Drowning in poverty

22nd April 2005 at 01:00
Caught in the social and economic current, it is small wonder schools struggle to keep their heads above water, writes a Merseyside teacher

Drowning people are often mistaken for someone waving. But by this time the victim is too tired to thrash about - it's just a limp attempt to signal for help. And people watching often fail to recognise the signs.

So, half of teachers leave within five years or find an easier school the first chance they get? It's no surprise to us. Those lucky enough to join the escape committee notice the difference straight away. Last year, a colleague left to join a Miss Read-style village school. She had four parent-helpers in her class - two of them with PhDs. Worried about the key stage 1 Sats results, the head told her: "Don't worry, just get the parents to help the children at home."

Rather than sorting out conflicts between children, she spent time teaching. There was one playground incident in the first term when a child was called "thick". The school organised fencing lessons, foreign languages work, skiing trips, and boasted a parent-run website and library.

It's only then that you realise what a struggle it is in our school. It's not just the wider issues - behaviour, league tables, rigid curriculum.

It's the small things: the home-reading books, only half of them ever returned; the homework completed by seven out of 30 pupils; the permission letters that run into the second or third issue (even then we'll make two or three phone calls on the day of the trip); and the parents' evenings at which only half of them turn up.

The main problem is that growing hard core of problem children who are just refusing to conform, are persistently violent, run out of class or school, refuse to work in class and distract other children.

In our small school we have about 10 children who would fit into that category. There are days when you feel overwhelmed because there are the other children with behavioural problems - short attention spans or learning difficulties. It's that question of critical mass - a school with well-motivated pupils and supportive parents is almost bound to succeed, but start from the opposite premise and you're battling against the odds.

One current mantra is "joined-up thinking", yet whenever we approach an outside agency for help, somehow the system fails. We referred one of our pupils (constantly banging his head on the table, self-harming) to the school psychiatric service. Back came the reply a few weeks later. Roughly translated, it said: "We're under-funded, under-staffed, join the queue, but don't hold your hopes up." Then there are speech-therapy sessions to which we refer some pupils. If the parents don't keep the appointments, the children are taken off the list.

On a national level, you have the inspection regime. Research by the London School of Economics showed that 90 per cent of schools in special measures were in poor areas. Our Sats results were so bad that at the start of our inspection we were due for special measures. We survived that week. Looking down the barrel of a gun, the stress intolerable, we escaped by the skin of our teeth.

I am not trying to claim that teachers and schools don't make a difference - parental help is seven times more important in children's progress than social class. There used to be a crude determinism that poor children were bound to fail. The problem is that the school-improvement ideology ignored social class and reduced progress to a crude set of input-output measures, a simple bullet-point list. Then came the trite slogans: "poverty is not an excuse" and "zero tolerance of failure".

Schools used to work together, but now an education market has locked neighbouring schools into rivalries, and competition for children is fierce. Would Tesco help Sainsbury's? Rather than schools sharing expertise and co-operating with one another, they are self-sufficient islands.

Neighbouring schools? They might as well be on Mars.

Schools and teachers in poor areas used to get extra money, but in the Thatcherite counter-revolution all that ended and schools started from year zero. Money has gone into recruiting thousands of classroom assistants of varying quality. No surprise there, given the minimal training they often get. Contrast that with Finland, where every teacher has the equivalent of a masters degree. Based on social class, the narrowest gap in achievement is in the Scandinavian countries, where social mobility is still the norm.

Sometimes one incident brings it home to you. We were recently on our way by coach to our local secondary school for a PE day. We stopped off at another primary (5 per cent free school meals). The pupils filed out of the gate. Our children always wear an assortment of PE tops, but a handful always forget so they have to wear the school cast-offs. But at this school every child wore a freshly-ironed PE top with the school crest emblazoned on it, and they all wore the latest trainers. Only one had no kit, but that was soon fixed when his mum stepped on to the coach with a brand-new tracksuit and trainers. I sat open-mouthed. Maybe our kids noticed, maybe not. They didn't comment. But wait till our underprivileged ones go to secondary school - then they'll just be the "povvoes".

It's that fatal combination of factors: Britain's crumbling inner-cities, poverty, the education market, parents struggling to cope, demotivated children, league tables. This is why we're drowning, not waving.

The author teaches in a primary school in Merseyside

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