In 1848 a religious advice pamphlet observed: “Some boys laugh at poor cripples when they see them in the street. Sometimes we meet a man with only one eye, or one arm, or one leg, or who has a humpback. How ought we to feel when we see them? We ought to pity them.”
Why did you come into teaching? I’m guessing this is a question that teachers across the country will be asking themselves whilst clutching at the last of the Christmas chocolates and knocking back the last of the Christmas wine. Indeed, I’m sitting here, eyeing the half-completed pile of marking, making optimistic plans to eat less and exercise more, regretting that last tub of Heroes and wondering where the hell my school shoes are – and I know this week, I will ask myself that question at 5.45 every morning…and possibly for the next three months at least. I have a sneaking suspicion that I will be less and less grateful to be employed as the week wears on.
But it is an important question. When we rock up to the university/training training programme, new folder and notepaper in hand, ready to learn about Vygotsky and Freire, we have all chosen to do so in the knowledge that the old adage about teaching is just not true. At least I hope we realise that ‘if you can’t, teach’ is an insidious misrepresentation of the worst kind. Some of us absolutely love our subjects and want to be employed using the knowledge we have gained in our education. Some of us do it because teaching is a craft to be mastered. Some of us because it is the least altruistic profession, in the same way giving a birthday gift might not really about the joy of giving to another person; it is simply the desire to feel that warm glow that says ‘I’m a good person’. To borrow a phrase I am rapidly coming to dislike, teaching might be for some folk a Jedi-level ‘virtue signal’.
So why do I do it?
I was once fresh-faced and enthusiastic, I thought I wanted to teach because I loved my subject and I wanted others to love it too. But it turns out that wasn’t entirely it. So here it is, on a blustery Sunday evening. The reason why I do it.
When I started teaching, I was given a Year 7 English class. They were also my tutor group. In that entirely mixed ability class, I met Vikesh* and I realised that I had absolutely no understanding as to how to teach him anything. Vikesh had been born with microcephaly; alongside having a distinctively small cranial cavity, he had the cognitive ability of a six year old boy. On top of that, he didn’t speak English. It was a lucky coincidence that we spoke the same home language and Vikesh didn’t judge me for having a six year old’s linguistic ability in Gujerati. I panicked. I became frustrated. What was I supposed to do with this boy? I had thirty other students and I wanted to teach. I couldn’t because he couldn’t learn like the others.
You’ll be reading this thinking that he should have been in a special school. I agree. But he wasn’t. He was there, with me in that classroom and I had to do something. My LSA – one of the best people I have ever met – embarked on a programme that meant that he would have some meaningful education. We learned letters. We learned sounds. We learned verbal communication. We played cricket in the aisle of the classroom when he achieved something small. The other students didn’t get any less of my time. It’s just that Vikesh got me in the blank spaces in my lesson when the others were scribbling away furiously. It as the most tired I had ever been in my life but I was finding something. In the midst of the madness of learning how to teach, I learned why I teach.
Because Vikesh – like so many students with additional needs – didn’t choose to be there. Society put him there. There was no provision for a child of his needs within a reasonable distance from his home and his parents knew he had to learn to be around people. I’m pretty certain that as much as he learned the basics, the children around him learned just as much about humanity and acceptance. He wasn’t to be pitied. He was a member of our community. And just like society is legally obliged to make reasonable adjustments to be compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act, I was obliged to make reasonable adjustments to my teaching. The discussion about what constitutes ‘reasonable adjustment’ is a valid one and it needs to be had. But exclusion on the grounds of special education need is much more problematic.
When we separate the act of teaching from its intended or unintended effects, we ignore that fact that whether we like it or not – for whatever reason we came into teaching in the first place – we change someone’s world. And we can either show the love and acceptance that comes with that, or we can move people into boxes. To teach is to change someone’s world, in a million ways, in a million moments.
If I believed that Vikesh should have been in a special school, or that Jenn* (blind, autistic, impaired mobility) or Henry* (a descendant of Dickens with Aspergers) should have a school for themselves, I would worry about the line. Where is the line in separating out students with additional needs? Who stays in a mainstream school? Vikesh is an extreme case, but if we start to categorise who we can and can’t teach, that way trouble lies.
This brings me to the other reason. The fundamental belief that teachers, not politicians, are the engineers of society they want to live in. I don’t want to live in a society that places people in neat little boxes so that I can get on with it. By believing that teaching is more that a knowledge-delivery system, we subscribe to William Temple‘s school of thought:
‘Are you going to treat a man as he is or as he might be? Morality requires that you should treat him as he might be, as he has it in him to become…Raising what he is to what he might be is the work of education.’
As I put in the years at inner-city schools, I came to know that exclusion in any form is wrong – either in segregation according to educational need or as a method of managing behaviour. And the statistics on exclusion and SEN make for horrible reading. The brilliant and well-informed blog, Ed Yourself, points out:
The single biggest reason for permanent exclusion from school is “persistent disruptive behaviour” and two thirds of pupils who are permanently excluded have some degree of special educational needs, with 1 in 10 having a statement.
Let’s throw race into the mix just to see what happens when we start to see children as categories and not people…
Combine some of the greatest risk-factors for exclusion and you have this: a black boy, with SEN and claiming free school meals is 168 times more likely to be permanently excluded than a white girl with no additional needs, who does not claim free school meals (Institute of Race Relations).
Add to that the fact that exclusions are on the rise in academies and free schools due to a lack of legislative clarity on the mandate to use alternative provision in educational establishments that are guided by their funding agreement and not the Education Act – we have a bigger problem than we think in how we deal with students who do not fit the ideal.
Add that to the study that outlines the correlation between permanent exclusion and crime and you have a problem that exists not in the classroom, disrupting your teaching of a poetry anthology, but in your streets, in your prisons, in your morgues.
