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