What do we mean by ‘Educational Aspiration’?

Here’s the full version of my article in TES Scotland 17th February 2017

Reading J. D. Vance’s ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ is a humbling experience. His beautiful memoir of a crushingly challenging upbringing and the aftermath of fraught family connections rang a few bells and brought me back to thinking of the lives of the children I teach. Returning to school after the Christmas break, I was reminded that there are those in my classroom who will not have had the same happy holiday as everyone else. There are those who, while being asked to raise money and bring in donations for the local Food Bank, will have had to turn that very Food Bank for Christmas dinner.

Vance’s thesis throughout the book is that poverty is generational. He grew up in communities where having a job is rare and barely surviving was normal. His parents and their parents and their parents were mired in a system which, they were convinced, was not for them; a system which lies when it says that hard work pays off in the long run; where Grandparents worked themselves to death just to keep afloat, and aspiration was survival, and avoiding homelessness and starvation. It is no wonder that the poverty gap is widening with showing no sign of reversing that trend. Throwing money and resources at the problem will fix nothing.

There is also an endemic perception that education is for others. The poor don’t go to University; you certainly don’t see many lawyers and doctors coming from poor backgrounds. There are few role models to change that, no heroes returning to transform their community. And perhaps that’s an area worthy of focus. If we are to convince those in poverty that education truly can be transformative then wouldn’t it be good if we showed them that too? Perhaps ensure they visit a University at a younger age than sixteen; match them with a mentor for a term to discuss the life of a Uni student and the possibilities which could be open to them.

To what should be our great shame, some children, having lived their lives in poverty, begin school already behind their peers in so many ways. Our system often fails to overcome those barriers and these kids leave school twelve years later still behind their peers, but with deep-rooted resentment of a system which has failed them. Oh yes, we comfort ourselves by creating qualifications for them so that we can repeat, year after year, ‘at least she’ll leave school with something’. A line which should shame us.

In his book, J.D. Vance overcame horrific odds to reach University and succeed. He realises that there were significant adults who consistently told him and reminded him that aspiration was transformational; who never lowered the bar but raised it and helped him get there. If education is to be for all, then let it be for all. For all time.

Believe it or not, there are good things happening in schools

Here’s the full version of my article in TES Scotland 20th January 2017

 

And, woe, we did revel in the Pisa disaster. We’re rubbish and getting worse. CfE has failed. We were happy to see bandied about, in this very magazine, phrases such as ‘all time low’ and ‘plunged’.

And, of course, it was bad. To think that there are less of our children reaching competent levels of literacy is unacceptable. However, the hyperbole of such language doesn’t help. Political outrage merely gets in the way; politicians merely get in the way. Pisa tells a story but a very narrow one and one which ignores the great things happening in all our schools.

As an English teacher, it is my life’s work to improve the literacy of every child who walks though may door. When I read about drops in standards, whatever that may mean, it hurts. Literacy is a human right. The ability to read and write should be a minimum expectation of every kid who goes to school. And most do. The misleading media attention on Pisa is an unfair reflection of what is happening in our schools and deflects from the majority who are achieving so much.

In the fortunate position of visiting schools on an annual basis, the wonderful things occurring never fail to amaze me. In my own school, in the last weeks before Christmas, I’ve watched children involved in debating to a very high standard, a jazz band, a ceilidh band, a concert band, a choir; I’ve read about their successes in football, rugby, netball. They are building rockets in the engineering club, coding, producing incredible art, winning creative writing competitions with poetry which would make you cry. They are, for the most part, polite and eloquent and funny and interesting and challenging.

Those things are happening in schools all over the country. However, that’s not in the news. Instead our children read and hear stories that they are struggling with literacy and numeracy and science. Yes, they read those too. Of course, we could turn this into a political debate on the merits of CfE; we can point fingers and blame. If there are barriers to literacy and numeracy inadvertently created by the curriculum, then they need to be overcome. If things need to change then they need to be changed. I’ll be at the front of the queue with the wrecking ball. But I won’t stand by and let the great work that’s happening in schools be ignored. I’m no apologist for CfE – any more. I was in the past – and see the flaws. So let’s speak up for the successes and tackle the failures; let’s collaborate and share the good things and challenge and dismiss the rubbish. We owe it to ourselves; we owe to our children.

