I’m a little irked at the way that people who argue that an academic education is the means to ending poverty, throw out an accusation of ‘low expectations’ to those who think we should have a broader debate about the purpose of education and the role of vocational routes. What I notice more and more is that the accusations come from people who have led comfortable upper middle class lives and who make the assumption that the answer to society’s problems is to ‘make every one like us’. At its most well intentioned, this translates into “I wish everyone could have what I have” – and who can judge that too harshly? At its worst it translates into hubris and a paternalistic notion that “we know best.”
For a start, consider the hierarchy we have in terms of which subjects ‘count’ as being academic. Let’s face it, there is absolutely no logical reason why History is rated above Theatre in terms of academic demand. Theatre students will explore the role of theatre (and by association, the development of democracy, the role of women and the use of theatre as a political and social tool) in Ancient Greece, Medieval Britain and Italy, Elizabethan society, Jacobean society and across Europe and America in the 20th Century. If you want to explore the rise of Hitler, look to “The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui”. And the plays of Sartre are a great way of accessing the concepts of existentialism. Yet History is exalted and Drama derided. Ask children on the whole which subject they prefer though, and you’ll have a stampede into the studio. Children are not resistant to academia, they are resistant to static pedagogies and forced facts. A great History teacher who brings the subject to life will trump a lazy Drama teacher who sits on the radiator and tells children to ‘make up a play about drugs’. But bring the two together and you have fireworks.
This is not an argument about academic and non academic. Or even about academic versus vocational. It’s a twofold argument about values and purpose. What is the purpose of an education? And what do we value?
Let’s go back to poverty for a moment. Those championing an ‘academic’ route will throw at you all the statistics that show that children from poor backgrounds are less likely to go to University. And statistics show that they are less likely to stay there too – so those schools braying that they got kids through the door need to really think about whether they did them a favour. When 50% leave without completing their degree but still carrying debt, there is a problem. The reasons for leaving are complex but you can’t even begin to understand them if you don’t understand the lives of the children you are planning for.
My parents both grew up in grinding poverty. But in my Dad’s house was a parent who valued education and was willing to support him to the age of 18. In the other were parents who had no concept of the value of education and who needed their child to start earning as soon as possible. We’re talking about a home with one lightbulb that was moved from room to room. With no toilet paper. Where a piano given to the family was chopped up for fuel. For my Dad’s family, poverty was circumstantial – a reasonably well off family brought down by alcoholism. For my Mum, both of her parents had known nothing but poverty in a generational line dating back to the potato famine. There is a significant difference between circumstantial and generational poverty in terms of being able to imagine yourself out of your situation. My dad got A Levels and trained on the job until he became a Chartered Accountant and set up his own business. My mum left school at 14 with no qualifications and worked in a mill. She quit work as soon as my dad was earning enough to support us all. She’s as bright as a button, but had no chances. So I completely understand the desire to put this inequality right. But the fact remains that without parental support, it’s a huge uphill struggle. It is meaningless to group FSM children into one category. Study after study tells us that parenting makes the difference. The EPPE study, a groundbreaking longitudinal study, is clear. When it comes to parenting, it’s not what you earn, it’s what you do that matters. Let’s take that for a moment. Back to my parents.
They had three children. All went to university. I was born in a terraced house with an outside toilet. Eight years later, my brother was born into a house with two bathrooms and a bidet. That’s social mobility. But what made the difference to us was not my Dad’s income, but the value they placed on our education. When I became a mother, I watched my Mum with my kids. She’d take them round the supermarket and name everything. At the park, every tree, bird, animal was named and described. She talked to them as I know she must have talked to me. A constant stream of language. And my Dad, even when we had no money, would bring books home from charity shops. I’ve written of this before. Had we stayed poor, we would still have had the chance to succeed because they did the right things.
It is perfectly possible to be a school who makes the FSM data sing. Two things matter. The parents and compliance. So if you put in strategies to ensure that the poor children in your school have aspirational parents who value education, you are half way there. How do you do it? Make uniforms so expensive that it takes a sacrifice to send your child there? Perhaps. And to be sure, make the rules on uniform so punitive that only the children with parents willing to fix and replace can stay. Select children on the basis that their parents come in to talk to you before hand? Perhaps. Take from ethnic groups associated with placing high value on education? Perhaps. But that still leaves many children in a situation where they need something extra and we need to be really careful about labelling those kids.
Of my uncles and aunts, those who stayed on council estates (even those who bought their house and were left with it as a crippling burden as interest rates rose and the neighbourhood went down the toilet) had children who are still on council estates. Or who are dead. You are more likely to die young if you are poor. Of my uncle’s four children, two are dead and one is sectioned for mental health problems. The loss of his job, being trapped in his home, losing both sons, worry for his mentally ill daughter and the breakdown of his marriage led my kind and gentle uncle to despair. He committed suicide. The fourth child still lives on an estate, dependent on benefits and has seven children. There are many who would judge her. But being a mother gave her a sense of value. She had lost everything – having children around her made her feel like her life had meaning and stability. And there are stories like this all over the country. Tragedy is common where children have no safe place to play, are living in homes with black mould and damp, where boredom and hopelessness prevail.
