What can schools learn from Jade Goody?

17th April 2009 at 01:00
When Jade Goody died, she left a multi-million pound legacy so her sons could be educated privately

She wanted them to have what she never could. What does her experience teach us? Did the education system fail her, or is there only so much a school can do?

At first glance, it doesn't seem as though they have much in common. But appearances can be deceptive. They were of a similar age, they went to schools just 20 miles apart, and they were both vilified for their intelligence, one because she had too much, the other because she didn't have enough.

But there the similarities seem to end. While Gail Trimble, described as having a "planet-sized brain" and captain of the winning team on University Challenge - before disqualification stripped them of their title - can be held up as an example of all that is right with the British education system, the same can't be said of Jade Goody.

The reality TV star's displays of ignorance have been well documented. She thought "East Angular" was abroad, Saddam Hussein was a boxer and a ferret was a bird. When her fame was at its height, she gloried in being the "most 25th inferlential" person in the world, happily admitting she didn't know what "inferlential" meant (influential, as it turned out).

While much has been written on what her rise to fame and fortune says about the value we put on knowledge, her career poses a more profound question for schools. When somebody spends more than a decade in school and is barely able to sign their name, it raises serious doubts about the experience some young people are getting. So what can Jade teach us about education in Britain today?

This is not just about one person. Jade was far from being the only one who leaves school with little in the way of education. Schools and ministers alike can trumpet the steady increase in pupils getting five A*- C grades at GCSE, but the number who fail to get even one is the same now as it was 10 years ago, stubbornly resisting all the initiatives and money funnelled into education.

To some extent, the former dental nurse turned tabloid lovehate figure represents the one in 12 young people who leave school with no qualifications (see graph below). Jade's path to self-improvement was not to get herself an education, but to get herself on television.

"She symbolises the problem," says Sunder Katwala, general secretary of the Fabian Society, a left-of-centre think tank. "Our education system let her down, and I'm not sure whether it's much different now." He argues that at least some of the fault lies with a bias against less academic pupils, despite the effort that has gone into developing vocational diplomas. "We have a cultural resistance to thinking anyone not in the university cohort is worthy of an education," he says.

Jade's own education was chaotic. She went to Bacon's College, one of the first City Technology Colleges, in Rotherhithe, London, but was repeatedly excluded. Once it was for biting off part of another girl's ear - not the lobe, "just the tip", she explained in one of her two autobiographies - and another time for forging a letter from a teacher so that she could get a gold star.

Tony Perry, principal of Bacon's College, declined to comment for this article. Bacon's has been scrutinised by the media since the day Jade walked into the Big Brother house in May 2002, and asked to explain how a pupil can leave thinking Pistachio painted the Mona Lisa.

The school has consistently refused to get involved in a public debate over its most famous ex-pupil, but that doesn't mean it tries to distance itself from Jade. The school chaplain held a special assembly following her death last month, and Bacon's sent a wreath to her funeral two weeks ago.

Behind Jade's lack of education was a turbulent home life. Her father, Andrew, who died of a drug overdose in 2005, was a pimp and heroin addict who was regularly in and out of prison. Her mother, Jackiey, described as a "petty thief" in Jade's autobiography, gave her daughter her first joint at five, an event commemorated in the family photograph album. Around the same time, Jackiey lost the use of her left arm in a motorbike accident and Jade became her mother's carer.

At six, Jade dragged her mother's medicated body out of their flat after an accident with candles. In a 2002 interview Jade recounted how she had been beaten for not fixing her Wendy House properly, and how her mother was so out of it on prescription drugs she once forgot she had a daughter. On two occasions, Jade was excluded from school after her mother turned violent, once attacking a fellow parent, another time hitting a teacher.

Given such a background, it seems less surprising that Jade was one of the disaffected pupils schools can find hard to reach. There may have been too much going on in the rest of her life for Jade to engage with school, and the idea of qualifications and a career may have little relevance when you're busy making sure your mother doesn't burn your home down. Lack of a stable home life and parental support can have a serious effect on a child's education, but there is a danger in institutionalising disaffection, assuming that every child with a similar background will have a similar attitude to education, warns Anastasia de Waal, director of family and education at Civitas, a think tank, and a former teacher.

