Education News – Come on Gove, give the poor kids a chance.

Tough luck kids. You can stick your bottom lip out like this, but no one cares. Maybe you should just turn to the bible…

I am having a lovely weekend away in Cambridge, staying with the fella’s parents. I’m currently sitting in his living room drinking red wine and listening to him and his brother talk about philosophy in the garden, which is why I have time to write!

It’s been a good week all in all; work has been hectic, but in a good way.

I started my new job as a part-time administrator at the end of April, but have since been working my arse off to get involved in everything I can within the company in order to prove myself as someone who is useful in areas other than filing.

This has both been great fun, and has gladly paid off. I’ve been doing a lot of writing work for a couple of new campaigns for the company, as well as blog posts, articles and web re-writes, and it’s the first time I have really had the opportunity, thanks to my very supportive bosses, to really get my teeth into a job I enjoy.

I had a meeting on Friday which resulted in me being offered a full-time position. A ‘proper’ grown up job, as it were. So this week, I am very happy. I’ve never been one of those five-year-plan types, but I suppose it’s all about the big three. You know, a flat I like, a bloke I like, and now, a job I really enjoy. And anyone who is a regular reader of this blog (I think I flatter myself there, but self-delusion helps!) will know I have been looking for a job I like for a long time.

As I’m sure is the case for many, many graduates, the search has been interesting. And irritating. And at points downright depressing. However, I am finally working for a lovely company where people actually treat you like you may have a brain in your head. Unlike the various pub jobs I have had over the last ten years, (shit. ten years.) people actually ask your opinion about things, listen to you when you suggest something, and they don’t expect you to flirt with them while they make annoying, and usually crap innuendos in front of their mates. And it’s even paying above the minimum wage, which to me is bloody spectacular!

I actually managed to suggest, research and write an article for a HR Magazine (the previous post to this if you’re interested) about appraisal in secondary education. After my meeting on Friday, I headed off to Cambridge to stay with my boyfriend’s parents for the weekend with the intention of picking his Dad’s brain on the subject. He is the headmaster of a very good private school in Cambridge, and I thought he would be a great person to speak to, who was bound to have an interesting and informed perspective. However, it’s been a battle to get up the confidence to even ask.

You see, the thing that I have found, (although I’m slowly getting better at it) is that no matter what job you are doing, or your knowledge of the subject in question, if you’re from a working-class background, academics are intimidating. And it’s frustrating. It’s just that their whole lifestyle, accent, way of speaking to each other (and incalculable other little things) are so different from what I’m used to that I still feel like I’m faking it.

My fella has come home to (among other things, Father’s Day etc.) help his little brother with his A-Level revision. He is about to sit a philosophy exam, and my partner is training to be a Philosophy Lecturer at Bristol University, so it’s good practice for them both.

However, the thing that amazes me every time I venture to Cambridge to meet the family, (who are always lovely and welcoming, by the way) is our irreconcilable difference in attitudes, and consequently, the difference in not just academic attainment, but in the confidence you need in order to feel entitled to it. And this is not just me, it’s a difference in attitude I share with many of the people I know.

Cambridge is an obvious place for educational aspiration, being a world renowned centre for academic pursuit, but it’s not just the setting. All members of the family speak to each other. And I’m not judging my family here, we do speak, but we also shout, disagree, talk over each other, and nine times out of ten, miss the point of what each other are saying. I still don’t think my parents know what job I am doing, or what I did at Uni. And don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t have it any other way. My point is simply that there certainly weren’t any in depth discussions about that sort of thing when I was growing up.

However, in my fella’s family, they sit together – quietly – and read the paper. They have discussions about art, literature, philosophy and politics. And this includes the little brother. I don’t think I really spoke to my parents at all (unless you count numerous arguments, but that’s normal, right?) when I was a teenager, and certainly none of those topics would have even vaguely entered the discussion, but that was normal for most people I knew. But the real difference is in the way they talk. It’s grown up, civilised, encourages debate. The little brother speaks fluently, eloquently, about his subjects, and the rest of the family join in, inviting discussion and consideration.

This is where I struggle. Despite being having started my A – levels ten years ago, and having done a degree since then, I can’t help feeling like a little kid, and totally unable to join in. Because coming from where I did, I never had discussions like that. And in Lincolnshire, if you did it was likely to get you taken the piss out of at the very least. This is something I don’t think I have ever shaken off. If I’m around people who have lots of money and a good education I panic. And I think this is a huge problem, (ignoring money for the moment) with the classist system in British education.

