White, working, class boys: why it is poverty and not teaching that fails them.

In my beloved mark book, I used to have a code for EAL, SEN and FSM* which Ofsted/SLT** wanted to see being targeted in lessons across the school- these are the areas which attracted additional funding for the school and we were told to focus our teaching on. However, it’s the ‘white working class boys’ who are now deemed as falling behind other groups within schools. But as always, the debate is not as simple as cause and effect. There are a myriad of social and economic demographics to consider before we simply dump the problem and blame at the local school gate.

Any teacher will tell you the white working class boy issue isn’t a new issue, read my earlier blogs about 10R5 and you will see that we have had this problem for a long time, their apathy is just now glaring obvious as other groups overtake them in the Raise Online data produced by Ofsted. Is it, as has been suggested, the London schools have become better or is it because the issues are no longer the sole claim of the inner cities? Issues which used to only affect the urban boroughs of London are now spreading to towns on the peripheries.

Deprivation, over occupancy, abuse, domestic violence are all par for the course in boroughs that once claimed to be leafy. Affluence and poverty are side by side in places like London. But across the UK, towns have lost their centres, their manufacturing heritages, their employment hubs and it is a story replicated from Kettering to Dover. The jobs which were the stronghold of the white, working class are no longer there and the replacements do not require 5 A-Cs.

I read a headline that the London schools attract better teachers and Laura McInerney discusses some of the reasons why in her blog .

But actually I would argue that it is the lack of jobs and prospects that is failing these young men, not the calibre of teacher or their trailing spouse that is to blame. It is a potent mix of low educational aspirations versus high lifestyle expectations from families who are second, and third generation of unemployed and low academic achievers.

C4′s recent documentary, Bouncers focused one of its stories on a nightclub in Clacton on Sea, the nightclub was full most Friday and Saturday nights with revellers from across the impoverished town and one single mum commented that there were no jobs and she had spent half of her benefit money going out that weekend. I make no moral judgement but wonder how a whole town can be left out of the economic spoils just an hour and half from the capital.

Interestingly, the number one drug found by the bouncers in Clacton was cocaine- escapism from the cyclical nature of boredom and despair. How do you raise aspirations when there is nothing to raise them for? When drug dealing and general criminal behaviour pays more than an regular or hard-to-come-by job. Another C4 documentary, Secret Millionaire, followed celebrity hairdresser Adee Phelan as he attempted to open a pop-up hairdressing shop in Clacton. He tried to offer the young people something to do, a little training- some took it enthusiastically, some were suspicious and trashed the shop. Par for the course in areas that see little investment.

The poverty and challenges faced by people living in areas such as these are often insurmountable, faced with funding cuts, police, charities and local governments can no longer meet the needs of communities ravaged by high unemployment, crime, alcohol and drug dependency. The cult of celebrity and fast-cash leaves young people feeling inadequate which is why their job and lifestyle expectations are unevenly matched.

How can I expect a pupil to hand in his English coursework when he doesn’t have access to a computer or one who is sharing his bedroom with three other children? How can I expect mum or dad to turn up to parent’s evening and talk about literacy when they are barely literate?

We are taught to teach our pupils that education leads to better prospects. Well it does in places like London because there are prospects. Schools can make links with businesses and if they have an excellent careers office, then work experience and apprenticeships can be accessed.

London Challenge had ring-fenced capital which targeted the poorer London boroughs, it incentivised pupils and staff. It was an exciting organisation to be part of- it rolled out as Pixl nationwide. I would be interested to see how Pixl fairs in towns like Clacton when the results for the local academy’s GCSE students are among the lowest in the country.

There is also a debate around ethnicity, why is it that some communities are more successful in education than others? The Joseph Rowntree Foundation  argues the single biggest factor is poverty and not ethnicity. Some communities fair better because they have become stakeholders and established socioeconomic roots.

Is there a link as to why Hackney has more Good to Outstanding schools than say Croydon? Is it because the poorer boroughs benefited from the aforementioned ring-fenced funding and targeted initiatives like London Challenge and later on, the trickle down effect? My previous London school felt it no longer needed the input of Pixl as they had gleaned all the good ideas and went on to achieve 99% pass rate three years later. Success indeed through a changed (and sustained) culture of achievement but outside factors contributed. The brights lights of the big city are 20 minutes by train, the local area had benefited from regeneration projects and transport initiatives not to mention the Olympics. Prosperity could still be seen, over the horizon,  from the windows of the Inclusion Room.

