Divided by class system

6th October 2006 at 01:00
Gerald Haigh applauds a study of the challenges facing urban primary schools

The Urban Primary School By Meg Maguire, Tim Wooldridge and Simon Pratt-Adams Open University Press pound;19.99 The two urban primaries that I know don't appear in this book. One has a healthy and heady mix of cultures and social back-grounds, and middle-class liberals have chosen it for that very reason. Another serves an area of relatively cheap private housing and the families are white working-class: not affluent, but decidedly above the poverty line.

Categories always mislead, so we need to read the authors' own definition of the schools they are referring to: "Those that reflect the higher levels of social deprivation, poverty and disadvantage that are usually, but not solely, found in large urban areas."

An early chapter, setting the scene, describes three such schools, under fictitious names. There's "Ranleigh", serving a largely Bengali community, with 75 per cent free meals, 35 per cent special educational needs and a staggeringly high teacher turnover. Then "Mortimore", in a poor white area with an influx of refugees and a quarter of its children receiving specialist outside help with their learning needs. And "Maynard", dominated by high-rise flats and cut off from most local amenities by a motorway. It has beacon status and a leadership role among neighbouring schools.

We know these schools well. They labour faithfully, charged with the Herculean task of taking in children many of whom have few linguistic or social skills and turning them into 11-year-old eager learners. And it's good to read the many passages that show teachers rising to the challenge.

"The term, 'making a difference' emerged on many occasions in the responses to the questionnaires," the authors say. "The teachers clearly felt they were making a positive contribution to the lives of the children in their care in a way they would not be doing if they were teaching in non-urban areas where the social needs of children were not so acute."

The heads, particularly, take this commitment to an all-consuming level.

"All relished their work and the differences they could make in urban schools. They talked of 'transformations', and 'making a difference'."

These central descriptive chapters, based on first-hand knowledge, and on questionnaire and interview research among teachers, heads and parents in six English authorities, are fascinating and celebratory. Yet there's much more to the book than that. It begins with an analysis of the nature of urban education, with some history, and after the descriptive section it tackles the way that social class, diversity, social justice and curriculum impinge on the work of teachers and the lives of urban families. There's also a chapter on urban education in the United States, where the main lesson seems to be that there's no magic formula. "What has emerged (from American experience) is the need for a flexible, nuanced and localized response towards issues in urban education."

You can't help thinking that part of the UK's problem is its interventionist central government, too impatient to stand back and allow schemes to be "flexible, nuanced and localized".

But then you quickly trip over the matter of social class. The middle class, we're reminded, usually reap the best of what's on offer, so some initiatives become counter-productive. Specially funded "fast track"

schemes, and the return of ability setting, for example, tend to divide schools on class lines: as the authors put it, "Which social class of children are more likely to be allocated to the 'lower ability' groups?"

This constant pressure for test results, as well as threatening the social inclusiveness for which primary heads strive, is deeply frustrating in itself, and it's depressing to have it confirmed that the biggest challenge to the courage and optimism of our urban teachers is a "naming and shaming"

process that defines their work as inadequate.

A nation that genuinely valued the work of its urban schools would find this unacceptable. It's more than that: just as our cities can't be transformed into inclusive progressive communities just by grants and Asbos, so urban schools deserve more than tests, inspections and targeted funding. This book knows what the solution is: "What is needed is a political commitment to eradicate social inequalities and injustices in education." Now there's an idea. Someone should invent a political party that believes in that.

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