Yesterday I was a delegate at The Beach Teaching School Alliance (@theBeachTSA) conference called Understanding the Gap.
I have a Jeremy Deller print in the loo (rather than toilet- middle class head teacher alert!) It is a print of a giant William Morris slamming Roman Ambramovics’ super yacht in to the Thames. There is a short sentence written underneath that print… That sentence has sat with me ever since yesterday, “We are starving amidst our gold.”
The conference hit on many aspects of ‘Growing up poor in an age of austerity’ as Professor Tess Ridge illustrated the research findings it was hard not to feel that as a school leader I had not even scratched the surface of what needs to be done and what can be done. If I had let it wash over me I could have felt helpless. It’s a good job I came away feeling driven to do more. Because if not schools, then who? I particularly liked the way that Ridge talked about the Hinterlands… poverty lying beyond what is visible or known. Which she powerfully showed in her studies where sometimes children and families just disappear, lost in the Hinterlands where we can only hope they are ok.
Schools must do more. Yes we explored the pressures put on school to solve society’s ills. Jim Davis of The Children’s Society showed a slide that summed up working in education today:
He had trawled the media over the last few weeks and picked out the following related to schools:
How to react in a terrorist incident, how not to become a terrorist, or be involved in gangs, how not to be racist, sexist, homophobic, gender specific, eat badly or overuse social media. To be sensitive to fake news, embrace British values, be environmentally aware, financially competent and embracing of the creative arts, and sports. Without causing offense and with parental consent…
Be still. We must do more. It was the small change that I found particularly interesting. The language we use in school. Jim powerfully talked about family history and how we often know too much. How often is a child penalised because of what their parents may have done? How often do teachers judge children based on knowing things that are completely out of the control of that child?
Jim called his talk, “Leaving Poverty at the Gate”… But you could tell he did not know if this was a good or bad thing. What he did know is we have to understand better what it is like going to school when you are poor. The stigma, the media and the rules that govern schools create so many barriers that I just sat there and thought… Press delete and start again. From changing the wording of ‘voluntary contributions’ to ‘donations’ and the experiences of children on Free School Meals in the dinner hall… We really have to listen more. He talked of the arrogance of some school leaders who say they know their community… Can we ever really know everything? We can’t and therefore we need to listen. We need to invite voices in to our schools. His attack on school uniform was the most powerful I have heard and I felt ashamed as he echoed the voices of young people who had been punished for nothing more than their financial circumstances causing them to fall foul of uniform rules (In households where the only shoes they have are their school shoes) and how this was treated the same as ‘bad behaviour’. The fact that any child would take toilet paper home from school (stuffed in to their pockets) makes any rule that punishes children for being poor a sickening chapter in our approach to education in 2017. I make no excuses for wanting to challenge myself and others on this. It is often the unintentional consequences of we do that has the greatest impact.
This is where @marcrowlands made so much sense. He rallied against tags in school such as low ability and he championed the role of high expectations and quality first teaching. How a universal approach to making a difference in school works best. It was the culture and values of our schools that mattered. That a ‘sense of belonging’ is one of the schools most powerful learning aids…I also loved how he illustrated that as schools we are not hard enough when analysing the impact of our interventions.
His George Bernard Shaw quote really summed up the mindset I think we need to tackle this issue effectively.
Both optimists and pessimists contribute towards society. The optimist invents the aeroplane, the pessimist the parachute.
Unconditional… without boundaries is so much harder to do than say. Especially when most of us can only imagine the Hinterland. When we work in communities that have been raised on survival instinct, on suspicion and mistrust; communities that know austerity and judge its depth and taste in ways that those who do not live there cannot understand. For us teachers in those communities, us working teachers, the human impact of poverty cannot be fully understood… But, we must have hope that we can do something, even as we despair that the task is monumental. I do not for a second believe that I will be able to change societies attitudes and government policy… But, I can make a difference to the lives of the children and families in my school, and I will. That is what schools were built to do.