The last UK GCSE cohort I taught were early entry Year 10s, they were a marvellous joy to teach, from Year 8 they would strive to gain the highest marks in assessment. It was a mix of ethnic backgrounds but all of the class felt empowered and that’s what teaching can do. Empower. They all had aspirations of university and beyond, but they all had something else in common too- parental support. Parents who turned up to every parents evening,  supported me and their children. Parents who were educated or like one mum, educating herself through the Open University whilst working full-time.

Is it my job to teach work ethic? Can it even be taught? Most teachers demonstrate a high work ethic but actually society needs to recognise that it needs to come from home and home is the single biggest factor in a child’s life, school might well be the second but if a child sees his mum or dad ‘grafting’ then they are more likely to pick up the baton of work and pass it on.

How about we actually have a conversation about food banks, housing shortages and rising youth unemployment and how we address that in areas such Clacton instead of the usual blame apportioned to the classroom teacher?

If you want better educational outcomes then you must invest in public services that reduce poverty. That’s a simple lesson to learn isn’t it?

*English as an Additional Language, Special Educational Needs and Free School Meals

**Senior Leadership Teams

About Julia Knight

A blog about my experience as a Head of Year, looking at some of the issues faced by young people and teachers in the UK and International schools. Offering straight-talking child-centred advice.
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8 Responses to White, working, class boys: why it is poverty and not teaching that fails them.

  1. parra67 says:

    I totally agree with there being nothing to aspire to in towns such as Clacton, I’m in one myself and I combat this sense of ‘nowhere to go, nothing to try for’ with the suggestion that ‘here’ is not always where you find what you are looking for and having ambition means looking beyond ‘here’. For some the prospect of leaving family, friends and familiarity is a bridge too far, they’ve been brought up in conservative families where altering tea time from 5pm to 6pm is a radical concept. For others, the will to move away to a place which offers them prospects is something they know is the only move to make and invariably those who embrace that ‘get on your bike’ Tebbitism have parents who are well educated, who have traveled around themselves or who at least realise their folly in not leaving before their roots became too long, tangled and deeply embedded to make it possible.

    As much as I do believe this eye opening has to be done at home, or should be done at home, it also has to be matched in schools. I spend so much time combatting the damage my children’s educators do when they batter down the ambition and determination I have fought so hard to build in them. It’s not all of them, but many of them.

    The teachers seem to be victims of the sense of lack of options too, they have trouble seeing beyond the minimal choice on their student’s behalf. They tell you about the wonderful children they’ve raised who are at universities all over the country and who live and work successfully in London, yet they don’t transfer that ambition to the children they teach, they seem to have consigned these kids, lock stock and barrel to the junk heap, a life in low level unskilled work… as my daughter said, it’s the army or a factory, nursing at a push, those are the career options presented. Yet ask the teachers presenting these options to her what their own children are doing or going to be and it’s a different story… “lawyers and doctors of course” swelled with pride.

    There is an amount of stereotyping goes on in schools and teachers are often the culprits, a child is from a single parent family, an ethnic minority and lives on or near a council estate (or heaven forbid all three) and automatic assumptions are made:

    1. the parents are uneducated and unemployed and any attempt at being involved in their child’s education is seen as them being a nuisance
    2. the child is not really that bright and good grades are flukes (even if consistent)
    3. the child spends his/her nights hanging around street corners with undesirables
    4. the family doesn’t possess a book and the child is constantly occupied with Facebook and Xbox
    5. It’s OK to give the child repeated detentions as part of a whole class punishment for bad behaviour even if he or she was not involved in any way at all and their protest of innocence sees them get longer personal spells in detention

    These things happen, they happen to my children and I have to fight against them, the stereotypes which the teachers have bought into. It’s tiring, believe me, it’s tiring when my son has wanted to be a doctor his whole life and comes home to tell me that his teachers say he has no hope ‘kids like him don’t become teachers’, by that I assume they mean kids who without any struggle manage to sustain their position in the top 5% nationally in every subject that is measured, kids who are well mannered, well behaved and well spoken, kids who are ambitious, studious and full of hope for their future. There is something going wrong you are right and it’s not just with the parents and it’s not just with society.