Had I been encouraged to speak like this, to discuss things in this way, at school or at home, I don’t think I would have this problem. I think it is part of the reason I’m a writer (I can’t see the reactions of people if they’re just reading what I’ve written down, and therefore I don’t feel intimidated) and I really believe it’s the reason many less well-off children struggle. I don’t believe that grades reflect the intelligence of an individual in many cases. And they often don’t reflect that person’s ability to perform well in various types of employment. They simply reflect their environment, upbringing and approach to academic work. In the main, they reflect the opportunities people have been given, and the money they have.

The way my partner’s little brother talks, even at eighteen, is bound to gain him an exam pass, as long as he can articulate himself the same way in writing. But it’s the confidence behind his speech that surprises me. It is the confidence of someone who has always been encouraged to express his opinion, and to discuss his knowledge in an adult way. It is the confidence of someone who has been supported to re-think when mistakes are made, rather than encouraged not to try. And this is what money (and good parenting) achieves. But if our education system was truly representative and democratic, this wouldn’t be the case.

Working class kids, no matter what their level of intelligence, are never encouraged to converse in this way, and this seems to be an area in which schools are failing. I realise that many parents of working class kids don’t have this level of education, and don’t have the knowledge about the subjects their children are learning at school in order to get involved in this way. And that is not a failing on the parent’s part. Neither is it an unfair advantage that parents with better educational attainment encourage their kids in this way. However, what is unfair is that our education system is as such that children from better backgrounds, or those who can afford to attend private schools are being put at an unfair advantage from a very early age.

This is because schools fail to encourage poorer children to think they are capable of learning to converse in a way that encourages debate and that their opinions and knowledge can be of equal value, despite having less money or a different accent. I would like to make clear that I do not think this is the fault of the teachers. It seems to me to be a problem that has arisen because power in schools has been prescriptive and centralised, which limits teacher’s freedom to do their jobs in a way that fits the pupil. And it is certainly not a way that encourages improvement.

That national curriculum is currently being reviewed, and Michael Gove has been advised by an expert panel from some of the country’s top universities, headed by Cambridge University’s Tim Oates. However, Gove seems to be unwilling to take into account their findings and make changes that make the national curriculum fairer for all. Gove wrote in his letter to Oates following the consultation that he aims to;

‘Raise attainment for all children and help the poorest most of all’.

But, like many other decisions under the current government, there seems to be in practice a gap between what they say and what they in fact do. The poorer people in the country, once again seem to be neglected, and are from the start at a disadvantage that the education system seems keen to perpetuate.

Gove proposes to make sure his aims ‘embody our sense of ambition, a love of education for its own sake…[and a] determination to democratise knowledge’. However, he is planning a curriculum that doesn’t really fit in making this the case. Andrew Pollard, one of the four education specialists recruited in the advisory expert panel described Gove’s new curriculum plans as ‘punitive and controlling (Guardian Article, June 17th 2012). So once again the result seems to be saying one thing and actually meaning another.

Gove consistently makes reference to giving schools greater freedoms, both in his academies and in mainstream schooling, but this freedom is yet to materialise. If schools do not give teachers the freedom to teach in a way that is fitting to their pupils, then the system that currently disadvantages those from poorer backgrounds will simply continue.

In his letter to Oates, he proposes that the new curriculum will put a stronger emphasis on ‘reading widely for pleasure’ […] and children will learn to ‘master formal English through poetry recitation’. This is all well and good, but given that the expert panel were assembled in order to advise on the curriculum, and seem to be against these prescriptive measures, it’s odd that he has continued to forge ahead regardless.

Gove mentions in his letter that the new curriculum should allow ‘as many children as possible [to] lay claim to a rich intellectual inheritance’. However, by prescribing the curriculum in this restrictive manner, he assumes all children approach academic pursuits in the same way, and from an equal footing. This simply isn’t the case.

Encouraging children to learn by writ; down to prescribing them a spelling list – is not applicable, or fluid enough to engage pupils from these backgrounds. Neither does it give teachers the freedom to make education and confidence in their own intelligence accessible to working class students. For someone from a poorer background where there is not a culture of ‘reading widely for pleasure’, or reciting poetry, this kind of restrictive teaching makes what children learn inapplicable, outdated and potentially disengaging.

Once children have been put off or alienated by schooling, or taught by teachers who do not have the freedom to engage them in a way that they can really relate to, it is easy for their confidence to be knocked. And in my experience that can last a lifetime.

However, I would like to thank my lovely bloke for giving me the opportunity to meet many people who I would not have otherwise met, attend many academic functions and get involved in discussions that I would not have otherwise had the confidence to enter. Also, for making me realise that people from better backgrounds, with better educations are not as scary and incomprehensible as I thought. They are actually lovely, supportive, and simply often unaware that in the lower classes, any such lack of confidence exists.

Hopefully, if the people employed to improve the situation listen to advice, rather than assuming they are right and asking others simply as a token gesture, confidence will improve. Then whatever their background, children will have a little more faith in their ability.


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