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Why this list could dispel deprivation

Well-being and health are at the forefront of A Curriculum for Excellence. About time too, says Ian Smith

read the recently published progress and proposals document for A Curriculum for Excellence - and what struck me most was the section "How learning is organised: curriculum areas."

In there is a list of groupings for "structuring experiences and outcomes".

It was not the actual groupings that caught my eye, but the order in which they are listed. First was health and well-being, second languages and third mathematics. We were told that health and well-being is likely to include personal and social development, understanding of health, physical education and physical activity and contributions from home economics.


If you are a regular reader of this column, you will know why I seized on this. I've long argued for the importance of well-being in education and for the need for PSD to be central to what goes on in secondary schools.

I have also argued that placing too much emphasis on excellence, success and achievement, particularly in literacy and numeracy, can be counterproductive.

A book I brought back from the USA recently, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, by Ruby Payne, has helped to deepen my understanding of why too much of a focus on achievement in school can be counter-productive. It also helped me understand why school, especially secondary school, despite the best efforts of so many dedicated teachers, is such an unsatisfactory experience for so many deprived young people.

The book was given to me by an educator working in Trenton, New Jersey, where it is estimated that 80 per cent of children are brought up in poverty. This is in a state where 80 per cent overall are considered to be middle class, 10 per cent to be wealthy and 10 per cent to be in poverty.

There is no agreed definition of poverty in Scotland but, by some estimates, as many as 34 per cent of Scottish children live in poverty.

Politicians have quite rightly called this a national disgrace. They recognise that achievement at school is the most important route out of deprivation, and that's the main reason why they set so much store by it.

What they fail to recognise is what is actually needed to help young people living in deprived areas to see school in these terms. Emphasising achievement first and lifelong learning fifth won't do it. Neither will emphasising better behaviour first and better learning second. What we need is just the change of emphasis hinted at in the list of groupings in the proposals document.

Well-being is an issue for young people anywhere, but Payne reminds us that those brought up in deprived areas live in a different culture, with a different set of rules from those of us in the mainstream world of school and work.

What motivates people in poor areas is survival rather than achievement, relationships and entertainment rather than work. Young people have to grow up too soon. If you are a boy, you survive through being able to fight or to make others laugh. If you are a girl, you aspire to have a family. Even the rules of language and communication are different from those that apply in school.

This explains how hard it is for teachers to convince many young people from deprived areas that they belong in school and that they can achieve in school. It also explains why we desperately need to support the teachers who can relate to them, rather than simply making calls for tougher sanctions and automatic exclusion for violence.

A key question we need to be asking is how do schools which are particularly successful in helping students from deprived areas to achieve do it? I suspect, if we really researched that question, we would find that they have teachers who understand the culture and values of deprivation and recognise the needs and talents of these young people.

They expect them to succeed and act as role models for them, helping them to manage their own behaviour without putting them down or dismissing them.

They are skilful at teaching the hidden rules of the mainstream, as Payne puts it, not in denigration of their own but rather as another set of rules they can use if they choose.

A UK version of Ruby Payne's book should also be compulsory reading for any new teacher. It could lessen the anger and frustration that many feel when dealing with some students or parents who live in deprived areas. It could also help them to recognise that living under such conditions is rarely about lack of intelligence or ability.

This is why the small act of putting health and well-being first in a list of curriculum areas meant so much to me. I've been responsible for writing enough official documents in my career to know that wording is closely examined. The order was no accident: the question is what significance it will have. It is a subtle message that many will miss. But then maybe it needs to be subtle.

Ian Smith is founder of Learning Unlimited.

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