I and they're off - to a standing start
Just how early does underachievement begin? Mike Sullivan on a study that shows how some children may be at a disadvantage from their first day at school
It is indisputable that many children in our inner-urban areas are disaffected with education and end up leaving school with low standards of attainment. We all hold strong opinions on the causes, and usually high on the list is the failure of schools and teachers to engage, control and challenge children. If schools really are to blame, how, why and when do children start to underachieve?
Liz Brooker, in her important book, moves beyond the political soundbites and bar-room theories. Her in-depth study of a group of 16 four-year-old children during their first term in primary school shows how some children are already at a disadvantage when they start and that the assumptions, systems and procedures of the school widen rather than narrow the gap.
If the thought of reading a book based on research and stuffed with references and case studies sends you scampering for the undergrowth, make this the exception as it's well worth it. The exploration of how and why children learn or fail to learn is strongly rooted not only in home cultures but in the culture of the school, and goes well beyond the current two-dimensional focus on methods of classroom instruction. Informed discussions with parents, teachers and children, supported by close observation, reveal a mountain of good intentions and hard work lost through failures in effective communications.
The research was carried out in the autumn term of 1997. The school used, called "All Saints' End primary" in the study, is one of those familiar, red brick Victorian piles serving an inner-urban, poor, multi-cultural community. Eight of the 16 children in the study were "Anglo", with parents born and educated in the UK. Three of these eight were of dual Anglo and African-Caribbean heritage, and the remaining eight from Bangladeshi homes - all of whose parents were born in the province of Sylhet.
What is common to all the children and their parents is that their families are relatively hard up. Yet, even though they are neighbours, there is a separateness between the Anglo and Bangladeshi parents, as Brooker notes:
"Mothers from the two groups squeeze past each other without acknowledgement on the narrow pavement in front of the school gate. There are no indications that either group is aware of the barriers between them, or finds the situation odd."
Not only are there barriers between parents, but Brooker's discussions with individual parents show there is often a huge gulf of understanding between home and school. Parents, at best, had only a hazy idea about what went on at the school and the values it held. An example was a parent who made a major financial sacrifice to send her twins to school in the latest fashions, believing she was portraying herself as a good parent. That the school favoured school uniform and might not share her views hadn't dawned on her.
The school, for its part, wasn't tuned into parental expectations of what or how their children would learn and how the parents had established routines, skills and knowledge on the assumption that the children would receive more direct instruction and much less of the "learning through play" approach the school favoured.
The concluding chapter contains a challenging section on the place of play in the early years. There are also important messages about the effective use of classroom assistants, particularly those involved in supporting language. In this study, the philosophy of learning and teaching hadn't been fully shared, resulting in ineffective use of staff, and mixed messages being passed to parents and children.
The book is all about cultures. Brooker shows how differences in lifestyle and beliefs give some children a head start from the first day at school. Her vision of culture creation goes well beyond the celebrations of festivals, multi-ethnic dolls, books, posters and home-corner paraphernalia, and she questions whether these sorts of activities brought any real improvements in academic progress and life chances of the children whose culture was celebrated.
Liz Brooker's experience as a long-serving reception class teacher in urban schools very similar to "All Saints' End" shines through in this thought-provoking study. The tone throughout is sympathetic and the style direct. Appropriate reference is made to other researchers' work and theory to justify observations and conclusions. There is enough detail to provide the non-expert with a good understanding of the ideas used from these other sources. The general reader, wanting to skip some of this stuff, can keep track of the main argument through the useful summaries provided at the end of each chapter.
This book flies in the face of the criticism of Chris Woodhead and others of the usefulness of educational research. The Ofsted inspection of All Saints' End praised the school for its "positive ethos" and "inclusiveness", and for providing "a caring and supportive environment".
These judgments don't quite tally with Brooker's observations. My experience as an inspector and former primary head is that Ofsted teams have a tight agenda when visiting schools, and lack the time or resources to probe very far beneath the surface. If only some of the money directed at regular Ofsted inspections was targeted at research such as this, significant ways of improving practice would be identified and developed.
Brooker claims the most effective research may be carried out by practitioners, collaboratively or independently. A great idea, as long as teachers are given adequate release time and resources to tackle the job.