She says one of the problems is a system that demands all pupils are treated the same. "It means when you have a pupil who isn't getting much support at home, unless it is very severe and they have been identified with special needs, you just have to leave them behind."

She argues that it is wrong to see education as a panacea, a way of improving the life chances of every child who has a troubled background. On its own, education can only have a limited effect. Just as crucial is tackling poverty and unemployment. It can be hard to convince children growing up in workless households, and workless communities, that there is any point even having aspirations. What saved Jade was not school, or a job, or a training course, but celebrity. Few young people have that option.

The evidence is that there is a hard core that has so far proved beyond the reach of every attempt to draw them into the tent, and this group is expanding. For all the emphasis on education over the past decade, the number of young people not in education, employment or training - labelled Neets in the jargon of government agencies - is higher now than it was 10 years ago, at about one in eight of all 16 to 19-year-olds.

Jade's story is a familiar one for Pank Patel, headteacher of Wood Green High School in Wednesbury in the West Midlands. "We have pupils who have the same sort of background that Jade had," he says. "It's an area with low aspirations and few opportunities."

About 40 per cent of pupils at Wood Green are entitled to free school meals, the traditional measure of deprivation, but in February the school was named by Ofsted as one of 12 that were succeeding "in challenging circumstances". Recent job cuts by major local employers GKN, a freight company, and Corus, the steel manufacturers, have reduced the already sparse local prospects even further.

"It's almost at the stage where people are asking what is the point of them being successful," Mr Patel says.

A key strand of the school's approach is boosting self-esteem, says Gary Steele, deputy head. Wood Green has sport as one of its specialisms, and gives pupils the chance to run sports clubs and work with local primary schools. Some pupils are even paid to coach local teams. "They develop a get up and go that feeds into their academic work," says Mr Steele.

The school experience is different from what Jade might have been used to. Wood Green runs a lunch club for disaffected pupils, employs a non- teaching student support manager and puts great emphasis on getting parents involved, says Tracy Jervis, year leader for Year 9. Where parents are reluctant to come into school, staff will visit them at home.

The effort Wood Green puts into engaging pupils and parents is a reflection of the fact education cannot be treated in isolation, says Mr Patel. Schools are effectively being asked to compensate for failures in other areas of social policy. "Increasingly, we're becoming social workers, not just for young people, but also for parents," he says. "We have conversations with parents who just want to offload, and while it is not within our capacity, we're doing it."

Schools are constrained by limited resources, but Mr Patel believes their insight into the lives of their pupils means they can be in a better position to support them than other agencies, sometimes only involved when the situation has reached crisis point. Mr Katwala of the Fabian Society acknowledges that schools can be a vital early warning system, but warns against putting too much on education's shoulders. "We can't expect schools to sort out the problems of society," he says.

Schools have made great strides in trying to uncover and tackle abuse, but the hallmarks of Jade's childhood, and of the childhood of thousands like her, were more a lack of attention and care than intentional ill- treatment. Neglect has, ironically, been neglected.

More resources for schools in deprived areas would help, Mr Katwala suggests, possibly including financial incentives to encourage teachers to work in those areas.

Mairead Dunne, senior lecturer in education at the University of Sussex, agrees we cannot expect schools to make up for the effects of deprivation and poverty. "Schools can't compensate for society," she says. "We have deep social rifts and it is difficult to do something about them." One issue that needs to be addressed is teachers' attitudes.

Dr Dunne is co-author of a 2005 study that looked at how schools were addressing underachievement in working-class pupils, and found that pupils' backgrounds helped shape teachers' expectations. Pupils from middle-class backgrounds were expected to perform better, regardless of previous attainment. Class was seldom mentioned, but there was a clear subtext.

"Teachers were reluctant to label it, or acknowledge it, but at the same time when they talked about underachievers it was imbued with codes for social class," Dr Dunne says. These codes included talking about problems at home, lack of male role models and a lack of motivation.

Teachers are no different from anyone else in making these implicit judgments, but the consequences can be far reaching. If a pupil is denied a move to a higher set, then their final exam grade could be restricted and their future options narrowed. An unwillingness to talk about class makes it more difficult to address inequalities linked to class, she adds. Dr Dunne says that putting more emphasis on looking at class in teacher training courses could help overcome this reluctance.

