Force of self-belief can break through the wall
Thirty-three years ago, I volunteered to undertake my final student teaching placement in the secure wing of a children's residential home. One of my abiding memories from that experience was waiting to go into a classroom when 10 boys started to sing - in what we would now call a "flash mob" - the haunting Pink Floyd track Another Brick in the Wall:
"We don't need no education,
We don't need no thought control...
All in all you're just another brick in the wall."
It was the intensity of the first line that remains with me to this day - "We don't need no education" - and which came to mind again when reading the results from the Sutton Trust, which drew the correlation between poverty and poor reading skills - especially for boys.
During my experience at the secure wing, which housed boys under the age of 16 who were "locked up" for committing serious offences, I had the privilege of being able to accompany John (not his real name) on a rare home visit. John was a boy who had real "potential" - he was lively, curious, articulate and a natural leader, but had been failed by the system and by education in particular.
These were all boys who were passionately antagonistic towards education. They did not see any point or benefit in it and felt isolated from the purpose of schooling from the very outset. Most were able to describe their common journey through primary and secondary schools that involved their humiliation, regular exclusions and sense of isolation, which they overcame only through associating with others who had suffered similar experiences and backgrounds.
So why is it, 33 years later, that schools still do so badly in making a positive impact on such children? How come, in this day and age, there are so many boys who leave primary school with negligible reading skills that prevent them from accessing the secondary curriculum, leading in turn to their isolation, exclusions and negative destinations?
Research tells us that interventions in children's early years make a real difference, but that if they are not maintained their benefit rapidly fades. We know that interventions focused on helping parents to be actively involved in their children's learning can make a real difference in attainment. However, we also know that if parents and young people believe that they can have a positive influence upon the future through their own efforts and actions, young people will do well at school.
It is this last factor that proves to be such a challenge for schools and others who can put a variety of well-intentioned interventions in place to support parents and young people but which tend to focus on the symptoms rather than the root causes of poor attainment. It is this notion of self-efficacy - or belief in oneself to succeed - that is a major determinant in academic success. If a child comes from a family in which the overwhelming belief is that the future is dependent upon others and that their own efforts will have a minimal effect, what possible incentive could there be to apply oneself to study or work.
Set against this self-determining (or perhaps self-defeating) element are the expectations of others in the system and the impact they have on those who do not share their self-belief. Consider the child who starts primary school and whose clothes smell dirty and whose mother cannot engage in conversation with other mothers at the school gates. How long will it be before other children recognise these differences and start to call them names? How long before they are placed in the "triangles" group for every learning activity? How long before their mother is called into school to discuss their child's inability to focus or their regular outbursts against classmates or teacher, who was merely asking them to complete a simple task?
And so it goes on. "Perhaps it might be best for John to stay at home in the afternoons until he has settled down." "We'll try to get an auxiliary to sit with him during class time, but we don't have one in the class all the time." "I'm left with no alternative but to exclude John for a week and ask that you bring him back to school on Monday morning at 9.30am for a meeting in which we will set out our conditions for readmission." "I'm afraid we can't let John go on the school trip as he is a risk to himself and others."
Yet before all this starts to sound like a diatribe against schools, consider the position of teachers and headteachers who have to satisfy the quite reasonable expectations of other parents, those who hear daily about what "John" has been up to today or who find out how the learning experiences of their child was disrupted yet again because the headteacher had to be called. I've been at the sharp end of these concerns as a teacher, as a head and as a director of education - and there are no simple remedies.
But I have also seen teachers and heads who have a different starting point, staff who establish unambiguous and challenging expectations for "all" children, regardless of background, and school leaders who are simply not prepared to give up on children, irrespective of their behaviour.
Schools that claim children and their families as their own are the ones that transform the lives of young people and their parents. These are the schools that challenge the self-fulfilling expectation that poverty leads to poor attainment.
Don Ledingham is director of innovation leadership at professional training consultancy Drummond International.