The future king of Great Britain arrived last week. Catapulted into an aristocratic world of wealth and privilege that most of us can only dream of. In this world, opulent palaces, Michelin-starred chefs, dressers, nannies, nursemaids and serving staff are all at twenty-four hour disposal. The highest quality attention and accommodation that money can buy, and, ~ let’s not forget~ the gold-standard private medical care. In the not-too-distant future Prince George can also expect to benefit from a (some might say) enviable public-school education. Will this improve his academic chances? I’ll digress and return to this later.
For those of us of somewhat less privilege in the state education sector, the latest plan that Michael Gove et al have devised is to examine children at age 11, whilst still at primary school, (we won’t mention the 11+). Ostensibly, this is in order that they be accurately streamed on entry into secondary school. Pupil’s results will be organised in increments of 10%. Therefore, there will be pupils in the ‘top 10%’ and, inevitably, there will also be pupils in the ‘bottom 10%’. However, these results are not to be published openly and will only be used to inform pupils, parents and schools.
A couple of weeks ago I was listening to The Jeremy Vine Show. On this particular occasion a discussion was taking place regarding these end of Key Stage 2 tests. As far as I am able to recall, the discussion centred around two extremes:
Firstly: That these tests would be potentially damaging, especially to the ‘bottom 10%’, it is unfair to stick a label on children at the age of eleven. They may yet go on to achieve much greater academic performance, therefore: this result could hinder progress by damaging a young person’s self-esteem and confidence.
Secondly: There is far too much attention paid to the ‘bottom 10%’ we should be paying more attention to the top 10%, instead of worrying about bruising the egos of the academic flounderers, of which there will always be a proportion.
Although extremes of the argument, both perspectives have relevant points to offer:
The ‘labelling’ argument is certainly a valid one. Over the years, I have worked with many young people with ‘labels’ that have, It could be argued, been more of a hindrance than a help. For example, label a child with, the much-overused (and possibly non-existent) Attention Defecit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) at the age of five, and you are not only giving that child a cast-iron excuse for any behaviour or academic problems that may follow, but also possibly condemning them to a life of doping on Ritalin, the dosage of which is notoriously difficult to get right and can also seriously compound issues.
The most prevalent fad of recent years has been to label a child as being ‘on the Autistic spectrum’. Teams of educational psychiatrists are, no doubt, paid handsomely to put their moniker and seal to this dubious conclusion. I wrote my degree dissertation on Autism. I looked at case studies from both the lower, and upper end of the spectrum. In recent years I have watched several vulnerable, already-damaged children gain receipt of this label. Yet, they are able to make eye-contact, understand emotions and nuances of facial expressions, realise the effect their behaviour has on others, and display empathy and/or cruelty. I know I am far from being an expert, but this isn’t Autism as many would understand it The majority of these children are not meeting any of Autistic Spectrum criteria any more than you or I. Some of these children have then been dispatched to specialist autistic academic provision. I suppose, at least they’re not a mainstream school problem any more.
However, I’m not convinced that an end of key stage exam result quite constitutes a ‘label’ in the same way. I’ll return to this shortly.
It is similarly true to say that schools do often plough a lot of attention and resources into the bottom-performing pupils. It makes sense: what teachers are always striving to do is teach. Ergo, if a child is struggling with something, or several things, it is our instinct to try and help. Likewise, if a child understands and competent, it could easily be assumed that they don’t need any extra support. This may be a culture that we do need to change. The future ‘top 10%’, arguably should receive at least as much attention as the lowest-performing groups.
However, the big question is this: is it inevitable that some children will perform less well, academically, than others? Or could it be possible for all children to excel with the correct input?
The poverty and other socio-economic factors that affect many young people in this country has been the subject of several studies over the years. To try to answer to this question, an extensive study was carried out in 2003 in order to determine how socio-economic disadvantage may affect a young person’s chances of continuing on to higher education and explained that:
‘… many of the young people in this research spoke of low aspirations operating both within their schools and within their local communities in general, which could push potential students towards more vocational courses or non-academic careers.
“The expectations that everybody at the school has of you is quite low. Like at our school I felt there was a big emphasis on how to type… Sciences weren’t the priority that I thought that they should have been.” (Ellen, 20, degree student)
The study concluded that:’There was clearly a need to raise aspirations and achievement in schools serving disadvantaged areas. However, this has to be combined with a greater level of advice and information targeted at those disadvantaged school pupils who are already aspiring towards higher education.’ (Socio-economic disadvantage and experience in higher education ~Alasdair Forsyth and Andy Furlong 16 May 2003)
So, there is, perhaps, a discussion to be had around our own expectations of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. As teachers, it is our job to remove barriers to learning, not erect them.
A second, later, study, published in 2010, arrived at some similar conclusions, that the following was necessary if children were to achieve their full potential
…’Reducing children’s behavioural problems, and engagement in risky behaviours…Helping children from poorer families to believe that their own actions and efforts can lead to higher education.Raising children’s aspirations and expectations for advanced education, from primary school onwards.’ (Poorer Children’s Educational Attainment: How Important are Attitudes and Behaviour? Alissa Goodman and Paul Gregg 29 March 2010)
So, looking at the results of both studies, the solution to helping young people reach their full potential would appear to be twofold: help the young people, themselves, to have high personal aspirations. Encourage them to see that they really are masters of their own destiny and that ambition is a positive thing. In addition, expect high standards, encourage young people to realise that, no matter what background, good exam results and higher education really are a possibility. There is, in theory, no reason for them to be on the outside looking in.
Returning to the ‘bottom 10%’ issue and the related arguments. The royal family happen to provide an interesting contrast to the studies above, Diana, Princess of Wales is a case in point, this from website Britroyals.com :
‘Diana attended secondary schools in Norfolk, and in Sevenoaks, Kent. She failed to pass any exams, but excelled in swimming and diving. In 1977 she briefly attended a finishing school in Rougemont, Switzerland.‘
The fact that as a member of a wealthy, aristocratic family, Diana received probably one of the best educations that money can buy, yet still failed to pass a single exam is an interesting example. Perhaps we must accept that there will always be a ‘bottom 10%’ It by no means suggests that these children will be failures at life. Nor does it mean that they won’t find other areas to excel in.
The example of Diana does, I hope, prove the point very well, the best education in the world will only yield results if the child is capable. This is not a socio-economic issue, it’s an inherent ability issue: if the child is bright enough, they should be encouraged, assisted and nurtured, no matter what background. The same applies for less able students. No teacher would ever advocate otherwise. It’s what we do. But we must accept that some people ~ regardless of ethnicity, sex, socio-economic background, or whatever other invisible barriers we may erect~are less academically able than others, whereas some are more so. To pretend otherwise is deceptive to all involved, and, in the long run, does the child no favours at all.
As Diana, Princess of Wales once said so succinctly when asked a Trivial Pursuit question by a fifteen year old boy : “I can’t answer that because I’m thick as a plank!”
Disarming honesty, indeed. Maybe we could all learn a thing or two from her acceptance of her limitations and ability to shine in other areas.
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