A Lifetime of Resentments and Insecurities

tazOften like a whirlwind, often like a Tazmanian Devil, he storms, belligerently out of my class on the bell in the same rebellious manner as he enters: with somewhere better to be and another fifty minutes chalked off from his day. Negotiating six periods daily is a constant battle for him. What has changed is, in his developing maturity, he now doesn’t fight as much, knowing that this is something he must endure until he can leave school. He does what he needs to do, avoids what he can avoid and gets out of here as fast as he can.

For kids like him, school has been an abject failure. Education has never been respected in his family – what has it ever done for them? – and we have whole-heartedly failed to change that for him. Counting the days, looking at the clock, biding his time. He’ll leave school barely literate. Our inability to engage him or even counteract the feeling that we, as symbols of authority,  are the enemy, means he will leave school with some token qualifications and a whole bag of resentments and insecurities, some of which he may never get over. No-one ever leaves school with nothing.

Of course, a system stacked against him didn’t help. Stuck in a bottom set for most of his subjects – yes, I know we don’t like the term, but that’s what they are – he has never had the opportunity to sit with someone who is ‘good at English’ or any other subject for that matter. Our pretence that it is ‘for his own good’ and he can get more attention in a smaller class has long been debunked by staff shortages and cutbacks. He spends his day with the same kids, every period, all of whom who know their place. Well done us.

William McIlvanney once wrote of a deprived area as ‘a penal colony for those who had committed poverty’. Who could argue against the fact that setting by ability often becomes that. Not always but often, and probably more often than we’d care to admit. We set by ability to appease our more middle class parents; our school websites are filled with photographs of those to whom success is expected and celebrated at home. We glory in that success at Parents Evenings. What we try to forget is that, as Andy Day once wrote, and I often quote, ‘the greatest tragedy in education is the empty seat at Parents Evening’.

He’s been with me for two years now and I’m not sure what difference I make. I occasionally get a smile now when once I got a sneer and an earful of abuse. He’s read a whole load of Robert Muchamore books which he would gladly do all day if he could. His writing hasn’t improved one bit beyond almost illegible. He rarely makes any effort when he has to think on his own. He sits quietly and listens. But I already know what his life will be like and it shames me that I’ve not been able to change that for him.

Notice them. Don’t Let Them Disappear

I have very few positive memories from my time at Secondary school. I had come from Primary really keen, one of the brightest in the class, ready to do well. I was one of the first pupils in the first year of a brand new school, so the future might have been bright; it wasn’t though. My abiding memory of those teenage years is one of desperately trying to hide from the attention of both teachers and my more exuberant peers. Many a day I recall getting home and sighing in massive relief as I lay on my bed. Another day over. It was perhaps no surprise that I left school with ordinary and unimpressive exam passes.

I was reminded of that unhappy time recently while re-watching the overly schmaltzy ‘Freedom Writers’, the true story of a teacher in east LA who miraculously changes the lives of her students in typical Hollywood fashion. There is a scene in the film where one boy speaks of his love for the classroom – see the clip below – and no-one else in the class even recognises him. His life was so awful that his classroom became his safety zone and ‘home’. It couldn’t have been more different to my experience but something did ring true.

Back in the day, I wanted to be the one who wasn’t recognised, the one no-one noticed. School is hard for some kids. They disappear, often deliberately, often because they are shy or frightened. In the course of their day, we may never notice them, may never find out anything about them. And isn’t that such a shame. Perhaps if any teachers had taken the time to speak to me I would have had a better experience than I did: much of my desire to be a teacher was to provide experiences which were better than I had.

New beginnings to the school years are always challenging. As a teacher I have to get know about one hundred and fifty new names, begin the often long process of developing trusting relationships with kids who want to learn from me, mostly. Some kids will slide off my radar because they are ‘quiet’ and no bother. This year I want to try and view my classroom through their eyes. What are they thinking about school, about their teachers, about their peers? I refuse to allow them to go home and heave a sigh of relief without anyone taking an interest.

