The human side

I haven’t written for a while. It’s always busy at the start of the school year, but it has not been that busy, and it is suddenly October. But I had to write about what happened on Thursday.

Our school population is changing, and rapidly. At the end of last year, we began to have an influx of in-year admissions, with a heavy bias towards those for whom English is an additional language. That trend has intensified this term. The scale of the challenge is unprecedented at my school, and we are moving rapidly to put in place a more comprehensive programme for EAL learners. But it is embryonic, so I won’t write about it now. I want to write about the human side of EAL.

I want to write about G. G is new to year 7. Two days new. I noticed him first on Tuesday, where he was sitting at the back of our ‘Aspire to Oxbridge’ assembly with this sort of blank look on his face. Entirely still from the tummy up. Legs dancing on the floor ceaselessly from the tummy down. I saw him on Wednesday, when he was late in, and I mimed PE for him before taking him to the class, much to the hilarity of the reception staff. I’ve seen him in lessons, sitting happily compliant, his legs a constant dance below the table, clearly at sea. It is so hard for G.

At lunch today, I saw him during my canteen duty. He was eating alone, but with others – we make our students fill every gap, so no one is ever sitting alone. As usual, those legs were going. I said hello and he replied, merrily, before leaving. He returned ten minutes later.

A lot can happen in a school canteen within ten minutes. For one, I’d spotted a lull and started eating my own lunch in the same spot G had eaten in, so I was right there when he lolloped back to his place. I had a front row seat. And I’ve never seen anything like it: he crumpled in two, and wept. He convulsed with heaving sobs. The boys behind him turned to see what the noise was. I gave them my ‘look.’

‘What’s wrong G?’ but he couldn’t understand me; or if he could, he couldn’t tell me. The year 7 to G’s right clocked it faster: ‘he’s lost his bag. He’s come back to look for it, and it’s gone.’

I didn’t know what to do. I got G to sit down, and he wept on the table.

‘Romanian?’ I guessed. G did not look up. ‘Romanian?’ I prodded further. He looked up and nodded. I used the radio to locate a Romanian-speaking student I knew of on the playground, who came in and spoke to G. Two sentences. Then the student turned to me: ‘he’s not Romanian. He doesn’t understand me.’

But the young helpful man continued to speak to G, and then turned to me. ‘He’s Bulgarian, Miss.’ A few more calls on the radio, and we had a native Bulgarian before G, who had stopped crying, but was still visibly distressed. It hits me in a wave: this goes beyond his bag. It’s the fear he has lost something he will never get back, compiled with the fear of all these strangers in a strange place speaking a strange language.

‘Miss! I don’t even remember Bulgarian! Is so long since I’m there!’ said my native Bulgarian, whose patchy grammar belies his actual home language situation. I suspect Bulgarian may be one of many languages he speaks.

As my so-called Bulgarian tried to talk to G, G suddenly broke into a wide smile. He was laughing. I don’t know what about – was it the old Bulgarian’s broken language? Or was he joking in the language? I have no idea what was happening.

‘Tell him we will find his bag! Tell him not to worry!’ I pressed.

‘Miss, Miss, I can’t even remember “find,”’ my helper protested. ‘Use Ms C’s phone. Use Google translate.’ I do; tell him: G, don’t worry, we will find it. I send him away with his two helpers.

And then comes H, another year 7.

‘Miss! Miss! I found G’s bag!’ Because what had happened? K, the student sitting next to G, had noticed G had left his bag, and had picked it up to give it to him. This has all stemmed from an attempt at kindness.

We move rapidly to the playground to locate G, and I trust I know where he will be. And it is so. He is sandwiched on the bench where my Romanian and my old Bulgarian sit every lunchtime. All are laughing. He grabs the bag with such glee, without even the words to thank his helper.

That afternoon, I pen an email to his father. I write that G was upset about his bag, but that he found it. I write that I hope he is ok, and that he should let me know if there is anything else I can do to support his son. I then stick the whole thing into Google translate and press send.

Twenty minutes later comes the reply:

‘I will talk with him when he gets home. I’m trying to speak English with him at home so he can learn quicker. And thank you so much for your email that was very kind of you trying email me in Bulgarian. Next time you can just email me in English.’

