On why we are failing our disadvantaged… (part 2)

Understanding the limitations of current interventions

You’d be hard pressed to find anyone in the public sector who isn’t passionate about improving the life chances of the most vulnerable. By nature of their vocation, people who choose this path want to make a difference. Many initiatives and interventions across every aspect of the public sector are doing admirable work, but unfortunately not all are having the desired impact. It’s important that we consider why.

The biggest limiting factor when it comes to addressing disadvantage in education is funding. There is never enough money set aside for education (or the NHS, welfare or policing). However, the money we have is not always spent wisely; often being apportioned frivolously and not to the areas in which it will have the biggest long-term impact. Each government favours a quick-fix approach to promote a fallacy of success rather than a cross-party effort focussed on lasting improvement. Understandably there’s a limited pot so if we increase funding in one area, there’s another that will lose out. In 2011 the coalition government introduced the Pupil Premium, a fund to support the education of disadvantaged students, a much needed helping hand. About the same time, local and central government funding changes created a drain on schools which the PP coffers could not offset. It would be naïve to think that this deficit hasn’t caused some schools to be creative in their spending of the Pupil Premium money; you only need to look at the information on school websites to see this. Underfunded schools are often forced to redirect funds in order to avoid losing staff – after all, not to do so would mean disadvantage to all pupils – and it is difficult for us to judge them for that.

The nature of how Pupil Premium money is given can influence how it is spent. Variations from year to year mean that long-term provision for students is a risky business, creating a “sticking plaster” approach rather than a sense of ongoing investment. This situation can be exacerbated for schools in more affluent areas as income from Pupil Premium is more difficult to predict, with student numbers varying significantly each year and making long term planning almost impossible. Additionally, when there are small numbers of disadvantaged students in a school, this in itself can create social barriers which inhibit the impact of interventions. If students are aware that they are a minority a sense of alienation can quite easily develop resulting in a lack of engagement with intervention. This is a similar mindset to that described in my previous blog. That said, there are schools which address this issue extremely well and do fantastic work to create equity among their students. It is heartening to see that Justine Greening recognises this in her social mobility plan, Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential. She highlights the need to share the work of such schools in order to improve the provision for disadvantaged students. Sadly, Justine Greening’s future as Secretary for Education hangs in the balance and a change in personnel will no doubt mean a refocus of priorities. Let’s hope that the disadvantaged don’t get lost along the way.

Pupil Premium spending and its impact are high profile in the media; schools and government ministers are acutely aware of the need to show results. However, there are a group of students who tread a path just above the PP/FSM breadline – these are the people who often slip through the net. Schools have neither the staff, funding, nor resources to support those students missed amid the Pupil Premium outcry. The size of this cohort is substantial, as is their impact on a school’s culture and results. Teachers know who these children are, yet still they lose out because of a lack of financial or academic support at home. These are often the children of low-income working families (the traditional working-class) whose parents are unable to support at home due to working long hours in order to keep food on the table. The sad reality is that there is insufficient funding left in school budgets to address the inequality which these students suffer.

Teacher recruitment and retention is a significant issue in education but for schools in areas of high deprivation it is a much more serious concern. This is a high profile media story and appears to be at the top of the government’s list of priorities, but we might question who benefits from the solutions currently in place. Back to Teach First. Participants reap financial reward and the prospect of accelerated career progression whilst their schools get a knowledgeable graduate in front of students. It is a very intense programme where trainees have less in-class supervision than they would following a traditional ITT route. That an unqualified teacher is a much cheaper option for struggling schools is clear, but a more serious appraisal needs to be made of the long term effects on both the graduates and the children they are teaching.

When TF graduates are placed in deprived schools close to major cities they generally opt to live in the cities rather than the towns. Northern towns are insular (a trip to Liverpool from St Helens is like a journey to Middle Earth) and they are all quite unique. Are teachers really going to understand or engage with a community if they don’t experience what it is actually like to live there or spend enough time serving in a school? If a TF graduate only stays in a school for two years their impact is extremely limited. If they progress quickly into leadership their impact in the classroom is limited, and it could be argued that this limited experience of the classroom is insufficient to support their leadership of others. Ultimately, could the huge financial burden of Teach First be better spent on other ITT routes which might boost local economies with greater success?