Teachers like Erin Gruwell in ‘Freedom Writers’ or John Keating from ‘Dead Poets’ Society’ are lovely, warm images of the ideal of the perfect teacher. Most of us will never be like that. But we can be the teacher that reaches the often unreachable. It’s why I insist on silent classes very often to provide for the ones crying out for a bit of peace and quiet during a day of bedlam. Some kids are trying to hide but you must never let them. A quiet word, an awareness of their presence doesn’t take much. Notice them. I hated my time at Secondary School. I don’t want that to happen to anyone.

Education is a political football. Stop playing games with it.

It’s not the first time I’ve heard it but when, at a lecture at Strathclyde University recently, Michael Apple stressed the point that ‘Education is political’ something resonated with me. At a time in Scotland when the gap between rich and poor has never been wider, it is a point that we should ignore at our peril. For, while school is and never should be seen as the place to solve all of society’s ills, it is incumbent on all of us to do our bit. Improving the literacy of all of our citizens is a political act. What’s more worrying is when education becomes a tool to be used for political gain.

chess-424556_960_720The Scottish Government’s policy of reintroducing National Assessment is on its way. Despite attempts to discover where the policy originated or which research was accessed – see James McEnaney’s excellent work on this here – we are told merely that this is will be ‘for the best’. National Assessment seems to go against the grain of the principles of Curriculum for Excellent and, regardless of your thoughts on that, it is the Scottish Curriculum. Without the support of teachers it will become a policy fraught with tension and the Government will have a hard job of convincing us of the merits of these National Assessments.

What troubles me is that, in an era of massive constitutional upheaval  and the louder and harsher calls for IndyRef2,  SNP policy seems to be taking a surge to the right in order to attract traditional ‘No’ voters rather than stick to the more left leaning approaches which garnered so much support over the last ten years. No-one should pretend that the SNP are a left leaning party; they merely, cleverly, stepped into a hole left bare by the inadequacies of Scottish Labour. However, education is political but not a political tool. I want the best policies for the children in my class, not for the SNP.

I’m still not convinced how and why any new assessment will provide me with any information I don’t already have. I see a whole load of additional admin; I see a whole load of additional stress; I see league tables, which will be created regardless of the intentions of Government. Part of the change to Curriculum for Excellence was the focus on local needs and the increased value of the professional judgment of teachers. Those shouldn’t be followed with a ‘but’. I know how well my students are doing. Comparing them nationally at an early age seems nonsensical.

It’s not that I’m completely against Government intervention in Education; that would be daft. But if there is so much opposition to a policy which those in charge find difficult to justify beyond a few practiced lines then we really must start to question them. Along with slightly idealistic and simplistic approaches to Reading for Pleasure, which I write about here, I want to trust a Government which takes decisions based on current research and up-to-date thinking, not one which looks to cement it’s political foothold. I’m not convinced that’s the case at the moment. Education is a political football. Literacy is a political football. We shouldn’t allow anyone to play games with that.

Why Do We Need Half of our Holidays at the Same Time?

So this morning I woke up to a new future. No, not the UK’s departure from Europe. This is all about me. I’m on holidays for six and a half weeks and I deserve it. Non-teachers bristle; their eyes roll. Fair enough. I’m going to be on a sun lounger in about forty eight hours so bristle away.

Secretly, though, I’m coming round to the fact that the summer holidays are unnecessarily long and if we are to tackle the serious problems with poverty we are all aware of, we need to do something more than just wring our hands and shake our heads.

childThis week I’ve had numerous conversations with students about their holidays: some heading off to Florida, to Europe, to London; some heading to caravans around Scotland; some going nowhere, playing X-box. The disparity is obvious. Some grabbing books from school and class libraries; some vowing to never read a page until they return in August. Poverty is not something that can be solved in schools alone; it is a societal problem in a society that, thus far, has been bereft of any workable ideas as to how to ‘narrow the gap’. Throwing money at it has never worked. So we need to be brave and bold.

