How do we make a difference?

24 Feb

As the debate rages over the appointment of Professor Les Ebdon as the next director of the Office for Fair Access (Offa), whether it is the responsibility of schools or universities to widen participation and ensure social mobility, and who is “to blame” for lack of progress in these fields, some recent newspaper articles and a Blog highlight key aspects of these challenging issues.

In his FT data Blog “The social mobility challenge for school reformers”, Christopher Cook’s detailed analysis concludes:

“This is the graph that ought to haunt the dreams of every school reformer. The social mobility problem is not that there is a small number of weak schools serving a lot of poor kids. It is that poor children do badly in the majority of England’s schools.”

In today’s Times, Anushka Asthana points out “‘It’s not schools or universities. It’s families’: If we want children from poor backgrounds to get on, we must raise aspirations at home”. [paywall]

Citing examples of families she has met and recent research, she argues:

“Only be embedding high aspiration in families will we cut through the intractable problem of social mobility

“‘Social mobility is not about what people feel for their children but what they hope for them.'”

In The TES, Joe Nutt’s article “Teachers cannot mend the crippled limbs of society. Sorry, Ofsted” contends that:

“What neither schools nor teachers can do much about is the nature of the problem foisted on them by the communities they serve. And it is not the problem the policy gurus and the strategic thinkers in government think it is.

Absence of the desire to learn .

“I have encountered children utterly incapable of functioning in a conventional classroom, whoever happens to be standing at the front teaching them. The entire concept of schooling, that fundamental human desire to learn, develop and improve, common across cultures and ages, is absent. In its place is an invidious, dysfunctional dependency on any adult fool enough, misguided enough or, as is so often the case, simply kind enough to want to help .

“Schools cannot undo this level of educational disenfranchisement. Teachers, however good, excellent or merely satisfactory they might be, cannot mend this crippled limb of a broken society and it’s pretty hypocritical of politicians, of any colour or creed, to mislead the general public into believing they can

“There is no scale for this problem, no performance measure or pay-by-results strategy that can address such intractable ignorance. The nut Ofsted seems unable to locate among so many hardworking teachers’ fingers and thumbs is that we have a substantial group of children in our society for whom school is in no sense a meaningful option. What they need, we don’t yet have. And every day that we waste, failing to appreciate this harsh truth, is a day that our wider, healthier society and culture contracts further.”

While in this week’s TES, Ofsted Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw counters:

“I have an unshakeable faith in the power of high-quality teaching and cannot accept the conclusion that, in the end, there is nothing schools can do in the face of this. Hundreds of schools in disadvantaged areas have shown that they can be outstanding, and hundreds more are good. This excellent practice can and should be emulated.”

Some advocates of free schools see them as an escape route for parents to “deliver the outcomes they want”, away from the damaging presence of those who do not share the same aspirations, but that does not address the issues of those Joe Nutt describes.

Yes, schools and individual teachers can and do ‘make a difference’ but the attitude of certain pupils and their parents can have a destructive effect on those pupils’ welfare and learning and have a negative impact on those of other pupils and their school. How we provide for these young people is arguably the most serious challenge facing our education system.

Parenting and social mobility have been frequent themes of this Blog, but it is worth quoting from some previous posts here.

In “Adults are to blame” we quote from an article in 2008 for SecEd, in which¬†Voice General Secretary [until summer 2012] Philip Parkin pointed out that:

“We need to be aware of adults’ roles and responsibilities in creating the environment in which children grow. Schools are expected to compensate not just for parents’ shortcomings, but also for the pressures adult society imposes on young people.

“I’m uncomfortable about the direction society is going. Missing from the lives of many disenfranchised teenagers is a functioning parental figure. If there’s no functioning parent, there’s no food in the house, no-one washes your clothes, you don’t go to the dentist. You live in chaos. If you have good care as a child, you can survive almost anything. Emotional deprivation is a lethal weapon.

“We may deplore some young people’s behaviour, but they’re a minority. We may find some pupils difficult a General Teaching Council for England survey suggested this was a major reason why up to 40 per cent of young teachers don’t remain in teaching but we need to see children positively.

“Who has created this social climate? Adults. Parents have to take their share of responsibility, but so have adults who comprise and vote for governments, control the media, commercialise children, promote the cult of celebrity, or promote greedy, selfish behaviour adults who don’t understand ‘community’.

“The children’s agenda can’t exist outside of a vision for the whole of society. The government needs to articulate what sort of a society it’s trying to create and to share it with us. That includes the responsibilities we all bear as adults and parents.”

While in “Family attitudes not school systems slowing down social mobility” Voice Professional Officer (Wales) John Till argues, again from an article in SecEd, that it is not systems of schooling that have slowed down social mobility in the last two decades, but attitudes in families:

“There has been much discussion of social mobility of late. Commentators from various backgrounds have pronounced on the matter, prompted by statistics suggesting that social mobility in Britain is less than in comparable countries. The usual comparison is with the middle years of the 20th century, which are often portrayed as the age of the ‘meritocracy’.

“The popular notion of social mobility is the progression of people from working class and non-university backgrounds through ‘good’ universities into what, traditionally, have been seen as prestigious middle class occupations. It is the school which is seen to open the door for young people and set them on their way.

“For many educated in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, and occupying senior positions by the 1980s, the route to success, professionally and socially, was the grammar school they attended. Often they were the first generation of their families to go to a secondary school, let alone a university. Their attachment to their grammar schools is understandable. The danger is that they attribute too much to them.

