Something’s been niggling me lately. I’ve not quite been able to put my finger on what it is, but a few weeks ago, it started to pop up to the surface. I was teaching a class of Russian children, trying to explain how to do a lift. The lift involved a smallish child being hoisted to shoulder height by other children holding his legs beneath the knee. It works through a combination of distribution of weight and the core balance and stability of the child being lifted. Unfortunately the children didn’t speak English and the idea of distributed weight was a little too much. And the child in question was as wobbly as a weeble. Except he did fall down (you have to be old to get that one).
Anyway, I wondered, why do some children seem to have ‘natural’ balance and others not? I’m one of the have nots, falling all over the place in yoga, but my sister seems to be able to hoist herself onto a toe nail and read a book without leaning at all. Genes or what?
I wrote some time ago about my concerns with regard to Robert Plomin’s research into the extent to which intelligence is inherited. He claims that for some skills, 70% of achievement might be down to inherited genes – reading for example – but also certain personality traits such as the ability to defer gratification. Such claims are controversial and rightly make us feel uncomfortable – beliefs in superior genes led to eugenics practices across Europe and the US in the 1930s after all. But this is 2015 and Plomin’s work cannot be dismissed easily. In a previous blog post I argued the case that even were it so, the 30% is well worth fighting for. The 30% can be achieved with growth mindsets and environmental opportunities. And that 30% marks the difference between 3 grades at GCSE etc etc. So basically, we should just crack on regardless.
But then I also read a study that claimed that poverty affects the very brain structure of children, inhibiting their learning even before birth. This is not a genetic phenomena, but an environmental one and the researchers suggest that stress chemicals might play a part. These fledgling findings need more exploration, but they suggest that rather than education being a means of lifting children out of poverty, poverty itself inhibits a child’s educational chances. The implications of this for policy makers, are profound.
In 2014, I asked Michael Gove at the Festival of Education how he could claim to champion children from disadvantaged backgrounds when his government had been responsible for putting another 300,000 of them into poverty. The actual figure is now much higher. He evaded the figures, but claimed that education was the answer – that it was our duty as teachers to ensure that our expectations were high enough to ensure that these children rose above their disadvantage and succeeded. They were powerful words. But if it is true that the state of poverty inhibits brain function, then the intense scrutiny we are placed under when Ofsted examines our data for PP children is at best unfair. Governments should be held to account in ensuring that the stresses of poverty are avoided for children. This is a societal problem, not an educational one. The good news seems to be that once the child is lifted out of poverty, brain functions recover. And therefore the message to politicians : eradicate poverty and give us a half decent chance of making a difference.
Of course, none of this will come as a surprise to those teachers working with disadvantaged children all the time. Being hungry, tired, worried don’t aid learning at all. But for years now, we’ve been fed a mantra that good teaching will overcome all. That there is no excuse for children not doing well. That it is a level playing field if we all teach like champs. Well it is not a level playing field. Some children are starting right at the bottom of the hill. I’m not suggesting we should leave them there, but it’s time we recognised that they might need longer to get up – they might need more of a helping hand. They might need more than one chance at success.
Am I saying we should give up on children because they happen to be poor? No, of course not. But I’m saying we need to have a grown up conversation about the demands being placed on teachers and the pressures being placed on children. At the very least, politicians must stop assuming that if they are punitive enough, teachers will make up for the impact of their cuts on the poorest in our society.
Teachers in this country have taken Dweck’s growth mindset theory to their very hearts, because it reinforces the intentions we all have when we go into teaching – that we can help any child to succeed. That there is always a way. We have heard and responded to the beauty of ‘not yet’ instead of ‘I can’t’. And we have done this because we care and we want to make a difference. But give us a break – we may well be able to overcome the genetic hurdles placed in our way. But should we also have to overcome those created by our society and by our own politicians?