I’m going to put it out there: I have my concerns about Teach First and I feel that educational discourse becomes The Emperor’s New Clothes where it is concerned. I am not denigrating the thousands of teachers who have come into education via this route nor am I disparaging the intentions of its ethos – however, I am concerned that it does more to ease the conscience of the middle classes than improve the life chances of the proletariat. The benefits to its graduates and figureheads are clear, with fast tracks to school leadership positions, prominent government jobs and honours from the Queen in the offing. But where does that leave the children? We have a moral obligation to ensure that educational policy is driven by those it serves, and that it has a sustainable impact. I’ve alluded to the fact that I feel there is a better way and I’m happy to share my thoughts on this in part 3.

Initiatives like Sure Start and CLCs were introduced to develop hubs within communities. The idea to bring communities closer with a holistic approach was a move in the right direction. However, the execution of the plan was somewhat flawed with the removal of funding a catastrophically backwards step for the cultural and economic development of disadvantaged communities. Comprehensive schools which house a number of public services under one roof are hives within communities. They can reach out to children, families and other key groups much more effectively than any of these services alone. Some academy chains have made excellent attempts to become providers for the whole community (as have some maintained schools) – engaging parents and carers, and offering opportunities for adults to benefit from their services as well as students. Yet providing such assistance is costly, limiting the extent to which schools can fulfil this role. The implications reach much wider if we consider the impact on social mobility and cultural capital. Developing parental engagement and nurturing trust by improving communities can have overwhelming results on raising the aspirations and esteem of a whole community. Would it not make more financial sense to streamline the many routes into ITT and reinvest any money saved into lasting socioeconomic enterprises? And would there be a reduction in the number of graduates undertaking initial teacher training if there were less routes available, or is recruitment a victim of too much choice and services being spread too thinly?

The reality is that the gap between the haves and the have nots is widening and we have to take a look at why our interventions are failing. Funding is key but approach is also paramount. Ministers need to begin looking beyond their term of office (which can be shorter than that of an England football manager these days) and work towards giving schools and charities the financial security to implement lasting, holistic interventions which can raise the prospects of communities. There needs, moreover, to be some serious soul-searching about the motivation behind our “charitable actions”; we need to ask ourselves if we’re actually making a difference or just making ourselves feel better. And, finally, we must consider whether certain routes into teaching are fit for purpose or whether the costs outweigh their impact – in short, do they provide long term solutions or merely quick fixes? Things have to change, on every level. In part three I’d like to suggest how I think we can improve not only the chances for disadvantaged students but also the opportunity for whole communities.

On why we are failing our disadvantaged… (part 1)

Understanding the problem

It’s fitting that I write this from the living room of my Mum’s two-up two-down on the council estate where I was brought up. Out of the back window I can see the industrial landscape of a forgotten working-class town that could be anywhere in the North of England. If I look beyond the common land that can’t be built on (because of the chemicals pumped into it in years gone by), I can see a skyline of factory chimneys filling the air with smoke, interspersed with silhouettes of gas towers and the sewage treatment plant. Dad would always say “You can tell it’s going to be a nice day in St Helens when you can smell the muck works.” A positive outlook despite my protestations as a child.

The view from the rear window is an improvement on what Mum is faced with on a daily basis if she looks onto the dreary community within which she lives. It is a grey, tired estate, a picture of exhaustion underpinned by a conflict of ideology between the traditional working class and the precariat, the poorest group as defined by Great British Class Survey (2013). There is a contempt for the precariat held by their established working-class neighbours; a most definite judgement about their perceived lack of adherence to traditional values, an apathy or resistance to hard work and a deficit in their aspirations. This perceived under-class share a similar resentment of their peers, borne out of feelings of alienation, insecurity and anger – a belief that they are not valued nor understood, even by their own tribe. Herein lies what I believe to be the biggest indicator of a larger problem: the working classes are more divided than ever. When my Mum looks out of her window, seeing houses and gardens that are not maintained, children playing in the street who look dishevelled and unloved, or anti-social behaviour and drug-dealing in front of her house; she just cannot understand or conceive why this would take place on an estate built for the welfare of others. This is a view held by many of her age group – they feel estranged from a significant proportion of their community. Equally, her less privileged neighbours struggle to understand the frustration of this group, divided by generation and ideals. If there is such a separation and lack of understanding among the working classes then what hope is there of any insight or common-ground the more we look across the macro of social (and economic) divide?

Image result for 7 division of class from great british class survey
Taken from the BBC Great British Class Survey

By the BBC’s definition, I would fall into the technical middle class category. This is a classification which leaves me with my own turmoil. I still perceive myself as working class, yet by educational, social and economic standards I am not. This is a view which I seem to share with Sonia Blandford, author of the brilliant Born to Fail (available from Amazon here – well worth a read) and a key stimulus for this blog. There are many points that Sonia makes on which I would agree, the evidence which she uses to support her opinions is compelling and the work of the many organisations that she is associated with is nothing short of inspiring. She raises very salient points about the importance of curriculum, the flaws in how we measure the success of the working classes and how pupil premium spending interventions at the early years stage are imperative.

