What kids need – at school and at home

Decent education is not about fads, or throw backs to the 50s. It should be accessible and equitable for all. It should be a simple thing to deliver, surely? But with private education, faith schools, grammar schools, comprehensives, free schools and academies where are we? It’s a mess and yet again too many children will suffer. Not the well off, not those with parents who understand the centrality of a good education to a life full of choices and independence. No, those who will suffer, as they have always done, are the poor, the reluctant and disinclined learner who can so easily escape the clutches of a system in constant change. As it is now.

Part of the problem is that we define education so rigidly – or more to the point in the UK it is measured so rigidly. 5 A-C GCSE’s and you’re passport to a good life is assured. Really? Do you think so? Yes, we add in CVA to show how much a school has done for children entering secondary education at appallingly low levels but what has the child learnt about anything practical, or useful? What do they know at 16 that they didn’t at 11, that will enable them to live a productive and useful and hopefully happy life?

Naturally able and smart students succeed no matter where they are, what sort of teaching they have. Of course the better the school they attend, with the better peer group, the better off they will be. But good students don’t need a lot of extraneous guff to get on with learning, with doing what they need to do to get where they’re going. By the time they get to school smart kids have an idea of what they can do well, what they’re not that hot at, what they might do with their life and how they’re going to get there. Essentially they have a pretty good sense of themselves as people with a purpose. Sometimes these kiddies lose the plot and drop out but usually they opt back in and finish school, get to uni and are successful.

These kids don’t need heavy structure and expectations, rigour and consistency – they already have it. But most kids do. They need it at home and they must have it at school, especially when it’s lacking at home. By the time students get to high school they have had many years of low expectations, of not doing what they’ve been asked, of not complying with rules, expectations, anything. At home there may be nothing to rail against because no-one gives a shit, or they have perfected the art of non-compliance to such a state through tantrums and violence that no parent can withstand the onslaught when bed time comes or eating vegetables. Primary school continues the trend and they arrive at high school and no-one is going to tell them anything, ever.

Parents and carers need to commit early to structure and discipline. If you can’t get your two year old to do what you ask, how do you think you’ll get your fourteen year old to co-operate? The hard yards must happen early. Parents must be clear about bed-time, dinner time rituals (yes, you do need to eat together as a family and turn the bloody telly and computer off); responsibility, manners, completing homework, helping around the house, respecting others and their things. Children need to be taught how to cope with disappointment, with not getting their own way; not to bite or scream or expect the world when they demand it.

Parents must understand that this is love. Teaching your child boundaries and consequences, rules and rituals is about making them into decent human beings, accepted and loved, by friends and society. They need to be sent to bed early if they cross the line. They need to be grounded and yes, sometimes they need a good slap. (Which is not a beating or abuse. But a well timed slap does wonders for slowing the child determined on destruction or danger.) Children need to learn paradoxically that they are special and uniquely loved and that they are not the only person on the planet and that they need to get on with others and be aware of the world around them and its expectations if they are to fit into it.

Sadly for too many impoverished children there is not this type of love to be had. There is precious little anything for them to hold onto in this world. They come from extreme situations – abuse – substance and physical; neglect of all types, no food, no place to sleep, no-one to bath them or wash their clothes, and they bring all their anger, lawlessness, ego-centricity and arrogance to school and somehow learning is meant to take place!

Schools who have taken on the ‘no excuses’ cry are making head-way with such students. Structures that are consistent and fair, with discipline that is tough but compassionate is the only way. But schools can only do so much and there is so much more that these students need than 5 A-C GCSE’s. They are not all destined for university – especially not with the outrageous hike in student fees, but could make decent tradespeople. (Why is there such a focus in the UK on University to the exclusion of trades or other ways to decent work? Am I missing something here?)

Despite their protestations students appreciate consistency in rules and expectations but they also want it in staffing. Disadvantaged students need consistency in staff more than most. Home is often a mess; absent parents, drug addled parents, violent afflicted parents. School is safe, it is predictable, regular. To meet the same faces for the 5 years you are at high school is greatly reassuring. Here are people who know you, who have a relationship with you. Sure, they may shout at you from time to time and get cross, but it’s usually because you haven’t done the right thing and they care about you. They have watched you grow and change; they have helped you learn about more than just your subjects; and they have listened to you, believed in you.

Being a teenager is bloody hard. Home can make or break you. Friends can be the best or worst thing about your life. School can be heaven or it can be hell. If two of these things are off kilter but one is stable a child can make it through the treacherous teenage waters. If all three are off, chances are the child will be lost to drugs, alcohol, gangs, self harm or suicide. For disadvantaged students home is often a terrible place. Friends can let you down, turn on you for no reason, but school can save the day. A kind face you know and trust, a calm voice who doesn’t lie to you, who makes you believe in yourself; a classroom where order and learning pervade – these are the things that Ofsted can’t measure. These are the things that make the difference, that get kids through school and enable them to have a decent life.

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