Nicky Morgan made a speech in November 2015 entitled ‘One nation education’ stating her desire to give every child from every area the same, outstanding learning opportunities:
“I want every child to benefit from the sort of education that young people get at schools like King Solomon Academy in London, Denbigh High School in Luton, and Fernwood School in Nottingham. Schools which are the real engines of social justice. That’s the sort of school that every child should be attending. For all the successes of our reforms over the past 5 years, one of the consequences of the emergence of these beacons of excellence, has been to highlight just how far some schools and some parts of our country still lag behind”.
I teach and am part of a leadership team in a primary school in a deprived area. It is an area I was brought up in but it has deteriorated on a large scale over the last 20 years. I now live a few miles away; it could be thousands of miles for how different the areas are – but I continue to work and occasionally access this nearby town which gives me a current perspective. This perspective is somewhat depressing. Over half of the children at my school claim free school meals. There are many large families with parents who do not have the financial means to care for them adequately. The area and town are run down and is continuing to deteriorate. Investment is a drop in the ocean. Some parents are illiterate. The one remaining industry is also declining. Transport links are poor. Statistically, these children will have fewer aspirations and lower attainment than children in more affluent areas. Nevertheless at my school, results in reading are above national and at national for writing and maths. We have found methods that work for our children and work ourselves silly to give the children the best possible learning experiences. We work relentlessly to involve parents in the learning process and have an ‘open door’ policy to build bridges between home and school. We provide as many rich experiences as we can for our children. We give children time to discuss their hopes and dreams and encourage them in every way we can. We fortunately have a fairly low staff turnover due to our head teacher having a healthy focus on staff wellbeing, although we do find it incredibly difficult when we do have to recruit. Sounds good doesn’t it? The problem is that it is all getting harder. Harder to meet the needs of our children. And the other problem is that many similar schools in my area and like areas are also struggling, some to a far greater extent. There are several reasons for this which all schools are facing but which cause such detrimental effects for children living in deprived areas:
- The changes in the curriculum; for example, the expectation of children scoring higher marks in areas such as grammar and the Year 1 phonics test is impacting upon time previously spent on other areas of the curriculum. For children with limited life experiences, these other areas are fundamental. And I don’t just mean subject areas. I am talking about areas of nurturing self-esteem, encouraging aspiration and providing rich life experiences.
- The fact that teachers with any degree of experience are becoming more and more of a rarity and male teachers are like gold dust. Our children need inspirational teachers, both female and male.
- The muddled, disjointed and confusing changes made regarding assessment including the lack of clear explanation and appropriate timing and clarification when levels were removed. If the teachers are confused, how will the parents be feeling? Such a step backwards in a locality where parental involvement has gradually been nurtured.
- The fact that over the next couple of years, due to the process of all schools becoming academies, there will be no county support for schools such as mine.
- The shortage of other professionals such as social workers and educational psychologists in areas such as mine.
- Increased teacher workload from many of the factors above.
And what will this lead to, particularly for children in my area?
- Most worryingly – a curriculum which simply does not have the time to focus on those other all important areas including aspiration, self-esteem and becoming global citizens. This is particularly crucial for children whose life factors would suggest they are less likely to go on to higher education.
- A reduction in the quality and quantity of our greatest resource – teachers.
- The almost complete absence of male role models in schools.
- A lack of external support and training for existing teachers.
- A lack of support and advice for families and schools in terms of other professionals.
- A decrease in parental interest. If teachers are perplexed with the new assessment arrangements, how must parents feel?
I am not particularly politically minded but it therefore seems that the government’s policies and Morgan’s quest to unite the nation is a joke. I am no expert in the area of political strategies but I would suggest the following areas at least be acknowledged instead of those such as what constitutes an exclamation:
- The absolute vital importance of recruiting teachers to such areas.
- The importance of a truly well rounded curriculum. Yes, literacy and numeracy teaching and learning are paramount but serious consideration needs to be given to what else must be included and whether this is possible with current requirements in other areas.
- The recognition that teachers need greater access to and time given, to quality CPD. It is uncanny how our government will push the Singapore maths scheme yet will not push their accompanying ideology of plentiful time for CPD.
- The dire situation of how pressed other agencies are and the effect this is having upon our children.
- Consideration as to how all parents and carers should be addressed/informed/educated about the many changes. Don’t just leave it to schools. If the government wants to impart such stringent ideas on our children, they need to be prepared to step up and explain it to all.
- A true recognition of our most impoverished localities. It is all well and good stating that we want these children to achieve just as much – of course we do – but current educational plans and policies suggest there is little awareness of the impact of generations of unemployment and low aspiration in some of these areas upon our children’s development.
- The differences between passing a test and truly learning. My concern is that despite current tests being rather difficult, over coming years, children will be ‘trained’ to pass them. Morgan’s desire for higher grades across different socio-economic groups will appear to be reached but the cost to children’s overall development and therefore their life chances, will be detrimental.
Morgan completes her speech by discussing what she thinks were behind Labour’s aims of’ dumbing down’ our curriculum by providing vocational qualifications:
“It was kindness driven by tacit snobbery. By a fatalistic lack of confidence in human potential. By a world view that certain kids – and let’s be honest, ‘kids like these’ always meant kids from poorer homes – could never succeed academically. And so we shouldn’t even try.”
Her analysis may well be correct – as I said, I’m not particularly politically minded and I am not saying that I believed in Blair’s ideologies. But if she truly believes what she has said, her policies for change are nothing more than an ill-fitting sticking plaster. She cannot see the wood for the trees and the trees she can see are those in the educational field that should be left well alone. For goodness sake, acknowledge and begin to tackle the multitude of factors that lead to difference in outcomes between localities and provide teachers with the foundations to enable such children to excel. Sadly, there is no quick fix. But the current demands being put upon schools will make the issue even worse.