From a range of different contexts, working in education for over 30 years, I’ve learned a great deal about the complexity of the community that comprehensive schools serve. As an acting Designated Child Protection Officer for several weeks, I learned even more. The scale on the axis of advantage and disadvantage is extraordinary with consequences for learning, aspirations and behaviour that are far-reaching. Within many schools, there are students who, whilst sharing the same physical space, are living worlds apart. This is a two-part post. To begin with, here’s an illustration of the opposite poles – rooted in reality but conflating different factors. Part 2 looks at solutions.
There are obviously plenty of risks here – being judgemental, using stereotypes, making generalisations. No two children are the same and there are multiple variations in every child’s characteristics and circumstances. It’s hard to capture the complexity accurately and objectively, but, in order to explore the issues, it’s worth a try. Often, where schools have lots of advantaged students, typically they are the most positive about the school and get the most out of it. In some schools, the % of students receiving Pupil Premium is so high that, arguably, dealing with disadvantage is the core business and it becomes highly problematic to lump a diverse group of individuals together into the PP category as if their needs are broadly the same.
In this post, I’m not talking about the mainstream of students or even those who only just qualified for free school meals at some point in the past; any disadvantage is important but I’m talking about the most disadvantaged 20% for whom the gap is a chasm. The difference that exists between students’ life experience at the ends of the spectrum is stark. Despite the success of schools that have a positive impact on PP students overall, there is usually a definite correlation between students who find school the most difficult (as evidenced by data on behaviour, engagement and achievement) and the extent of the disadvantages they face.
Strongly Advantaged student:
A sweeping compression of different realities but each one a feature that is absent for other students:
Well-educated parents; usually but not necessarily university educated; relatively affluent with their own house and a high level of job security. Essentially, money is no object as far as general life and school is concerned. Highly aspirational family providing cultural capital at a high level. Parents always come to parents’ evenings and attend the concerts. They access the emails and take an active interest in the school’s development, offering constructive, balanced feedback when needed. Child experiences a positive cycle of inputs and outputs – solid reader, high achiever, receives praise/affirmation most days, motivated to succeed, never misbehaves deliberately or arrives late; is studying in order to meet their own goals – i.e. motivation is intrinsic and school has been a positive experience since primary school. Not necessarily a high attainer in every area – but has the confidence to ask for help when needed and turns up to the revision sessions willingly. Parents provide support for learning directly or indirectly by reinforcing routines and expectations at home.
Not passively compliant but accepting of the routines and boundaries of school life; engages in debates/issues – not afraid to voice opinions through an organised group or by raising concerns with teachers/Headteacher. Definitely aiming for university – just a question of which one. Will reference family visits to the theatre/museums or trips abroad in general conversation. Family can make voluntary contributions for full cost of school trips. Has the social and communication skills to be heard when problems arise. Recognises the value of the behaviour and homework systems; works with them with ease; doesn’t allow anything to inhibit them in any way. Will recognise a raised eyebrow as a meaningful corrective signal; at worst might be chatting over-enthusiastically. Has a strong social group where relationships are harmonious, age-appropriate and generally mature. Peer influences support learning – they want to go to university and/or secure high status employment; they all know that homework must be done in between their social gatherings. There’s a strong tendency for students to associate with other students who share the same aspirations and attitudes to learning. They push each other up; it’s an upward spiral of mutual support. When events, activities and opportunities are offered, they hear ‘that’s something for me’ and they step forward. Their advantages give them the tools to seek further advantage.
Strongly Disadvantaged student:
It’s unrealistic to morph all of the disadvantages together into one student’s experience. However, real students come to school every day living lives influenced by different combinations of the following:
Low income family: money for everyday items like school shoes can’t always be found – at least, it can’t be taken for granted; parents are stressed by financial insecurity; holidays are rare and optional trips at school and opportunities are beyond reach if any money is required; optional resources are not an option. Spare kit and uniform or train fares to interviews are problematic. For some, there is no such thing as a spare £5.