Whether we like it or not, we as teachers are viewed with a degree of uncertainty by the children we teach and the families they come from. This is something we need to address by investing time into communities we serve, as Sonia quite rightly points out. Working class communities need to feel as though they are understood, that they matter and that the people leading their schools are like them. In my opinion, the fundamental flaw of schemes like Teach First is the naivety that knowledge alone will be the saviour of disadvantaged children. Often, young middle-class graduates are plonked into communities which they have no experience or understanding of, and their attitude towards education is a world away from the children who sit before them. Unfamiliar situations create an emotional powder keg, which can lead to challenging behaviours that Teach First graduates have neither the experience nor understanding to negotiate, and this can lead to disengagement from both parties. There are significant numbers of talented graduates who don’t complete the Teach First programme, 60% leave the profession within the first five years, and many move away from deprived areas once their two-year probationary period has been completed. Although these people are still in teaching they are often not serving the very students they were recruited to help – a worrying trend, given that the financial cost of training Teach First graduates compared to other ITT routes is significant (£60000 for TF in first five years versus £24000 – £44000, IFS via Schools Week July 2016). Though the intentions of such charities are honourable, I’d like to suggest a modified approach to this investment in raising the achievement of disadvantaged students (to be explored in another post).

The working class have a funny relationship with “success”. When we see someone from our ranks breaking through barriers of any kind our kinship fills us with a collective admiration and a sense of hope. More often than not, success is measured by wealth and academic achievement – ironically, two factors which ultimately cause a migration away from the community. With an increased distance (be it physical or metaphorical) grows a suspicion; we are all guilty of uncertainty when something becomes alien to us. If this is not monitored carefully, it can quite quickly grow into resentment.

When I graduated from university, my parents received cards from the far reaches of their estate, from people I hadn’t seen since childhood. My degree from The University of Liverpool felt like an achievement for the community. They felt proud. That was nearly twenty years ago. I stayed in St Helens, teaching at my local school for ten years after my PGCE. Recently, I had a conversation with my Mum’s neighbour where I challenged comments she’d made about teachers at that local school, and she responded by likening me to Hyacinth Bucket (of Keeping Up Appearances fame), suggesting that because I had a degree and no longer lived on a council estate, I thought I was somehow better than the people I’d grown up with. This angered me at the time (for those who know me, I’m living proof that whilst you can take the girl out of Blackbrook there’s no taking the Blackbrook out of the girl) but upon reflection, I can see that this is an attitude that develops with estrangement – an attitude which might help us to understand why initiatives like Teach First have limited impact.

Both Sonia Blandford in Born to Fail and James Bloodworth in The Myth of Meritocracy (this book is a wake up call – available from Amazon here) highlight the problem of perceived social mobility: it does happen, but only within certain strands of the class system and to a limited extent. Chances are that if you’re reading this as someone who is proof of social mobility you no longer live in an area of deprivation, your exposure (both through social media and in physical social interactions) to working class environments is limited and the people you surround yourself with have had a similar experience to you. If I look at my Facebook friends, I could be in danger of thinking that out of my school year group there was a lot of social mobility in the class of ’95, around 33% (10/30) but I don’t have my whole year group on FB (there were 150 of them) and the omissions would probably give a much more accurate picture of the actual opportunity for social mobility in St Helens than my biased and unreliable sample. I’d argue that my Facebook friends are all students who were of similar ability to myself and who were in the higher sets, which in itself would suggest that the chances of the other 120 students accessing higher education were reduced and, in turn, their opportunities for social mobility. 7% (10/150) seems a much more disheartening figure than 33%. Of those ten, only two still live in St Helens (and they’re in the posh bit).

This leads me to why we are failing our disadvantaged. Just as Sonia expresses, how we measure success is fit for political purpose not that of the proletariat. From our position we don’t fully understand the problem and we see education alone as the solution when clearly it’s not. The approach must be much more subtle than imparting knowledge alone. We need to build trust; among communities, schools and collective groups. We need to spend the money targeted at addressing disadvantage more wisely and we need to find a balance between what we think is best for the most vulnerable in society and what they feel they actually need. This can only be done if we invest time to make meaningful connections and build mutually beneficial relationships using holistic approaches where all aspects of the public services work together with the communities they serve and are supported by a government that cares.