Saturday March 19, 2016
On Saturday 19th March we held one of our mind-blowing Thinking Saturdays, this time looking at poverty, education and what the latter’s impact is on children and young people experiencing the former.
We were joined by – and inspired by - Chris Kilkenny from Edinburgh who shared his story, growing up both in poverty and invisible to an education system that seemed unable to see him, let alone help him. You can read more of his story and see him in a Creative Conversation with Real David Cameron here.
Exploring the issues and what we as educators could do about it, a number of themes started to appear:
What Chris felt he needed was at last one person who listened, who at least tried to understand, who he could rely on, who was prepared to go ‘the extra mile’ to show he or she cared. Chris’ issues could not be solved by a single teacher let alone the entire education system. The issues he was experiencing were social ones and implying that education can solve society’s failings is a government’s way of absolving itself of the problems, such as poverty, that it causes. Pupil Premium is a great example of this, central government using money to pass over to education the problems it is creating by policies it implements elsewhere.
What are you doing to show you care? What are you doing to make sure you know whether a child in your class is experiencing issues related to poverty? Chris talks about ‘hiding in plain sight’, do you really know the home lives of the children in your care, despite what they present? Remember, too, that empathy doesn’t mean lowering your expectations (‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’ – the phrase Tweeted out to anyone who dares to suggest we need to seek to understand children before we seek to educate them) but that you are able to support them to overcome their particular challenges. And yes, that means giving them a pencil if having a pencil was the last thing on their mind that morning after breakfast (if they had one) as they left the their house (if they have one).
Through his childhood Chris lived with his mother in rehab or else lived in a block of flats in a socially deprived suburb of Edinburgh. He still lives a stone’s throw from where he grew up (and he ‘grew up’ around the age of eight when he became a carer for his mother and his three younger siblings). As he told us on Saturday, ‘I’ve watched a generation of people die slowly’.
Once during his childhood he went to London to film the documentary The Wrong Trainers – Chris’s Story and for the first time witnessed people smiling, people interested, people going to work, people healthy, people actually enjoying life. As Associate Jim Roberson describes it in his book The Discipline Coach, ‘How can you expect children to think anything different if they never experience anything different?’. What Chris felt he would have benefitted from as a child was the chance to see a different reality, to witness a different life, different possibilities, to know that there was a truth outside the one he was enduring.
What are you doing to ensure your children are exposed to many different realities? What are you doing to show them alternatives and possibilities, wherever they are from? Are you the only person in their life who smiles at them, who takes an interest, who shares news from another, better, place?
There seems to be a growing body of work looking at the power of narrative in education. Chris opens the sessions he does with teachers and school leaders (he’s increasingly in demand so please e-mail us if you would like to get in touch with him) as he did with us by simply recounting his story. It’s a simple device but one that is incredibly powerful. You can’t argue with a story, you can’t dismiss it. All you can do is listen and reflect. Once he has shared this narrative he then simply asks for questions. He never has to wait too long. The debate that ensued after his story with us lasted about five hours.
What this process of narrative seeks to achieve is two-fold:
1 – It bears witness to an otherwise hidden life. And does so in a way where the only humane response seems to be, ‘What can I do to help?’
2 – It has a cathartic effect for the teller when finally, after so much suffering, their voice is being heard. For Chris, as it is for other young people in a similar situation, the story of his childhood is the story of not being heard, of decisions being taken for him, of everyone having a say in his life but him. ‘I knew at the age of eight that the best thing for me would have been to be taken away from my mother, but no-one asked me’ as he told us, without rancour.
What are you doing to give children in your care the time and space to tell their story? What work can you do in or out of traditional lessons for them to explore the idea of personal narrative (English, PSHE, MFL, music, drama, art…?) What level of ‘personal efficacy’ do the children in your care enjoy? How often are they consulted on the things that matter to them, how often do you take the time to listen to them and listen properly (ie not whilst doing something else or looking at your watch, hard though that is in a busy teacher’s life)?
The issues that Chris’ story highlight are systemic yet also personal. The current model of society is set up to promote and entrench social inequality if the figures are anything to be believed. Many government polices contribute to this and current educational thinking is little better. Our meeting did express some support for initiatives like ‘Progress Eight’ and aspects of the latest Ofsted framework that actually gave schools at least some credit for seeking to address these issues. But focusing on data means we take our eyes of individual children, children like Chris. Or rather it takes our eyes off their needs. What the data reveal is that Chris is ‘a problem’ for the school (attendance, behaviour, attainment…) so Chris needs to be moved somewhere else, ‘hosted’ as they call it in Scotland, in another school. What then happens is the worst possible outcome for the ‘problem’ child, being passed around from school to school until that child isn’t a problem any more because that child has dropped out, grown up or, be brutally frank, died. Yes, it is that serious.
The need for data and instant progress mean schools are seeking to eliminate the ‘problem’, the ‘outlier’, rather than explore it. Behaviour strategies have become tools for control, compulsion and exclusion and who knows what* is going in certain high-profile academy chains and free schools who boast outstanding achievement but keep their exclusion rates and dubious selection procedures (‘We don’t think your child is right for our school’) well hidden?
Not only is there always another way, there is always a way where there’s the will. If you sense that the issues highlighted here are issues in your school, what can you do to act as a disrupter? What questions can you ask? What little nudges to the system can you make? What policies can you ignore? What whistles can you blow?
For example, does your school have a ‘Children in Poverty’ policy? If so, is it executed properly? Does it reflect some of the ideas in this blog? If your school, as we think is more likely the case, does not have such a thing, what could you do to go about writing one? Who could you work with to put it together? How could you get young people on board in writing and monitoring it? How could you include the wider community?
There is more that Independent Thinking is going to be doing in this area including a major book that seeks to share with teachers ways of supporting children in poverty and takes the narrative back from the ‘feckless poor’, social Darwinism, colonial narrative being peddled currently. With the gap between the rich and poor widening almost daily it seems, this will be an important book. We will make sure Chris continues to tell his story in it, loud and clear.
*By which I mean, we all know