Targeted learning

22nd July 2011 at 01:00
The number of pupils leaving school with no qualifications - either academic or vocational - has remained unchanged for a decade, despite the relentless drive to raise standards. Adi Bloom meets the teachers taking a new approach to youngsters whose potential and aspirations are left uncatered for by formal schooling

"Right," Ed Vickerman said, facing his Year 9 class at the end of summer term. "Here's how it works." Their holiday homework, he told them, would be to start their own small businesses. "You can keep as much of the money you make as you want," he said. "And you can give as much to charity as you want. It's up to you, so long as you advertise what you're doing - you need to tell everyone else."

The response was predictable. "Oh, I'm going to keep it," the first 14- year-old said. This was rapidly echoed by classmates. "Yeah, I'm gonna keep it."

"That's fine," replied Mr Vickerman, head of business and enterprise at Freeston College, in Wakefield. "Is anyone going to give the money to charity?"

There was a brief pause. "Yeah, I might," one girl volunteered. "Me, too," another said. Eventually, one pupil after another raised a hand. By the time Mr Vickerman had encouraged them to research different charities, finding out what impact their money could have, the entire class had vowed to donate their profits to charity.

There was no academic purpose to this lesson: charitableness and social conscience will not help pupils to pass exams. But for teenagers unlikely to succeed academically anyway, Mr Vickerman argues, school should offer something a little bit different.

The education system has not been set up for many of the pupils at Freeston. The school has above-average numbers of pupils on free school meals; similarly high numbers have learning difficulties. Many come from single-parent families, or are primary carers for sick parents. For all the talk of raising aspirations, these teenagers often struggle to reconcile difficult home lives with academic success.

And yet our education system sets exam success as the ultimate goal. Five A*-C grades at GCSE is the minimum that every pupil should attain, and those who do not meet the mark are presented as underachievers. Yet such exam-based, achievement-focused aims are as much a test of middle-class values as of academic ability, says Becky Francis.

Professor Francis, director of education at the Royal Society of Arts, has researched the impact of class on pupils' schooling. She believes that the system automatically rewards pupils for the trappings of a stable, middle- class life: books on the shelves, a good night's sleep, a quiet place to study.

"There's a deficit model, where a working-class background is without cultural benefit," she says. "Professional-academic ideas dominate most thinking. Everything else is seen as rubbish. If you're perpetually being told that you're not good enough, your aspirations are going to drop. These kids are being systematically undermined. That's psychologically quite violent, I think."

From the first set of school tests onwards, such pupils believe they are failures. The more they are told that success is only measured through academic achievement, the more they become entirely disillusioned with education. For all the hype about rising numbers of A*-C grades at GCSE, the number of 16-year-olds failing to achieve even a single GCSE is the same now as it was 10 years ago.

The proportion of teenagers between the ages of 16 and 18 with neither a job nor a place on an academic or vocational course has increased consistently over the past 10 years: one in 10 is now in this position.

Given this context, perhaps it is not surprising that so many children do not see education as relevant to them. This disaffection can lead to poor behaviour in school; more usually it manifests itself in not going to school at all. The latest figures show that one in 20 secondary pupils is classed as a persistent absentee, missing a fifth of the school year or more. The rate of persistent absenteeism rises as pupils progress through school and final exams approach, and is three times higher among pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds - those eligible for free school meals - than among the general pupil population.

But according to the conventional rhetoric, all disadvantaged pupils need to do to succeed is to believe they can. "The no-excuses culture maintains high expectations," states a government pamphlet on raising aspirations. "Ultimately, it insists on success."

The implication is that poverty and underachievement are comparable: both can be overcome through sheer force of willpower. This throws the blame back on the pupils - if they are not succeeding, it is not because their home life or schooling places them at a disadvantage, it is because their aspirations are not high enough. Those who want to succeed will; those who do not succeed clearly just did not want it enough.

