“The UK education system faces a range of inter-related challenges: students from non-selective state schools are under-represented at top universities; with schools increasingly accountable for progression to higher education.” (Source)
Over the years, I’ve been touched by two stories I’ve heard from students. Both heart-wrenching; real and poignant. But, what is moving about each of their stories, was the context of which they spoke and the importance of both accounts.
Before I share their circumstances, take a look at the following startling facts:
As part of school leadership, I am given the opportunity to attend assemblies. A chance to meet with students; support the ethos of a school and celebrate with students in year groups. As part of one assembly, Student A was presenting her own speech for the forthcoming competition. This was a chance to have a ‘dry-rehearsal’ in front of her peers. She was naturally, very nervous.
Student A: She stood up; positioned herself in the middle of the assembly-hall floor, and in front of her peers, commenced her pitch. She opened her debate with a question to the rest of her year group.
“How many of you here, have been raised by a single-parent?”
Immediately, I was hooked!
Under half of the year 10 audience raised their hands. Although I knew about the headline statistics of my own school and the students residing within it; I wasn’t quite prepared to see the collective-force of 40-50% of hands, raised high into the air in response to this question.
I was captivated.
Many students come from extreme low-levels of poverty and challenging circumstances at home; including single-parent families. Some students, acting as carers. Secondly, many students do not have a safe environment in which to live comfortably, never-mind a place to study or complete homework. So, we must continually be creative in opening up interventions for our students to have equal-access in and out of school hours.
Once again, here I was listening to a student; reminded of one thousands reasons, why I chose to become a teacher. To support students and instill a love of learning for a better future; to improve life-chances, regardless of background.
Student A continued to account the troubles she had encountered with her mother. The pain; the anguish; the depression! The tough choices she and her mother had to make throughout the 14 years of her young life and how this had shaped her own determination to make her mother proud and ensure she seized all her educational opportunities and life-chances.
She discussed her role-models and her aspirations to go onto further education. We have all heard these re-collections first-hand. It was an emotional moment.
Many months ago, I attended a Training School meeting at my local school, as part of the NRTA initiative for Haringey Council. The meeting gathered a number of colleagues, involved in a new partnership with The Brilliant Club to place PhD students – as mentors – into schools to inspire students and improve their subject skills, knowledge and academic dialogue.
“The Brilliant Club is an award-winning non-profit organisation that exists to widen access to top universities for outstanding pupils from non-selective state schools. Our primary activity is to recruit, train and place doctoral and postdoctoral researchers in non-selective state schools and sixth form colleges serving low participation communities to deliver programmes of university-style tutorials to small groups of outstanding pupils, which develop the knowledge, skills and ambition that help those pupils to secure places at top universities.”
On this particular occasion, we heard from a student, about his own circumstances and the opportunities that The Brilliant Club would/could have on individuals such as himself. Student B’s story is as follows:
Student B did not enjoy his school. He was much more interested in being part of a gang and seeking social status from peers on the street. Postcode feuds (in his life); and most likely his doorstep, were frequent amongst North London gangs (and still are); and form part of their backdrop environment, everyday.
As we know, schools act as a safe sanctuary from the street-culture that consumes and clouds a child’s aspirations.
As he presented to a room full of adults – probably whom most, including myself, have never experienced gang-culture – he went on to discuss how he missed a great deal of school. after being involved in an incident.
This incident – for living in the wrong postcode – equated to him being stabbed 9 times and having a stint in hospital for 2 months before his 14th birthday! Following this, his History teacher saved him for further life on the streets and got his backside back into school; subsequently gaining an education and a set of qualifications.
More importantly, this teacher used the opportunity to raise his aspirations as a result of his own circumstances. This was critical and pinpoints what so many of us (teachers) do, beyond ‘teaching.’
Student B today, faces a choice of a bright future with offers from 3 universities. Not quite the top-end of higher-educational institutions as quoted by The Brilliant Club; but a huge feat achieved nonetheless. It made me feel very humble, and immensely proud of the work colleagues had invested saving this young person’s life. His teachers had dramatically improved his chances to succeed.
It was wonderful to sit next to his History teacher …
I was moved.
Following on from these two simple accounts, each student has given me great reflection. The opportunity to stand back from the front-line and listen to the true voices of education. As much as I could in my role as a teacher, I did my best to tell each student; how well they had presented themselves and had represented the collective-voices of their peers. That their speeches carried an empowering emotional tag that could shift funding streams; diversity and equal access to university.
That their stories could give many ‘other students’ hope. That their success story could raise the profile and impact of organisations such as The Brilliant Club.
If ever there was a time to recollect the thoughts and polarity of private, versus state-school education; and the dichotomy of schooling we have in the UK; it was as this point the following thought fluttered through my mind:
All students deserve a free and high-quality education, regardless on background; with equal-access to top universities across the country.
To cap all my thinking and experiences off; I found a short article in The i paper (which I will quote following ‘the original article’ below); a retort to Archie Bland‘s column in The Independent.
“Two children run a race. They start in the same place, but one of the children has the inside lane, and as they circle the track, that advantage opens up a telling gap. Half way round, the child in the lead picks up a straw hat without breaking stride, and puts it on. He crosses the finishing line far ahead of his opponent. The next day’s sports pages are full of analysis of the contest. The advice to the loser, the columnists opine, is obvious: for the next race, he should be sure to get hold of a boater …
You wouldn’t get away with this shallow analysis in athletics. But in schools, it appears to be indestructible.” (State schools are as good as private schools, Mr Gove. Here’s the proof.)
Then, what led me to the above article, was this letter below to the editor, which was written by a gentleman in Shrewsbury, called Peter Milner. It said:
“Archie Bland talks a lot of sense 95 February) but like so many others he has missed the bulls-eye. The elephant in the classroom, which no one dares mention for fear of being slammed an elitist, is not private schools, teachers, bog standard state-schools, straw boaters, pushy middle-class parents, discipline or the children themselves.
It is lazy, couldn’t care-less parents who never spend time with or read to their children, never take them to a museum and never encourage them to do their homework, take an interest in the world around them or watch some of the many excellent educational or informative programmes on television.
I have no idea what the solution is, but educationalists and social planners need to start acknowledging and reacting to the problem, because it will always be dragging children down and won’t go away on its own.”
And there you have it. State school or private school quashed. Backgrounds – we know – do not start on the same footing, but what we can hope, is that for Student A and B, that there is the ‘functional unit’ at home and at school; with structures in place, to help them succeed and instil a love of learning and high aspiration of their own.
This must start at home and; the government should do more to acknowledge and recognise this; that to support the hard work of thousands and thousands of teachers and schools across the country, education must start at home.
Discovered this great article in The Guardian: Is the British education system designed to polarise people? which suggests that young people need to learn to control the richest 1%, who dominate Britain.