Very recently, I was reading this book:
On showing a friend, she commented to me: “isn’t that a bit…” Then followed the confused and screwed up face, because no-one wants to imply to your face that you are reading potentially politically unacceptable, racist literature.
And that reminded me of this excellent post from Bansi Kara on white working class underachievement. The sticking point in this scenario was one of names: “What do you call a group targeting white working class students? How do you explain that this achievement group is for white students only? If you have African or Turkish groups, it is called celebration, but if you add a white group, does it become segregation?”
Ofsted’s 2012-13 annual report includes a specific section on white children from poor families, who are falling behind: “Compared with other ethnic groups of pupils from low income families, White children have the lowest attainment.” This is of key interest to me, as my borough frequently laments a gap between achievement along these lines, and boosting the achievement of White British students has been a major priority for my school.
Here’s what Ofsted says: “It is poverty of expectation in these communities and in many of their schools, not poverty itself, that limits the achievement of these children. In the best schools, successful leaders and teachers challenge all children to achieve well. A relentless focus by school leaders on the quality of teaching creates a climate in which no child is left behind.”
I’m not sure how I feel about that. I mean, I agree with the second part: yes, focus on teaching and learning, every time. But the idea of a “poverty of expectation” just doesn’t ring true for me – unless these families and children are just really good at seeming to want to achieve.
Let me explain. I teach a large number of White British students, all of whom I would consider at risk of underachieving, but really only because I consider nearly all my students at risk of this. Humans are strange and unpredictable beings; teachers will tell you that their star pupil of one week can morph into their massive concern the next. Furthermore, you just don’t know who will fall to pieces before an exam (the panic attacks from my most unlikely Year 11 last year in the minutes before their English exams assured me of that). I’m worried, in short, about all my students.
But to peel off a group, because Ofsted says they are at risk, my school says they are a risk, and even the data suggests they are at risk, I’ll look at these individuals in isolation. These students all want to do well; they are in some ways C/D borderline students, but they want to achieve A grades in English, and they all actually could achieve this. What is holding them back?
Behaviour is an issue – and I mean the full range here; from pretty serious storming out of the classroom in anger to sitting idly and disengaging with the lesson. I speak with the parents of all my Year 11 (race non-specific) a lot. And you know, the White British parents are nothing but entirely supportive of everything I do. They become angry if their child has disappointed me; they talk to their children, they support their children, they come into school to talk with me. I saw all of that in evidence at last year’s year 11 parents’ evening, when 100% of the White British parents attended and spoke with me, and I know when I say I will ring a parent they will become either elated (if it’s good news) or desolate if it’s not. The relationship is working; parents are supporting their children and the school.
So what’s going on?
I turned to Gillian Evans’ Educational Failure and Working Class White Children in Britain in the hopes of gleaning an insight. Yes, the book is from 2006; however she speaks of children in primary school who I am teaching now in secondary school (hypothetically, I mean).
Evans’ book is made up of extensive field research: she lived on a council estate in Bermondsey anyway and integrated herself into the community, conducting interviews and observations over the course of a number of years. The difficulty with this is that the research is all qualitative – I’m not sure how relevant one particular woman’s outlook on life is to all of my students several years on.
Nonetheless, the first aspect which jumped out to me was rules. Early on in this study, Evans notes that while middle class children turn up to school very ready to learn, working class children do not: “the form of participation that is required of them at school doesn’t closely match the one that is required of them at home.” While middle class parents create and enforce strict boundaries, leading their children to recognize these in the school setting, apparently working class parents tend not to. So, in some ways, despite wishing and wanting the best for their children, and despite supporting the school, their offspring will always struggle with tough behaviour boundaries.
This is expanded upon in one case study in which a parent “believes that her daughters’ happiness depends on her giving them the freedom to ‘do as they please.’” This parent’s comment of: “if they want to learn they will, if they don’t they won’t and that’s that” did ring surprisingly familiar to me: I have actually heard almost these exact words from more than one parent.
Evans does not provide solutions in her book, only an overview of some working class values and lifestyle factors which can be inferred to lead of educational “failure”, or at the very least, underachievement.
And this is where I feel frustrated. To return to Kara’s initial comments, we know there is a problem, we almost know what the problem is, but we are powerless to do anything about it. I remember a colleague bringing up a meeting with just White British parents and dismissing it almost as soon as it was brought up – what would that look like?
I will go back to the drawing board on this one, but if anyone can provide any marvelous strategies that aren’t perceived as a little bit racist, I would so love to hear them.
Postscript: I wrote this post back in May, and have been squeamish about putting it onto the internet. Then, I didn’t know what would happen to my C/D borderline White British students, but now I do: they achieved B grades in English. Each and every one of them.
Update: A wise friend has just commented to me: “The fact that your white British parents attend parents evening is the main reason their kids got B’s”. I can’t agree more, and will be posting about the issue of non-attendance at parents’ evenings soon, as it has been especially on my mind this week.