Many of the pupils targeted by such rhetoric, however, have the kinds of home lives that would make ministers squirm uncomfortably in their seats. "Murder," says Philip May portentously. "Abuse. Violence. Crime. Of course, those are the most extreme examples. But in my school, there are also children who come from overcrowded houses: three kids sharing a bedroom, with nowhere in the house to work. There are older sisters with babies, huge rows, family crises."

Mr May is retiring head of Costessey High School in Norwich. His pupils come from areas of significant poverty and deprivation. Few have easy home lives, almost none have parents who went to university. The chances of conventional academic success are minimal and it was a significant achievement that 31 Costessey pupils went on to university last year.

"There are emotional problems and stresses in the family, and that becomes a huge distraction for a young person trying to learn," Mr May says. "There's no recognition in their families that you might even need to learn at home. You do school work at school - why would you need to work at home? Yet we have a system that rewards doing well at school."

These were not rewards that Jade, sitting in the middle of Mr Vickerman's Year 9 class at Freeston College, had ever experienced. Academically, she was average. A speech impediment made her reluctant to speak in public. Bullies had tormented her throughout primary school. Her parents had recently divorced and she was struggling to adjust. But as a result of the holiday task set by Mr Vickerman, people suddenly started to notice her.

Jade regularly spent weekends at home making her own jewellery. It occurred to her that she had a ready-made means of earning money: she could sell her homemade bracelets. Within weeks, these had sold out and, high on the thrill of success, she set up a second business, this time washing cars.

"She absolutely flew," says Mr Vickerman. "She was surprised that she could do something she enjoyed, and that that could have an effect on other people's lives."

Astonished by Jade's sudden enthusiasm, Mr Vickerman then put her in touch with the head of a small design company. Jade now plans to set up her own jewellery-making business when she leaves school. "We didn't think she'd get very far," he says. "But now you look at her and think, `My God, what we've done for this person is extraordinary.'"

Such transformations were not unknown at Freeston. When it had happened to Rob, the year before, it had been similarly unexpected. Rob was one of the lads: a 14-year-old with a nice line in classroom disruption - the type of pupil who masked lack of concentration with high-decibel piss-taking. Classmates described him as "a bit silly"; teachers' descriptions were less generous. And then, unexpectedly, Rob had burst into tears in the middle of a classroom.

An annual enterprise competition at Freeston recreates the BBC reality-TV programme The Apprentice, setting pupils business-related tasks to complete. At the end of one of the tasks, Rob had been called back to the school's version of Lord Sugar's boardroom and, ultimately, fired. Instead of the laddish bravado or a well-chosen expletive that could have been expected, Rob started to cry. "But next week's photography," he sobbed. "I just - I just - I really wanted to do that task."

It was, Mr Vickerman admits, an uncomfortable moment for everyone. But within 10 days, the school had found a professional photographer to work as Rob's mentor. Throughout the remaining Apprentice tasks, the 14-year- old acted as official competition photographer. "I didn't realise he could do that," a classmate said afterwards. "I just thought he was a bit silly."

"You have a system that, day in, day out, for 11 years, rewards doing well at school," says Philip May. "And when you don't do well, that creates self-doubt. Our work is to help them over that barrier, rather than to see it as some flaw in their character."

Besides, says Valerie Hey, head of the education department at Sussex University, if every pupil were an exam-passing, high-flying, university- graduating would-be merchant banker, society would cease to function fairly quickly.

"We should stop pretending we're all the same," she says. "Stop treating all groups in the same way. The assumption is that everyone good will join the professions, that the most valuable are those in finance and the City. But if we all became the same things, who would clean the roads? Who would look after the old? There is a whole lack of logic in this onward-and- upward bandwagon."

Instead of forcing pupils to confront the skills they lack, she believes schools should focus on the skills they already have. Mr Vickerman's emphasis on charity and altruism, for example, holds direct relevance for pupils who are already spending significant amounts of their free time caring for younger siblings or disabled parents.

