trade. We offer them vocational qualifications, and courses involving some sort of construction or motor engineering are pretty common next steps. It’s interesting that many of our pupils are likely to end up earning more in a trade professions than an NQT but are not likely to see themselves as our equals. So perhaps it really isn’t money that matters but education.

Something I’ve thought about is that despite the attitudes of our pupils, do the parents of these children – despite their background – aspire to university? Do these white working class boys that shun university for themselves want their own children to go to university? Anecdotally, I know of several people who I think feel they have to prove themselves to be just as good as someone who has been to university and it possibly gives them more drive, they’ve built up businesses and empires of their own, but they want for their children a ‘better’ life, and that includes university.

The discussion is one that has been played out before and will be again. The question of whether it is right for the educated, middle class to decide which values and experiences to pass on to white working class children is one that can be a minefield. Is it for us to decide what matters? Should we impose our own values on children? By thinking we’re aiding them are we curbing them? Either way, are we judging them and their backgrounds? We want them to study Shakespeare (the content of those final GCSE papers is class-blind) so taking them to see Shakespeare is part of that. Is Shakespeare OK but not opera? Is street-dance OK but not ballet? If we want them to learn languages is it OK if they go on an exchange trip? Not other foreign travel? Can we take them skiing at the Snowdome in Birmingham but maybe avoid the Alps? There’s never going to be an easy answer.

Part of our job is forcing our opinions on our pupils whether that’s the curriculum we teach or the language we use when we speak to them. I’m not going to oversimplify my vocabulary when I’m talking to the boys just because there’s the danger they’ve never come across a word before, I’ll explain it. I’m not going to apologise for wanting to build their ambitions – it’s a better place to start than not. Of course getting them reading and calculating (preferably maths, not crime) is the first step, but can’t we do a bit of both? I want us to open their worlds. I want them to ask questions and if nothing else, I want them to be really good at pub quizzes. I want them to know that whether they want to go into a trade or go to university, they are worthy of it. Some of them have dreams that we don’t think they’ll achieve and I want them to prove us wrong.

I’m not living in a fantasy world. I know what the future is likely to hold for some of them. At the moment I’m hoping that the future for some of them isn’t on the front of the Nottingham Post as they merrily go about their holidays, for others I’m hoping that come results day they get a couple of GCSEs. I suppose it’s not for us to decide where their limit is. We’ve just got to make sure we don’t judge them and do our best to get them to the next bit.

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