Pressurised home circumstances: this can include multiple siblings sharing rooms in over-crowded accommodation; single-parent working long hours, awkward shifts or with young children such that teenage children need to be overly self-reliant or shoulder parental duties; separated parents where there are acrimonious repercussions and persistent tensions; parents with a range of physical and mental health issues including depression and alcoholism; insecure or temporary housing with multiple moves; historical or current domestic violence or abuse – a distressing reality leaving students feeling insecure with negative attitudes to authority figures; family members involved with the criminal justice system making school-level discipline seem trivial; historical or current social care proceedings leaving students feeling deeply insecure, volatile, demotivated. CP neglect concerns are often indicated by poor supervision of personal hygiene, clothing maintenance and personal organisation.
Barriers to home-learning: parents with poor experience of school and/or low literacy; insufficient space or high-noise environment; low level of spoken English presenting barriers for home-school communication and support for homework; low frequency or no internet/computer access inhibiting use of online systems/resources; an absence of a family culture of learning – no role models for reading, studying, sitting quietly engaged in work, succeeding through academic learning.
Negative community/peer influences: students who spend a lot of time outside school in online or real-life communities with no moderating adult influences. The student’s self-esteem and immediate motivation stem from the need for peer affirmation for engaging in self-destructive anti-authority behaviours; a harsh social world where kindness and forgiveness are rarely offered but where loyalty to the group is rewarded; where fear of humiliation or of being ostracised is strong; where reporting concerns is regarded as high-risk. More generally, this world is often characterised by a lack of emotional maturity and resilience: minor issues become big dramas; laughing things off or adopting a don’t-care attitude to consequences in the school discipline system are well-established defence mechanisms. On the fringes, teenagers get sucked into gangs where all of this operates at another level, way beyond the influence of home or school.
Students who inhabit a world where a combination of these factors operates are significantly disadvantaged compared to the students who live free from these constraints. Very often, you’d never know – because they have developed strategies to cope that work well; their families provide all the emotional support they need and promote the requisite values and attitudes for them to thrive at school despite the disadvantages. Many students break the cycle and, for example, become the first person in their family to go to university. Sometimes it is humbling to see just how successful students can be when they also have to cope with significant disadvantages. But, too often, this doesn’t happen; the disadvantages conspire against a child’s successful passage through their education.
This manifests itself in a student’s response to authority, to the boundaries of the behaviour system, to the expectations of completing work in class and in their own time and, significantly, to the dynamics of day-to-day interactions with peers in and around the school; some students find it hard to switch modes from informal to formal or to manage their emotional responses. When challenged the most challenging students can be defiant, seek to negotiate boundaries, test the system by avoiding the sanctions and generally fail to offer the unconditional respect that adults expect from children. They can’t see the connection between working hard at school and achieving long-term ambitions; they don’t think that the school’s opportunities are for them – they’re for the other kids. The default position is to feel at home in a peer group that gives strong social affirmation but not one where aspirations, sustained effort or learning are the focus. (Of course, this is far from inevitable; it’s a pattern with plenty of exceptions but it’s there.)
Disadvantage manifests itself in parental attitudes to the school, poor engagement at parents’ evenings and low confidence with online communication; it comes through in parents’ defensive attitudes, aggressive responses or their difficulty in accepting their child’s responsibility for actions that fall outside the boundaries of the behaviour code. It shows in a student’s base level of cultural capital – compared to the most advantaged students, there is just so much some students don’t know; things that advantaged students absorb and take for granted. The school is often the only place where formal learning will take place, never mind how firm the consequences or how many calls are made.
The gap is a chasm; children may share a community but they live worlds apart – so what do we do?
This is the challenge truly comprehensive schools face. Most schools I’ve known are serious about being a place where every child in the community can achieve great things. They want every student to enjoy academic success and develop deep knowledge across multiple domains; to experience personal development in multiple contexts; to learn the social codes and power of speech that will enable them to succeed in any walk of life; to develop the values and attitudes that will make them good citizens. They want this for ALL of their students. The challenge is to create a curriculum, pastoral system and school ethos that puts every student on that path in an environment where the boundaries are accepted and respected by everyone. As I outlined in a recent post, I see this as a shared responsibility between all schools. Ideally, schools should not have the option to say ‘here’s what we offer, take it or leave it’; they serve a community; they are part of a community – and that should include every child in it. What schools do has to work for everyone – and that’s a lot easier said than done.
Part 2 to follow explores the ways some schools have approached bridging the chasm.
(This post is an edit of one written while at my last school to be more general – because the issues are common across the system.)