It’s understandable that some of us think that the answer is to get them out of there. But we cannot underestimate the pull of belonging and of community. Many people don’t want to get out of their community. They want improvements to the community. And education will not appeal, if it is seen to take them away. We need to consider how we make education meaningful for those who want to remain in their communities warts and all. And to do that we need to consider what opportunities for work there are or could be in that local area. If we start from a point of improving what we have, we can find hope. Ironically, that’s the message being given by Dylan Wiliam to Head teachers – work with what you’ve got.
When I was at school, I’d stare out of the window of my O Level classes and into the sheds near the school. There, some of the boys in my year would be pulling engines apart and putting them back together again, all oily and happy in their overalls. Most of them went straight from school into jobs as car mechanics. They had the skills already. Although the 80s was a period of high unemployment, most of the kids in my year left at 16 and went straight into work. It wasn’t a question of poor kids doing vocational and more affluent kids doing O levels – it was much messier than that. For my own part, my dad pretty much made the decision for me. Many of my friends went on to schemes in secretarial, hairdressing, mechanics, plumbing positions – they all had some skill in those areas because they’d been able to work on them as part of their curriculum. I meet some of them these days and they are earning far more than I am. I’d sit in my French class, chanting verbs and wish I could get my hands on an engine. I’m not really complaining, but it would have been great to be able to do both. To get my hands and my brain dirty.
So back to brass tacks. What is the point of education?
To pass tests?
To get work?
To be creative?
To be happy?
To be wise?
To change the world?
Our answers to these questions will depend on our beliefs but there are some we can question straight away. While we throw all that time and energy into the question “what works”, we only look at tests. Even though Dylan Wiliam and others point to research that shows that our “evidence” of what works can only be applied to the test and that success in one test does not seem to guarantee the ability to transfer the knowledge to another context. Not even to another test. So our tests qualify kids to pass our tests. That might explain the frustrations of HE and employers.
If it’s to get work, then we need to think what it is that the world of work needs and offers. There is little incentive to study hard in order to secure a low paid job on a temporary contract. And there aren’t enough highly paid jobs. And the need in our society for carers and cleaners is great, but who would study hard for that? We cannot tempt children through tests with a lie that they will lead to work. An oversupply of graduates has created a situation where the jobs my peers were doing at 16 are now being filled by graduates with tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt to their names. Where is the sense in that?
Another story – modern day. A primary school near a gas works. There is an emergency procedure for when a leak is suspected and on this day, the procedure kicks in. The children are moved a safe distance away and all the parents are called. The vast majority come and collect their children within an hour. Others call to say they’re on their way or that they’ve arranged for a family member to collect. But a small number of children are left. The Head instructs the staff to walk them home. My friend takes a small group of children. All the parents are home but most are not happy to see their children home early. Two children are left. One arrives at his house. The doors are boarded up. He tells the teacher that this is because the police kicked them in. There is a ladder leading to a first floor window. Quick as a flash he climbs up it and through the window. This is how he gets in and out of his house. The final child doesn’t want to go home. He drags his heels. When they get there, the door is open and loud noise from the TV is booming out into the street. The teacher puts her head around the door and calls out. No answer. She ventures in. There is no furniture in the room, except for a chair and a television. There is no carpet. There are beer cans all over the floor. In the chair a man is asleep. And in a cardboard box, on the floor next to him, a baby in a stinking, sodden nappy is crying. She understands why this child finds it hard to concentrate in school.
Her school has an unusually high number of FSM children, and the fact is that the majority are cared for, collected and safe. But for those climbing through windows, or growing up with nappy rash in a cardboard box, an academic education is not going to be enough. Tristram Hunt said yesterday that what makes a difference to children is attachment. Children without attachment, language, love, safety are not school ready. This is the first step towards being an educated person. For my cousin, for these children, History, Science, were irrelevant. That’s not to say we shouldn’t teach them. But without support – perhaps counselling – empathy, love and understanding, they will fall on stony ground. I look at her and think of what she could have been. She’s great with children – could she have had a career in child care? Who knows. But we need to think about how we teach parenting to all our children and to our parents. We need to think about what we can do to bring moral purpose and meaning into the system so that there is a chance to see that there is hope and possibility everywhere – even in your own communities.
There is a moment in the film Tyrannosaur – a film which paints a grim and realistic picture of life on an estate – where the community comes together at a funeral. There is care and support, understanding and belonging. This is what we need to tap into. This is what children need to find. This is the foundation stone that schools should seek to build. The rest can follow.