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‘Oh, they’ll be alright…’

Question: why is there outrage whenever anybody suggests an idea or reform that will primarily benefit the highest achievers in our schools?

It’s odd. Not least because whenever anybody suggests an idea or reform that will primarily benefit the lowest achievers in our school, there is nothing but rapturous applause from the gallery.

And indeed, this seems perfectly natural. The plethora of schemes and funding that have accumulated over the years, the majority to help lower-achievers, is undoubtedly A Good Thing. To suggest otherwise would be… well, odd.

And yet, any modest proposal that would primarily benefit the higher achievers is often greeted with scorn, as if the person offering the idea is on a mission to deny the Bob Cratchetts of this world any opportunity to improve their station in life.

And this gets at the nub of it: the educational landscape is too often seeped in a class narrative that lazily equates underachieving with being poor. Whilst this is itself a serious problem, it nonetheless provides the cultural and moral rocket-fuel that keeps a whole army of pious ‘educationalists’ in well-paid jobs: one can etch out a very well paid career out of being sanctimonious. You doubt me? Attend a teacher training college for a week. You’ll see what I mean.

For which reason, it is interesting to play with the framing of the question a little, the better to draw out the central point I’m trying to make. How about this: should a hard-working, well-motivated and intelligent kid from the wrong part of town receive a helping hand in line with the effort and perspiration expended upon the lazy, insolent, spoiled underachiever from the middle-class suburb?

All of a sudden, the question looks a little different – though I’d maintain this is no less likely a scenario than the stereotypical ‘let’s move heaven and earth to help the (poor, obviously) kid to learn to read and become a success in life’ picture which usually features in the wet dreams of professional hand-wringers and film-makers.

But why should this be so? Does the high achiever, regardless of background, not have the same demands as the low achiever? Is there less of a moral obligation to help the high achiever than there is to help low achiever? Whilst there are unlikely to be high-fives in the staff room or Hollywood tearjerkers about the teacher who patiently helped a student turn their As into A*s, this does not mean the student is less worthy of the attention or the teacher’s efforts any less honourable. Quite the opposite, in fact.

At this point one often hears, or sees the results of, the educational philosophy which says something along the lines: oh Jimmy will get his grades, he’ll be alright.

By which is often meant, ‘Jimmy will get his five good passes, which will do our league tables no harm at all, so he’ll be alright.’

But then one must ask: why should this be enough? Is it less worse for Jimmy to get his five good passes and end up working in an office in Slough when, with the kind of tailored support offered as a matter of course for the recalcitrant he could have ended up in Oxbridge from whence who knows what paths would have opened up to him?

Not that academic achievement is the sole criteria of success – but for some it is the most appropriate and should be their leading criteria of (academic) success. Which means they should receive all the support and ‘intervention’ necessary to achieve it. And in so doing there should not be any instinctive distaste of high-achievement, either because it smells of elitism (truly a swear word in the state school system), or makes other kids at school feel less able, or whatever. This is not to say there are not many teachers who buck this trend – it is to say that in so doing they swim against the institutional tide, and not with it.

One wonders if herein lies one thread of that declining social mobility we so often hear lamented, that being the way the needs of the highest achievers are not adequately catered for either culturally or institutionally within the comprehensive system.

Though I’m sure some never-taught-in-their-life educational ‘expert’ will look at their DATA and find figures to prove me wrong and the status-quo right.

There is little more crushing in teaching than watching kids who want to learn be constantly and consistently impeded by those who don’t. And it is a truth that the latter category of students take up the vast majority of a teacher’s time, both in and out of the classroom, such that those who remain under the radar receive far less attention than they might otherwise do. In this sense they are victims too, only nobody will put their case, save for the odd platitude rarely adhered to, because ‘they’ll be alright’.

Yet they deserve the helping hand too – and there needs to be less moral outrage when they are offered it.