"At the moment, the emphasis is on competition and status and money through accumulation," Professor Hey says. "But what about status through redistribution of time and care? What about the giving significance to kids who are already doing unpaid labour at home?

"What kind of people do we want to produce? More responsible people? More ethical people? People who look out for each other, not just themselves?"

Instead of focusing on academic success to the exclusion of all else, teachers should be encouraged to recognise what is important for their pupils, she says.

Laura Brodie agrees. The head of Allens Croft children's centre in Birmingham argues that not all lessons are suited to all pupils. "Children with very poor attachment will have damaged brains," she says. "They won't be able to pick up more formalised learning. So, for them, education is about relationships and attachment. It's vital for children to have good relationships with teachers and nursery staff."

Allens Croft serves one of the most deprived areas in Birmingham. But Mrs Brodie, who won the 2008 Teaching Award for primary head of the year, believes that what her pupils have in the way of skills and aptitudes is more important than what they lack in terms of academic ability.

"If you think, `Oh, the poor little things, they've got all this wrong in their lives,' you'll never get anywhere," she says.

Instead, she has chosen to ignore conventional measures of success - "stupid Sats results" - focusing on skills more relevant to her pupils. She emphasises creativity and encourages children to play imaginative games. "Obviously, I want everyone to learn to read and write and add up," Mrs Brodie says. "But we're looking for what's right about somebody, not what's wrong. It's got to be about finding out what children can do well, not testing what they can't do. We need to get away from the idea that there's something wrong with them, and we're going to sort it out."

A narrow definition of success in terms of exam results, where "onward" is forever allied to "upward", does not allow for different types of achievement. The idea that everyone should aspire to becoming a member of a respected profession, and that everyone born into a deprived community must surely want to escape, is not only unrealistic - it can be harmful for those who are either unable to make it, or just do not want to.

"We need to recognise that some children might want to stay put," Professor Hey points out. "And we might want the brightest and the best to stay in their communities."

One day, Mrs Brodie says, she will lose her job. And, on that day, she will know that she has finally succeeded. "A school should be a totally integral part of its community. Ninety-one per cent of our staff live and work locally. But the success of this school will be when somebody from this community can do my middle-class job. Every school should be of its own place, not have somebody zoomed in."

Learning is a lifelong process, she says. Children who do not do well at school may come to learning in their own time. Many of her staff are recruited from among her parents. In some cases, it took 10 years for them to build up the courage and confidence to offer their service as classroom volunteers.

"That's what education is," Mrs Brodie says. "You need to change the way people think about themselves. That's how you move forwards. It's about having lives that are fulfilling, not just about earning money and getting a job."

By the time Mr Vickerman spoke to Jade's class about their summer project, Rob's success in photography the previous year was well known. The Year 9 pupils understood that being themselves - following their own interests and values - could reap rewards. One boy, possibly inspired by afternoons spent looking after younger siblings, decided that he wanted to make and sell carrot soup. So he spoke to the school chef, learnt to source and cost ingredients and set up a small stall.

The danger, of course, is that success can be as class-ridden as failure. It is all too easy to assume that vocational training is best for poorer pupils, leaving academia for the middle classes. "The vocational-academic divide is so strong in Britain," says Professor Francis. "Vocational routes should be much more highly valued."

There is a parallel with debates about housework: on the one hand, housework needs to be valued. But however greatly housework is valued, it would never be ideal for all women to be forced to stay at home. "We need to reflect in the classroom about these issues," says Professor Francis. "We need to open up debate and awareness of the value of academic qualifications, why society remunerates some things higher than others. Working-class people need to understand the game being played, understand the rules of the game."

Meanwhile, however, it is left to heads and teachers to do this on an individual basis. And so Mr Vickerman regularly finds himself reminding pupils that the skills they have are not automatically worthless. "There are different types of cleverness," he says. "Whatever your background, you're going to find something you're good at. That's the key job of schools: to find out what pupils are good at."

*Jade and Rob's names have been changed.

Original headline: A different class of cleverness

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