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How Can Schools Help Working Class Children in an Education System that’s Failing Them?

Families living in poverty may not see education as a priority, but we must sell it as the key to a better life, says Kevin Harcombe...

  • How Can Schools Help Working Class Children in an Education System that’s Failing Them?

“I really don’t care – do you?” That was the slogan printed on Melania Trump’s jacket (from Zara, fashion watchers) that made headlines back in the summer when she visited detention camps for migrant children.

It also happens to be a neat summary of a malaise in our schools which Ofsted boss, Amanda Spielman, and her predecessor, Michael Wilshaw, are laying squarely at the feet of non-migrant families, ie white working-class Brits.

“I’m working in parts of England with white British populations where the parents don’t care. Less than 50% turn up to parents’ evening. Now that’s outrageous.” said Wilshaw.

I hope he’s doing something about it other than complaining to the press. White working-class underperformance has been a problem in schools since Oliver Twist asked for seconds. But in this case, ‘white working class’ is simply a euphemism for ‘poor’.

Families living in poverty – and who may have been living that way for generations – don’t necessarily see education as their number one priority in life.

They are often exhausted, battling against the odds to simply survive in a system that seems massively rigged against them.

Spielman understands this truth, though she wraps it up in polysyllabic terminology:

“We are having to grapple with the unhappy fact that many local working class communities have felt the full brunt of economic dislocation in recent years, and, perhaps as a result, can lack the aspiration and drive seen in many migrant communities.”

Roughly translated, she’s saying that the poor sods have been shafted by the system for years and the bastards have ground them down.

Of the 50% not turning up to parent-teacher meetings, maybe some are simply feckless or don’t care, but perhaps others are working – possibly in second or third jobs – or have childcare issues or simply don’t want to attend because the teacher will say (again!) that Jack is underachieving and, as a parent, you are single-handedly letting the nation down.

Certainly, some parents have little respect for schools and teachers, but why are we surprised? Teachers are ‘experts’ and even Michael Gove has had enough of them (though not as much as we’ve had enough of Michael Gove).

They are bombarded by celebrations of a celebrity culture pushing instant gratification; the trivial and superficial over sustained effort and acquisition of knowledge.

What’s the point of qualifications when you can buff up and get on telly? Add to this a culture of entitlement and a lack of recognition from some that successful parenting requires hard work and consistent effort.

If children don’t learn, some parents blame the school: ‘You’re the ones paid to teach my kid.’ At the other extreme, there are parents who are equally dismissive of teachers and over-protect and cosset their children, which sometimes means ‘protecting’ them from working hard.

What can schools do? We must relentlessly raise aspirations and explicitly sell education to unwilling buyers – the children, if not the parents – as a way to a better life, in terms of self-fulfilment and possibly in material terms too.

If parents are too useless or knackered to support their child’s education, you either give up on the child or do something about it for their sake, just as we do with safeguarding.

Not supporting your child in education is as neglectful as sending them to school dirty or hungry. It’s hard teaching such children, but whichever children turn up on your school’s doorstep is what you have to work with. If you can’t get the parents on board, bypass them for the sake of the child.

When an educational statistician was asked what students need to do to maximise their chances of achieving the best grades, she said, ‘Be born to middle class parents.’ We’re talking accidents of birth here.

As a teacher, you can wish you had only bright, middle-class children to teach, but the offspring of disadvantaged parents actually need top-notch education even more.

Here’s my suggestion: make every educator teach in underachieving schools as part of gaining qualified teacher status. The outstanding ones who stay and get results should get a tax-free £5,000 bonus each year.

Be born into poverty and you’re up against it from the start. Aspiration, hard work and, of course, the very best teaching, are the only way out.

Kevin Harcombe is a Teaching Awards winner and headteacher at Redlands Primary School, Fareham. Follow him on Twitter at @kevharcombe.

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