“It is easy to see how this experience can lead to an assumption that a slowing down of social mobility is a consequence of the abolition of selection and the disappearance of grammar schools. It must be that bright children from working class backgrounds fail to flourish in comprehensive schools, and so are denied access to the best universities and careers.

“But is this too simplistic? After all, bright children from professional and working class families do well at comprehensive schools. And do the remaining grammar schools facilitate social mobility in their localities? Or do they draw pupils from much further afield and from families who can afford the cost of transport and preparation for entrance examinations?

“The problem with comparing what happens now with what happened 50 and 60 years ago is that the context is different. The immediate post-war years saw a generation have access to secondary education for the first time. Many had parents who were bright but who had had to leave school at 14. Many of those parents respected education and learning, wanted their children to have opportunities, and encouraged them to take advantage of them. Perhaps, crucially, they did not believe that their children’s lives had to be limited by the expectations of their local community or family background.

“Many of their children became that socially mobile generation, and made the transition to professional occupation and status. Their children in turn are not classed among those who need social mobility.

“Those who do tend now to be in families without experience of higher education. They face conflicting pressures. Their schools press them to achieve. Popular and local culture feed anti-intellectual and anti-education prejudices, encouraging a ‘not for us’ mentality and a rejection of any aspiration to be different. Arguably what has slowed down social mobility in the last two decades is not systems of schooling but attitudes in families.

“This is not to say that social mobility has reached its limits that young people in contemporary working class families lack the ability to achieve academically. Most teachers in all kinds of secondary school know pupils who could do better given a better attitude to study, and not all will be from working class backgrounds.

“Well run schools and committed teachers try to encourage all pupils to make the most of their talents and provide opportunities to do so. But without supportive families and communities their task is hard.

“So, is the re-introduction of selection the answer? Is there evidence that social mobility is greater in areas served by grammar and secondary modern schools than in those with comprehensive schools? If not, let’s move on from what may be a nostalgic distraction and address the real issues.”

[Poll Would more academic selection improve social mobility?]

There are no easy answers.

“How do we give our children a good start in life?” looked at seemingly conflicting research:

A study of 11,000 seven-year-old children by researchers from the University of London’s Institute of Education found that social class has more effect on children than good parenting. The report found that parents’ social class has a greater impact on how well their children between the ages of five and seven perform at school than ‘good parenting’ techniques such as reading bedtime stories. Parents in professional and managerial jobs were at least eight months ahead of pupils from the most socially disadvantaged homes. Alice Sullivan, the main author of the study, said the research showed that ‘while parenting is important, a policy focus on parenting alone is insufficient to tackle the impacts of social inequalities on children . Redistributive economic policies may be more effective than policies directly addressing parenting practices,’ she said.

“Earlier this year, however, Deputy Prime Minister suggested that good parenting could make a bigger difference than class to the destiny of a child.”

“[However] The Foundation Years: preventing Poor Children Becoming Poor Adults (pdf) published by the Independent Review on Poverty and Life Chances, conducted by Frank Field found ‘huge class differences in the range of children’s abilities measurable on their first day at school. For many poor children life’s race is by then already effectively over’ .

“Governments can come and go with their city technology colleges, grant maintained schools, academies, free schools, university technical colleges and studio schools and English Baccalaureates but, as Voice Chairman Emeritus Geraldine Everett once put it:

‘If we can get it right from the beginning of a child’s life, through good parenting, universal adequate funding in the early years, appropriate high quality learning and care opportunities, and joined-up services, we could avoid so many children failing or being at risk of failing later’.

“Why should a single child be denied the chance of achieving his or her potential? Do we have the political will and the resources to create a totally level playing field not equality but equity?

“What role in life is more important than being a parent? What role is more influential than being a parent? What training do we get to be a parent? None or very little. We might remember how we were brought up and resolve to do the same or the opposite. We might ask for or be given advice.

As Philip Larkin crudely but succinctly put it:They xxxx you up, your mum and dad./They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had/ And add some extra, just for you./But they were xxxxxx up in their turn/ By fools in old-style hats and coats,/Who half the time were soppy-stern/And half at one another’s throats.’

To quote Wordsworth, ‘The Child is father of the Man’. We are all the products of our upbringing good or bad and that influences how we, in turn, behave as parents. It is a rather cynical, but a sadly often accurate, observation of Larkin’s that ‘Man hands on misery to man’.

“Instead of taking his advice ‘Get out as early as you can,/And don’t have any kids yourself’ we need to get in, or intervene, as early as we can, supporting children and families, investing in our early years and early years professionals instead of treating them, as many do, as a child-sitting service; inspiring children’s imagination through play and life experiences and then through reading and formal education when they are ready for it along with more education outside the classroom: ‘By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags/Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds’, as Coleridge saw it.

“There is no easy answer, and no one answer, to how we square the circle of poor parenting, social deprivation and inequality and poor educational achievement and damaged life chances. The debates about nature or nurture, social class and parenting methods have been around for centuries and will continue, but ‘How do we give our children a good start in life?’ is one of the most fundamental questions of all and one that deserves greater thought and insight from politicians interested only in tinkering round the edges before the next election.”

Do let us know your thoughts

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One Response to “How do we make a difference?”

  1. Richard Fraser 09. May, 2012 at 10:36 am #

    Comments by Dr Elizabeth Sidwell, the Schools Commissioner[]

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