Pupils divided by our common language
Despite teaching in the same school for the past 24 years, Ann Tanner (above) is still learning about the community she serves.
The headteacher of a predominantly white school in a deprived ward in Reading, she is among a vanguard of staff taking part in an innovative scheme to improve the education of children from poor homes.
The Framework for Understanding Poverty aims to train teachers about the hidden rules of language and behaviour of children from middle-class and poorer homes. It focuses on language acquisition, different registers and how language is used in formal settings and the home. It also explains that achievement and relationships assume different importance depending on social class.
According to the programme, children from poorer families can struggle in school because neither they, nor teachers, understand the different rules by which they operate.
"I have been here for 24 years and feel in tune with the community," said Mrs Tanner, head of Whitley Park Infant and Nursery School.
"We are never judgmental about families and children's backgrounds. But this has deepened my understanding of why these children are finding it hard to access education.
"Children in school are expected to listen, but that is a skill that needs to be learned if you come from loud and busy homes.
"We ask children to express themselves, but often their language skills are limited.
"The course helps you understand how you can remove the barriers to learning and it cuts right across the racial and cultural divide."
The training is based on the work of Ruby Payne, an American educationist, and has been widely delivered in the United States through the No Child Left Behind scheme - similar to England's Every Child Matters - and also in Australia.
Reading is believed to be the first authority in England to adopt it and run courses for school staff, social workers and health visitors, with funding from the Sutton Trust education charity. So far, about 150 teachers from primary and secondary schools have been through the two-day course.
It was introduced by Anna Wright, Reading's director of education and children's services. "The biggest obstacle we are facing in the classroom is the generational poverty that some of our pupils come from," she said.
"Working-class kids are coming into middle-class schools and there is a complex communication gap between teachers and those children."
The scheme is being evaluated by John Stannard, the Government's national champion for gifted and talented children, who admits that it has been controversial with academics in the United States.
Some have accused it of making prejudicial generalisations about poorer families. However, American teachers have responded very positively to it, he said.
For it to have an impact here, Mr Stannard said teachers will need ongoing support to make sure that an increased understanding of the scheme translates into improved classroom practice.
"It will also need to be handled with great care if it is to be rolled out more widely," he said.
"Language cognition and its relation to social class is a sensitive issue and could lead to prejudice.
"But a lot of it does fit in with what is being developed by the national strategies in terms of spoken language and in that sense it is very relevant."
Photograph: Sam Friedrich.