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).
Also,do we put our own narrative & values onto children?Why try & get little Jonny to go to uni?Will it isolate him from family/community?
— Dawn Cox (@MissDCox) July 22, 2017
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.
The recent news features about state school students outperforming private students at university have raised a few questions and theories about how to explain the ‘unexplained gap’ from all sides of the educational domain. Understandably, if you’ve forked out thousands for years of education you’d rather not rely on any connections to get ahead in place of academic success, and equally, if you’re paying for extra tuition you want to know it’s having an impact.
Anecdotally I know of people who have been coached, by either parents or professional tutors, throughout their school life, achieving high grades until the point where they no longer had that support and found themselves unable to study on their own. Whether that’s due to constant nagging to get work done, parental ‘input’ in coursework or being given revision plans instead of working it out for themselves, it’s not an unusual occurrence.
When we talk about exams and qualifications with our pupils we place so much pressure on that particular moment, those particular results; yet for most of us they’re just a stepping stone to the next phase. There’s no way we’re going to downplay what they’re working towards of course, and I think for some children (certainly with our lot) focusing too far ahead is overwhelming, but I do think it’s something for us (the grown ups) to keep in mind.
Thinking about where my peers have ended up is an interesting (and perhaps scary) exercise. People I was in a class with from 7-16 are in jobs as wide ranging as pub landlord, shop assistant and deputy headteacher. People I was in a class with from 11-18 include a web designer, an MP, a psychiatrist and a chiropodist. We all had the same education (state FWIW). We all had the same access to the same subjects, with the same teachers, and we’ve all gone down different routes. Some went to university, some travelled, some had decided what they wanted to do when they were in infant school and some took a while to choose. Obviously parts of this can be put down to different life experiences and we all know, try as they can, schools can’t force outcomes from children. Even within my own family though my brothers and I have gone for very diverse pathways. Between us there’s a teaching assistant, an architect, and Andy kills Mufasa every night* in the West End. *not every night. The other day he mended the Sun.
My point is that… I’m not sure what my point is.
Education prepares you and takes you to the next step. For most people, once they’ve got the GCSEs to get into their post-16 experience of choice, no one asks for their GCSE results (maybe a requirement for a grade in certain subjects). Once they have the required A level grades for university, no one needs to know those. Once they have a degree it’s about experience and fighting for jobs with everyone else. None of that’s new information of course, but it shouldn’t be surprising that the same education leads to different futures with different needs and values.
We like to measure things though. Especially if we’re doing well. This article highlighted today by Carl Hendrick explains quite clearly our need to be one-up, how we see some things as intrinsically better or more valuable. In education this is the same; we’re held accountable for everything we do whether that’s in school, parents, government or in the press – no one wants to be the one that’s seen to break the chain of progress.
The thing I think is most important that we take from the performance at university story is that we have a responsibility to think about preparing pupils for the next phase so they don’t flounder. Yes, our job is to arm them with the knowledge and skills to pass the next set of tests, but the way we do that should ensure that once they’ve moved to the next step they can keep going, so if working without the supports that got them there turns out to be a factor in success, they’ve got a chance. Equally of course, we need to keep the curriculum as wide a we can to allow them to refine their choices as they go and find out what they really love.