While class itself may be rarely mentioned, we still make the sort of pejorative assumptions about "people like Jade" based on class that we can no longer make about race, suggests Valerie Hey, professor of education at the University of Sussex and a colleague of Dr Dunne. She says that the education system is guilty of assuming there is only one, middle class, template for success, based on A-levels, university, a professional career and the pursuit of material possessions, and failing to respond to those who might be driven by different commitments.

"Working-class groups are written off in a way that bears no relation to their abilities, because they are who they are, live where they live and come from working-class communities, rather than the sorts of families teachers usually come from," she says.

Professor Hey argues that education policy compels schools to focus on league tables and measurable outputs, concentrating on areas that have little relevance to some pupils. "Schools fail some people, because of a lack of knowledge about their lives outside school," she says.

Instead of talking about raising aspirations in working-class communities, we should focus on asking what aspirations they have for themselves, Professor Hey believes. Instead of asking what they lack, we should ask why the system doesn't make sense to them.

Despite her memories of school, Jade's faith in education remained intact. Along with an agent, the newly-famous Jade hired a tutor to improve her reading and writing. In her final weeks, she said the reason she was willing to allow extensive media access, said to have earned her up to Pounds 5 million, was to support her two young sons, including putting them through private school. "I know I'm ignorant, but I'm going to make sure that my boys get the best education," she said. "That will give them the best chance."

But if her experience of education is not to be repeated, schools need to be able to identify barriers to learning, and then work with other agencies to dismantle them, says Andy Buck, headteacher at the Jo Richardson Community School, which serves a deprived area in east London and was rated outstanding by Ofsted at the end of last year.

The school employs parental support advisers to work with families, but he says schools also need to make sure they use their resources effectively, and recognise when other agencies are better placed. "Some of the barriers will be around the home environment, and it can be difficult for schools to tackle those," Mr Buck says. "We only have a certain amount of time and energy, so you have to make sure you are getting the most bang for your buck."

But he acknowledges that there is only so much a school can do, and in the end some people may still end up falling through the net. Nor is it only down to what schools do or don't do. The way schools are ranked by their GCSE results may also play a role in perpetuating the existence of an unqualified hard core.

"The emphasis on five A* to Cs skews the system," Mr Buck says. "There was an argument before that schools tended to concentrate on the brightest and the weakest, and the kids in the middle got lost. In a sense, the five A* to Cs has almost reversed that."

Schools have more incentive to change D grades into Cs than to upgrade Gs into Fs, so it is perhaps to be expected that schools focus on the crucial "swing" pupils, whose results determine a school's place in the league tables. And when those in the middle are getting all the attention, it reinforces a culture where being too bright can be as offensive as being too dim. Just ask Gail Trimble.

Mr Patel at Wood Green School believes teachers have much to learn from Jade. "If you're failing young people by not giving them something that is relevant to them, you need to refocus and make sure you're meeting the needs of everybody who comes through your doors," he says.

For Andy Buck at Jo Richardson, schools should acknowledge that they won't succeed all the time, but the danger is in giving up before you start. "It is easy to fall into the trap of saying: `What do you expect from the kids around here?' Our job is not to accept there is a limit on what these children can achieve."

Schools cannot sort out society on their own. Without more jobs in deprived areas, children will continue to grow up in workless households. Without early intervention from social services, young people will continue to be neglected and will continue to shoulder overwhelming burdens. But schools have a role to play in helping children lead a better life.

One of the many labels hung on Jade was that she was a symbol of where education went wrong. She was, as she would put it, an "escape goat". While in some ways she was very much the exception, if only in making a career out of reality television, the risk in seeing her as a one-off is that we could lose sight of all the other Jades out there.

What teachers say about Jade

  • "It's too easy to dismiss her, she represents a section of our society." wordsworth
  • "We can be as contemptuous as we like, but the fact remains that Jade Goody got through 10 years of education without really learning anything - just as hundreds of thousands of others have; and just as the kids we complain about in our classrooms will. We don't know how to reach these kids so Jade Goody is our future." seren_dipity
  • "But why now, when we have PSHE, citizenship and inclusive education, do we manage to still produce the Jade Goodys of this world?" shirtandtie
  • "With people like her kids are getting the message that you don't need to get an education to get on in life." florenceh
  • "The epitome of everything that is wrong with the state education system." Smartieno1
    • From The TES message boards.

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