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Challenges to a ‘mastery’ curriculum

In my role this term, I’ve been implementing a knowledge-led mastery curriculum across all subjects, following the thoughts of great educationalists like E.D. Hirsch to shape students’ learning around core knowledge to increase their social and cultural capital and ensure they can access the greatest number of choices in their future lives.

So far, the three greatest challenges to implementing this kind of curriculum have been the concerns of SEN and EAL students, along with behaviour.

SEN

My school has a very high percentage of pupil premium students, and it is the peculiar case that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are far more likely to be diagnosed with special educational needs (SEN) than their wealthier peers. Our school certainly has an extensive SEN list.

Now, while I am not an SEN expert, I do tend to the view that, as it seems unlikely that poor children are just predisposed to having special educational needs, there must be something else at play to explain the higher numbers on the SEN registers of schools serving economically deprived communities. Partly, I wonder if this is just one symptom of the wider knowledge and practice gap between our students and their more advantaged peers, diagnosed and labeled to be worked around.

Whatever the root cause, there can be no doubt that there are certain children who take much longer to learn stuff – any stuff. Try to teach all children incredibly rigorous material, and these children in particular will struggle. I don’t think that is an issue – struggle is the very stuff of learning, after all. But there is the inescapable issue of time: if these students will take longer to learn, how to we ensure we allow them the same space to master core content?

One solution is to focus the curriculum offer, giving more time to the key subjects (like humanities, science, English and maths) to ensure these students have time to truly master the key subjects. It is a point of contention at what stage such a focus should take place – is it in the early years of KS3, to drench them in the basics and catch them up, or should they have equal access to all subjects at KS3 and narrow at KS4 in preparation for the exams?

In general, I would advocate focusing sooner, as the latter can tend to lead to students pushed through a clutch of technical qualifications in an attempt to ensure they leave school with something they can use later in life. Too diffuse a subject offer at KS3 for these subjects means some will continue to struggle, and even fail, thus perpetuating a vicious circle of lack of buy-in.

EAL

The second challenge to consider in our school’s particular context is its EAL students. We have a particularly high number of new arrivals, and a phenomenal job is done by the EAL team with these.

But there are students who still really struggle with the basics of communication in English. As one teacher told me, ‘to allow one student to access the lesson, her TA has to look up the words in Portuguese just so she can answer the questions – in Portuguese. What is the point in her learning a nineteenth century novel?’

I have much sympathy with this view. Of course, we would like all our EAL students to miraculously pick up perfect English just by sitting in mainstream lessons, but there might need to be a smarter solution for these students.

It also depends how much time they have before their all-important exams; clearly a student in year 7 can struggle through the year and probably make enormous progress in mainstream lessons, where a new arrival in year 10 or 11 might need alternative curriculum provision to ensure they are not drowning in syntax.

Behaviour

The greatest and widest-ranging challenge to a mastery curriculum is behaviour, because behaviour affects every teacher and every student in a school. If in the past I was guilty of delivering lessons with too much group work and student independent research, this was partly because it was incredibly difficult to deliver to a class that you couldn’t reach silence with. In that circumstance, in my early years as a teacher, I believed it was better to teach them something than to have a complete riot with nothing being learned.

But I know now that I failed those children in many ways. We do not have time to waste – the gap is too large, the stakes too high. These children do not have time for guessing, for card-sorts, for making posters with their friends. They need to read, write, and learn.

Delivering a lesson which is composed of reading, questioning and silent writing is not easy with students who are used to a variety of engaging activities which allow them a quiet word with their friends. A year 11 student only recently reminded me ‘I’m doing the work while I’m talking!’ when challenged, as if to say that as long as their pen was near the paper they were fine to not be 100% engaged with the lesson. (I firmly disagreed with the student, for the record.)

The major concern with implementing a rigorous knowledge curriculum is that the people who deliver it, especially NQTs, teachers who are new to the school or trainee teachers, all run the risk of immense challenge from students who have grown accustomed to lessons which are part learning, part social time.

To be able to deliver effectively to children, for them to really engage with and reflect on the knowledge they are learning, for them to learn enough in a short enough time to close the gap, behaviour must be absolutely impeccable. And if it isn’t, that has to be the number one priority to allow mastery to take place.