Our more well-off students will continue their educations over the summer. They can afford to travel, to visit, to learn. Our economically-deprived students can’t do that. They often have to take even more time off during term-time because holidays are cheaper. Our rigid approach to school breaks means the holiday companies can, quite openly, often double the price of that fortnight in Greece. With twelve weeks holiday a year there is no reason we can’t shorten our summer holidays to make that window smaller.

A four week summer holidays is still vastly longer than most people get. The final two weeks of term could be given over to activities/ trips and those who wanted to use that for a family holiday could do so. We, in effect, shorten the time our most vulnerable children are out of school at any one time, with added fortnights thorough the year. Still twelve weeks; just  utilised in a more valuable way.

Oh, I know you’ll shudder at that thought after such a hard year. But think about it. More breaks throughout the year might mean we are less stressed at specific times. We can plan for proper breaks and, dare I say it, time to step away. It’s a bold and not original suggestion but if we’re serious about doing our bit to tackle poverty then we need to be radical in our thinking. The accepted structures of our society embed that poverty. So we must change for them not for us. We must do something.

I’m already feeling the benefits of my summer holidays. I’m packing. But this way isn’t working so let’s be brave and less self-serving. Poverty isn’t a school problem but it is something we can help change. Perhaps the way we live and work needs to be transformed if we are serious about the lives of all of our young people. Perhaps it’s time for that.

Of course you can study Macbeth if you want to. Don’t blame the SQA for that one.

sqaRight from the off, then, let me say that I’m no cheerleader for the Scottish Qualifications Authority. The stress to some of my friends and colleagues caused by some bizarre assessment practices in subjects other than English which seem unbelievable when they tell me of their experiences.  Too often we’ve had goalposts moved mid-season – strange rule changes, confusing, contradictory advice at ‘information’ days – that leave teaching staff in a state of panic, never mind the young people hurtling towards exam season. This year we’ve had to submit Writing Folios on a specially prepared grid, apparently to facilitate e-marking. That was also changed half way through the year. I know of no English teacher who hasn’t experienced a massive increase in workload because of this. So there is a discussion to be had with – and about – the SQA.

However, the appearance of this article in yesterday’s Herald newspaper, Teacher claims bureaucracy blocks study of William Shakespeare – left me a bit frustrated about the nature of the argument. The New Higher exam – or National 6 as it is officially known- brought yet more changes to a course which has experienced so much tinkering even Claudio Ranieri would be embarrassed ( I’m not sure if that joke is massively out-of-date or super hip). Two years ago candidates had to complete two Critical Essays in ninety minutes and a Close Reading exercise, also in ninety minutes. That was it. Along with a Folio of two pieces of writing – and a few Internal Assessment hurdles –  that was your Higher English.

Now, a candidate has to complete one Close Reading exercise – now called Reading for Understanding, Analysis and Evaluation – only one Critical Essay on Literature and a forty five minute analysis of a previously studied Scottish text. Make of that what you will but it’s there. The nature of the assessment means that less time is available for the wide ranging study of literature we had before. I would always study two major texts and at least a couple of poems. But nothing, as the article suggests, is banned. The headline puzzled me as I’d only recently finished Hamlet. Without the need to study two major texts – candidates only have to write one Critical Essay now – I got to spend more time with the Bard, not less.

We also studied six challenging Don Paterson poems and, to a lesser extent, Alan Spence’s magnificent short story, Nessun Dorma. It was a high challenge yet engaging and enjoyable course. Like many English teachers I know, I’ve tried to cover the internal assessment aspect to the course with a less formal approach, as suggested by the SQA. I cover bases and pick ups outcomes through my study of the play, as well as the odd Newspaper analysis we do over the course of the year. I have had to make choices as I adapt to the new course but to suggest that anything has been ‘blocked’, as the Herald article suggests, is at best mistaken and at worst mischief-making.

We have some serious discussions on workload coming up and we should be taking that seriously. If any approach to what should or shouldn’t be studied is being imposed by department, school or Local Authority then that is a serious matter. But be fair: that’s not the SQA. They have some serious questions to answer. Why we are being blocked from studying Shakespeare isn’t one of them.