    It’s a holistic thing, parents, teachers, governments need to work together and if they are not all singing from the same hymn sheet, well let’s just say that the concert’s not one you’d want to record and listen to again.

    We can’t lay the blame at any one door and whilst I agree hugely with most of what you say we are not being fair or honest if we imagine that teachers are not affected by the same weary, hopeless, dissatisfaction that the families of the kids they teach are.

    Parents have to teach their children ambition and all that goes with it, the moral codes to conduct themselves by and they have to prepare themselves to be able to assist children in following those ambitions, teachers have a responsibility to uphold the work done by parents and to extend that to children who are not supported at home if they are able to and governments have a responsibility to create a society that is equitable and where there are opportunities for all regardless of where they live.

    Of course we also have to remember that for some, struggling or failing to finish school, 40 hours packing fish in a huge freezer for minimum wage and a house next to their mother and opposite their sister, round the corner from their aunt where their kids play out (cause a nuisance) till all hours doing whatever it is they do, who go to school with no ambition other than to emulate their parents is their ambition. It’s a choice and a right and many of them are blissfully happy. We have to be careful not to try to let our ambitions and our idea of a good life brush off onto them, they might not want it to.

    • milkwithtwo says:

      Thank you for responding to h blog, you throw some interesting points into the pot. I was told by my head of sixth form I would never be anything but a waitress and left sixth firm shortly afterwards. So I do agree that teachers have a responsibility towards aspirations.

      As Head of Year, I would have relished parents like you to challenge me and support me in helping your children do their best. All I can say is at least they have you fighting their corner and I am sure they will do wel.

      Have you thought about becoming a School Gov? I think any school would be lucky to have you on the board.

      Thanks for following me and I look forward to hearing your views on other posts. You have given me lots to think about!

      • milkwithtwo says:

        Please excuse the iPad typos!

      • parra67 says:

        I’m just half way through PGCE working towards a mid life career change into teaching in FE as I think this is a crucial stage where a lot of students go astray as they juggle semi independence, adulthood, crucial decision making and so many other huge things. I know it is where I struggled most in education and the part I had to practically drag my daughter screaming through and where a lot of my friends lost the will to carry on and also where the same happened to my daughter’s friends 25 years on. I realised not a lot had changed to keep those who were capable of better things from falling off the track and settling for whatever appeared to be easier. Already, just on placement I’ve found students who are capable and have great ambition but who have no information, people in their families, schools, colleges who don’t inspire them or have faith in them, I’ve already made a difference just talking to them about options, choices, a future out of education, frank discussions on what university life is like and I’ve seen lights switch on in their eyes, I’ve seen them knuckle down to work they had no interest in before, I’ve delighted in them asking how they can get a pass up to a distinction because suddenly the grade does matter.

        I don’t think I’ll change the world, but if I can just influence one or two young people to think more broadly and not accept their lot in life as I have with my own children then I’m happy that I might have changed someone’s world.

        I think I’d be too radical as a governor, or maybe too passionate which would be perceived as radicalism. I hate that poor kids are not supposed to be intelligent and that poor kids don’t have ambitions instead they have ‘pipe dreams’, I hate all of that with a passion.

        I’m enjoying reading your blog, this post struck a real chord with me and it has inspired me and I’m grateful to you for that.

      • milkwithtwo says:

        Very kind words and your passion will touch more than one or two. Being part of a young person’s educational journey is an honour and not one I have ever taken for granted. Good luck and please message me, if I can be of help. JK

  2. Dr Brad Kavie says:

    Oh dear, here we go again. Invest in public services, reduce poverty, it’s not the poor people’s fault it’s the government. blah blah blah. I think you have hit the nail on the head when you say it’s up to the parents to get off their backsides and find a job. It’s not for the government and hard working tax payers to subsidise the lazy. It’s so easy to say increase public spending but at some point these people have to take responsibility for themselves. Poverty is no longer an excuse for inaction and apathy, crime and misdemeanor. Get a job and do some work, that is the route to a better life.

  3. Abby says:

    I LOVE your blogposts – so illuminating Thankyou (again!).

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