‘I’m stuck’, said Karen, looking up at me with an imploring, helpless expression.
‘Which bit can’t you do?’ I asked, kindly.
‘I don’t know how to start’, she said, pencil held between limp, defeated fingers!
‘Perhaps like this?’ I said, setting out the calculation for her: 35.5 + 23.56. I lined up the columns for the addition calculation and made sure that the decimal points were clear.
Karen nodded very sadly, as if it was all just too much. I sat by her as she completed the calculation and worked with her until we had arrived at the correct answer.
What I have come to understand is that this is not how to help anyone and certainly not someone who lives on what could be called a sink council estate and is nine years old. Self-motivation and a determination to improve and work hard have to be instilled, encouraged and rewarded. Nobody is going to open any doors for this child, her family are not wealthy and precedents suggest her life will be lived locally. A young mum with a cleaning job, perhaps? Maybe her own flat?
What I do now, as taught to me by her class teacher, who grew up on this very estate, is to refuse, bluntly, to do anything at all before the child has had a go at completing a task for themselves. So, unless Karen writes something she will sit there for a very long time. Effort is praised, being better than you were yesterday must be recognised and celebrated.
Lots of children, from all backgrounds, are very good at tricking adults so that, effectively, their work is done for them. I have learned that if I am serious about wanting the children here to grow up able to choose a better education than what is mandatory and to have the option to live a life beyond this postcode then making them believe they are able to do things for themselves has to be instilled now, during primary education.
And Year 6 SATs do matter. Sorry, but I was cynical. A measure of the school, surely? Some league table contrivance from an age of accountability? Hardly a matter of life and death for the child, though? I have grown wiser. What if your family is always just busy? If, sometimes, your packed lunch is a cold Big Mac and fries in a carrier bag? If your big brother won’t let you use the tablet for any home learning, or your mum won’t let you on her phone to look at a homework problem? Or, if your dad plays Fortnite all night? What happens then, if the actually-pretty-bright child does badly at his SATs exams?
When he goes to secondary school, he is put into a lower set, that’s what happens. And, if denied a calm, supportive working environment at home and having been labelled as ‘lower attaining’ as well as maybe ‘pupil premium’ there he will probably remain. Higher tier papers will be lower tier papers, peers might not be so studious, disruptions in classes might be more frequent, teachers’ predictions for your future and their corresponding advice might be different. Your dreams might need to change. A job, perhaps? Your uncle knows a bloke. The money’s not great but it’s a start.
But if, like two young adults I have come to know here, you are academically inclined, your home is supportive and you do possess huge self-motivation then the good news is that stated ambitions and aspirations can be really positive and impressive. These students are keen to go to university and they are working incredibly hard.
'University' as a concept or destination or route is totally alien to them and to their families. These students have to find the courage to leave their world behind and enter a completely different one. They must take a massive financial and social gamble. Both inspired and determined, it seems neither of them have a Plan B. Both want to take courses which lead, very directly, to secure professional work. Both wish to apply, solely to one university. Predictably, it’s the one I work for. Maybe that’s because I’ve become a trusted advocate, bringing a sense of familiarity and possibility to one part of an unfamiliar, impossible world.
By October half term, Rabiah, in Year 5, did not know her times tables. Six months off hadn’t helped. Quiet, tidily dressed, very polite. Sadly, everything in maths was being impeded by her inability to tell you what, for example, ‘six eights’ are. Time has passed. By Christmas, the same child completed a ‘times tables grid’ of 100 questions in under 5 minutes and got every single one right. For weeks now, she’s visited the website ‘TT Rockstars’ at lunchtime and at home and has practised and practised. In the same class, Matthew, also nine years old, can fill out a 100 square, randomised times table grid in two minutes and 10 seconds. He challenged me to a race once. I lost. I practised. Now I win, sometimes.
Although she is only nine, Rabiah already has aspirations to do the sorts of jobs which require a university education. She is determined, polite and self-motivated. She’s never tried to trick me into doing her work for her, either. The signs are good! I’m willing her on. As for Matthew, if a child that bright doesn’t go to a university and excel at an academic course… well, that’s a test of the system, surely? How could he not?
Perhaps, from the style of my writing, you might think that I have embarked on something new and this is an account of my wide-eyed discoveries. That is not the case. I’ve been teaching for twenty-five years. The landscape through which I have travelled in my working life has been populated by young people who have no idea how good they really are or what a massive contribution they could make to the world. Or how much we need them to do just that.
If I consider the inequalities, imbalances and imperfections within education, or the way that poverty in childhood renders a university education so unlikely, I have learned that none of this is really anyone’s fault.
I do not believe anyone has ever, or would ever, deliberately construct a university system that conspires to keep out any section of society.
Our education system and the path to a university degree is shaped and maintained by people who went to university. Their own childhoods and educations and the lives of their children and their friends and families will, subconsciously or otherwise, provide evidence and information upon which their decisions are based.
I know that they care very much that a more inclusive university system can be built and that they also understand why it is necessary to do so. However, I do not believe this is happening with the rapidity we all need. And we need it to create socially rich and diverse teams of educated people who will boost our collective creativity, productivity and quality of life.
What I wish for is that people with the responsibility of deciding the shape and form of our education system might, somehow, be able to see into the lives of children who grow up in one of the many communities such as the one where I work. That their two worlds could somehow, regularly, combine.
I wish they could see a cold Big Mac packed lunch, watch Rabiah’s scores go up on her times tables tests and experience what it feels like to have a child trust you enough to tell you why they feel scared at home. I wish they could see for themselves how utterly exhausted a teacher they have come to know and respect becomes as a term passes and how hard they are trying now to deliver an education during another lockdown.
Best of all, perhaps they could be beaten at a times tables race by a nine-year-old who absolutely could and should go to university one day and then see, first hand, just how incredibly difficult an A-level driven, financially demanding, geographically scattered, social-set-suiting higher education system makes that for a child from a sink estate…
Then things will change.
Nick is based in a primary school serving an area of severe social deprivation and is a member of the University of Warwick in Strategy Group doing outreach work. You can read the original article at HEPI.