I have been really interested by the issues and opinions raised in response to my posts on the BBC’s Gareth Malone’s Extraordinary School for Boys. This programme is part of the BBC’s School Season. Another programme I watched in series was John Humphrys Unequal Opportunities, looking at the reasons behind the “attainment gap” between advantaged and disadvantaged children.
This programme was interesting, but I felt what was said was too obvious – of course you are going to get a better education if your parents pay for you to go to a school with excellent resources and small classes rather than being at an inner city comprehensive where teachers change every few weeks.
It was also too negative; there was too much talk about “rich” and “poor” parents; an over-simplification with these terms being used as derogatory terms rather than economic realities. Humphrys did not actually give parents any credit. Many “rich” parents are in that situation because they work hard. There was no acknowledgement of that. There was also no recognition of the most important factor in why children of “rich” parents do well – because “rich” parents may be better educated themselves, or at least literate, and therefore more likely to engage their children at home – talk to them, read to and with them, help with homework and demonstrate a positive work ethic which the children will emulate. It’s a complicated vicious circle which Humphrys did not discuss..
I was therefore gratified to read an article in Nursery World where Frank Field MP, who has been commissioned by David Cameron to investigate the way poverty is defined and how to tackle it, said “income alone was not the main driver of the achievement gap between children from rich and poor families…Good parenting and home learning environments matter most to young children’s eventual life chances”. Field acknowledges that more is spent on education than on “helping parents during critical pre-school years” and yet “what happens in the first five years of a child’s life matters as much as, if not more than, what happens in schools”.
The issue of parental support is, sadly, cyclical – parents who have had difficult lives themselves have not learnt crucial life skills to pass on to their children. Therefore, children of disadvantaged parents may well be disadvantaged themselves, irrespective of which school they attend, because they do not have support or developmental nurture at home. They may never have had “working” parents to emulate.
One of the most depressing things I have heard recently was about aspirations of primary school children. A friend who is a teacher in a deprived area told me that when he asked children in his class what they wanted to be when they grew up, they said “on benefits”. This was because all the adult role models in their home environment were living on benefits; they had no understanding of any other way of life.
How can we encourage those children to break the cycle, engage at school, be keen to learn and aim for something more fulfilling? How can they understand how important it is to read and write, to pass exams so that they can get a job to earn and support themselves, if they are not seeing that in their home environment?
What I did take from the John Humphrys’ programme was that inspirational teachers and head teachers can make an incredible difference in the most difficult of circumstances. Two heads in particular were shown to be improving standards in “disadvantaged” areas by setting high standards, particularly in behaviour, and inspiring the children to achieve. They understood their children, and probably their parents – the head teacher of the primary school said she did not assume that any of the children had particular life experiences; she was ensuring the children were educated in a holistic way.
This, for me, is becoming apparent as the key to good education. In another Nursery World article, Professor Hirsh-Pasek talks about the importance of play in learning. She says “we are wearing out our children by engaging them in these “drill-and-kill” activities and testing for factoids when factoids don’t matter…Our society so often confuses learning with memorisation and test scores with success. Nothing could be more wrong.”
She argues that children are ill-prepared for the demands of the 21st century workforce where innovation and creativity, team working, communication skills, critical thinking and confidence are more important that what has been “learnt”. She thinks it would be more productive to place the “emphasis on how we learn rather than what we learn”. Something Gareth Malone would probably agree with.
Gareth Malone also agreed that parental support is vital. David Shaw, a BBC Parent Panel blogger, attended a BBC debate on education. There, Sir William Atkinson (one of the inspirational head-teachers featured in John Humphrys’ programme) said “the answer to engaging those 40 percent of students who currently get a raw deal from the education system, is to engage the families. Bring in the families, help them learn to read and write; help them get some qualifications and try to reverse the bad experiences of school they suffered during their own formative years.”
This to me sounds a more positive response to inequality in society than deriding “rich” parents who may have worked hard for their choices.
At a time when the government is re-evaluating projects and where public money should be spent, the challenge for politicians – and us as a thinking society – is how to break this negative educational cycle. How can we best support disadvantaged parents so that they can support and encourage their children’s education? Ending this cycle should help to reduce the attainment gap.