I don’t have the answers to the challenges of teaching students with all sorts of different needs because I don’t think there are any hard and fast answers. What I do know is that these children – the dyslexic, the dyspraxic, the rich, the poor, the able and not so able – are in our care. And we have a duty to make sure that we make reasonable adjustments to ensure that they achieve their potential. Because that is what changes worlds.
When I get up tomorrow, as hard as it might be to prop my eyelids open with the burnt-oust matchsticks of a great Christmas, I will remember that my job is to teach. And that ‘teaching’ means more that being in the room, delivering content.
Speak to me in a week and you may find less fighting spirit in me, but for now, before I go and find those shoes, this is it.
Paul Murphy MP, last week, called Welsh teachers out on their lack of ambition in getting students from state schools into Oxbridge. His statements only serve to put the proverbial icing on the cake in a week when Michael Gove has essentially called teachers lazy. I wonder if government ministers, Conservative or otherwise, will ever run out of negative adjectives to use about teachers. Perhaps they could stagger their verbal assaults – at least then, I’d be able to deal with them in one blog post at a time. I am more than a little disappointed in a former Labour Secretary of State for Wales wading in on the teacher bashing.
Back to the point. The idea that teachers are responsible for poor numbers of state school Oxbridge applicants is fascinating. It is wearying to see this issue crop up time and time again. Numbers of state school students applying to Oxbridge first appeared in 1852 when Royal Commissions for both Oxford and Cambridge showed that poorer students did not attend those venerable institutions. Why are we still having this same debate? And more to the point, why is it – 161 years after the first report on this issue – that we are now saying it is their teachers’ lack of ambition that has prevented students from applying to Oxbridge?
My experience has shown that, if anything, Oxbridge entrance is given top billing in state schools. It is still seen as the gold standard of university admission and teachers who are sixth form tutors are more than willing to encourage students from all backgrounds to apply. With an increasing number of Oxbridge graduates working in schools, there is a renewed focus on raising aspirations, using people who have been through that system themselves.
Many moons ago, when I was a student, there was a real sense of expectation around students who achieved those elusive top grades at A-Level. If you didn’t think it was for you, you were still pushed to place an application to Oxford or Cambridge, especially if, like me, you were from a minority ethnic background. I don’t remember a single teacher ever telling me that I shouldn’t apply or being particularly discouraging. I am conscious now, however, that my teachers saying I should apply for an Oxbridge place was not really about me as an individual, it was about state school statistics on Oxbridge entrance. I do feel quite cynical about it now. But it still does not mean that my teachers were unambitious.
I know that teachers are important to their students’ perceptions of the world they live in, but I am more than aware, too, that my students are not passive receptacles of information given to them in school. I certainly wasn’t, at that age. This is partly why I objected so violently to Boris Johnson’s comments about teachers being the reason that so many students hate Margaret Thatcher – apparently, we have indoctrinated them with our anti-Thatcher views. Students are, more than ever, exposed to political and social comment. They have access to the news in many different formats; they are more likely to communicate with each other via The Student Room, on Twitter and on Facebook. They learn about the world they live in from many different sources. If there is a hesitation on our students’ part to apply for those Oxbridge places, it may be because there is a collective awareness that it is hard to get in and that admission of state school students is lower than admission of students from independent schools.
If state school students are exposed constantly to the idea that Oxbridge is an elitist concept, then surely the barrier to be overleaped is that idea in itself. It is not a teacher’s lack of ambition that prevents a student from applying to one of those universities, it is the students’ own perceptions of them. It is certainly true that teachers I have worked with in the past eleven years have worked tirelessly to raise aspirations and to remind students that the perceived elitism is not a barrier to their ambitions.
As usual, teachers just need to keep powering through the criticism.
To change the record somewhat, it may be worth asking whether, in fact, there is too much focus on Oxbridge entrance. Times, they are a-changing. They have certainly moved on from when Paul Murphy himself went from a Catholic school in Pontypool to Oriel College, Oxford. Now, the Russell Group of universities, made of 24 of the best higher education institutions, has a wealth of excellent teaching facilities. One look at the rankings of universities according to subject makes it clear that if one is to go the ‘best’ university, it may not be Oxbridge for a particular subject. While both Oxford and Cambridge rank highly, they do not always rank at the top of the list. It begs the question, then, whether Paul Murphy’s comments are based on a real desire to see students receive the most cutting-edge, the most developed and most effective teaching at this level, or whether he – like many others, believes that having Oxford or Cambridge on your CV gives you an immediate advantage over anyone else. If that is the case, he is just perpetuating an elitism that teachers have been trying to eliminate for years.
For many students, regardless of their socio-economic background, Oxbridge may not be the right environment for them to flourish. Of course, there is evidence that many do. However, it is also interesting to note that one of key failings of the charter school movement in the US is around college drop-out rates. Charter schools laud their success in getting students from poor backgrounds into college, but are still trying to work out how to keep them there, particularly at Ivy League institutions. Where my own students have visited Oxbridge, some have indeed returned with the absolute belief that they do not want to go there. Why? Because they do not feel like they fit in. I realise that this idea will never change unless more state school students do apply and are admitted to Oxbridge – however, that perception of the institutions is not something that is created by teachers, it exists separately as a real barrier to students, particularly those from poorer backgrounds. We can be as ambitious as you like as teachers, but that doesn’t change the fact that a rarefied environment may be off-putting from students who believe, even in this day and age, that they don’t belong there.
So, it is with a heavy heart that I note Paul Murphy’s comments and that I raise a glass to my Welsh colleagues, who will soon be working with students to fill in UCAS applications to a wide range of universities, which may or may not include Oxbridge. Good luck all – keep your heads up.