I can honestly say that I have never been touched by an academic/research book, both personally and professionally, as I have when I read -˜The Working Class' edited by Ian Gilbert.
I felt it affected me very much on a personal level having been raised and educated as a child in the wonderful working class area of Walton in Liverpool, where there are so many parallels with the community I now serve. I feel privileged to be the Headteacher of an outstanding school which sits in the ex-mining community of Barnsley. My priority since joining Birkwood Primary has always been to offer the children as many opportunities and experiences as possible so that it helps and supports them now and in the future.
Many elements of the book touched me and stirred emotions relating to my younger self, as I finally understood why I never fitted into the grammar school I attended for five years. I felt completely out of place and for all of those years as though I never fitted in. For the first time I recognised that this was due to my lack of -˜cultural capital' and it wasn't my fault that I felt inadequate and had no sense of belonging.
Mikey Markham recognised that for some children from poor backgrounds, who gained access to grammar school against the odds, things were often unbearable as they found themselves facing discrimination by both their peers and their teachers. I can vividly remember reading out loud in front of the whole class and pronouncing the composer Chopin as -˜choppin' - to everyone's complete amusement, including the teacher. This faux pas I have remembered my whole life and it has had very long lasting effects. One teacher's words, or lack of, can cause lasting damage to a child, or conversely can be an enduring cause for hope and for them to find a way to develop their own -˜cultural capital'.
In complete contrast, I loved my primary school because I always knew that I was cared for and that they understood; there was very much a sense of belonging and attachment. There was no discrimination, as all of the children lived in the same working class catchment area with parents who had little or no education themselves. This is why I feel that it is hugely important in my own school community to develop a sense of family and of belonging where children feel respected and listened to.
The question proposed is: -˜How can we approach the education of children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in a way that actually makes a difference to them personally and also improves their life chances?'
There is no generic answer to this question other than reminding ourselves that we have the ultimate responsibility to ensure that our children are able to thrive and achieve -˜the best that they can be'. What underpins everything we do in our school is our motto: -˜Inspire, Cherish and Achieve Together.' It is the togetherness which is so important as we all strive to work collectively for the best outcomes for our children.
What shines through in the book is that we must be more creative, more courageous and braver in meeting the needs of our unique communities. We may not be able to change government policy in our classrooms, but we can continue to change lives either collectively or one at a time. We must put our children first and I strongly believe that by nurturing, caring, and loving our children alongside a broad and varied curriculum, they will flourish and blossom. If our children know they are safe and loved, then they will thrive, assuming all other key factors are in place.
Adults working with our children in schools have an important role to play as positive role models who strive to make the process of learning meaningful and engaging and by building on their existing knowledge. We must ensure that we respect their ideas, accept their culture, alongside all of the differences and challenges that each child brings to the classroom. Education is about celebrating every success and providing the opportunities to succeed.
Tim Taylor states that, -˜Education is about people, culture and community.'
The aim I feel for all staff who work alongside our children, is to make education something for everyone, and this particularly includes the disruptive and the vulnerable. In order to plant seeds for the future, we need to embrace new ideas and ensure that we work beyond simply improving SATs results.
We need to provide an education which transcends the narrow tramlines of numeracy and literacy, SPaG and phonics and above all believe in our convictions.
We need to have a clear vision for our schools and communities with non-negotiables and without compromise. With the current Ofsted focus on evaluating our broad, balanced and deep curriculum, we must take the opportunity to be brave and bold to meet the needs of our children, so that we serve our community in the best possible way that we can.
Knowledge of course is at the heart of any school alongside professional trust and integrity, so that by allowing our teachers the freedom to be confident and courageous, we can work together to develop a school and curriculum which fully meets the needs of our children and the community. This takes time and will not be achieved with a one-size fits all programme. At our school we have developed 4 strands of -˜Ask It, Cook It, Grow It and Film It' based on enquiry-based learning. This, alongside an absolute and total commitment to the Arts, quality first teaching, wide ranging professional development opportunities and a committed staff team, governing body and budget, means that we can and do meet the needs of our children well, but we never take that for granted.
Schools can develop their curriculum by making the Arts relevant to children and young peoples' lives and by valuing the power of the arts in transforming lives, illustrated below:
-˜Phil: I love the band -“ we all do -“ but there's other things in life, you know that's more important.' Danny -“ Not in mine there isn't.' (from Brassed Off)
Our school has a unique link with the world famous Grimethorpe Colliery Band (GCB); they have played in our School Hall three times and have inspired many children to learn to play a brass instrument. There was an occasion when I heard one of our pupil's parents berating his son for not rehearsing in preparation for a performance. It was emotional to hear the parent say to his child in front of Michael Dodd (ex-principle euphonium player with GCB):
-˜I want you to end up like him lad travelling the world and doing what he loves, not like me, working all the hours God sends for nowt.'
In December last year -˜that lad' played solo with GCB and we cried with pride.
The opportunities we provide for our children and young people and their early experiences develop a set of understanding into which new learning needs to be absorbed. The wider the range of early experiences, the more extensive these sets of understandings become. The importance of trips and visits for children from lower socio-economic groups cannot be underestimated as this extends their levels of understandings into which to fit new learning. The narrower the range of experiences, the narrower the range of language. The more complex the network, the easier it is to make new connections and so absorb new learning.
72 members of our school and community went to see The Nutcracker at The Royal Opera House in London last Christmas. For some of those families it was the very first time they had been to London, not least to a ballet; it was humbling and a privilege to watch their reactions to the performance itself and the sheer enjoyment their children experienced.
Ensuring that we have an education system which guarantees all children enjoy rich and varied experiences as a right, not a treat, is at the heart of our philosophy. School visits are not a privilege for working class children, they are a valuable right, says Paul Dix. Cultural capital is not simply delivered through a canon of literature, it is built through experience. The ambition just one trip can spark is evident in children's writing, their conversation and, for many, in their future direction of travel both metaphorically and physically.
In the words of Dr Debra Kidd, -˜We need to find ways of lifting children's heads so that they can see beyond the here and now, but do so without ripping them up by their roots.'
It's not about sacrificing a child's well-being for the data or the school league table, but truly nurturing it, empowering independence and really understanding the context to determine the best way forward.
For many children school is the safe haven where there are reliable constants and trusted frameworks, where relationships can be nurtured and constant reassurance provided, particularly when things change or when times are difficult. We are the role models and lifelines which can make even the smallest difference and sometimes it can be those very small things which mean the most. We have a responsibility to ensure that children and their families believe there are people in the world who they can trust and who believe in them. We have the capacity to change lives in the small courses we chart every day. (Julia Hancock)
My final quote is attributed to Carl Jung:
-˜One looks with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.'
Inspiring children and adults through what can sometimes be extenuating circumstances is hugely humbling and rewarding. It is our responsibility and moral duty to provide only the very best for our children as they have -˜just one chance' and we must get it right -“ no excuses. Our children must be equipped with the skills, knowledge and values so that they have a place in the world where their voice can be heard -¦ never underestimate them -¦ anything is possible and their achievements can often astound us.
We must ensure that our curriculum meets the needs of our children and young people so that we foster in them a lifelong love of learning which includes rich experiential learning and without doubt the arts and sport. We all need to ask ourselves: -˜How are you awakening your children and young people to a bigger world, literally and metaphorically, in which they can make a difference and make it better?'