Teaching children to fail

Submitted by Matthew on 9 June, 2011 - 12:25

Education in England is more unequal than elsewhere. Students who do well in English schools, do well by international standards. Students who do badly in English schools, do very badly by international standards.

A recent OECD report* (February 2011) confirmed this: “Schooling outcomes in the United Kingdom are among the more unequal in the OECD area” [i.e. among the world's better-off countries].

Within the general inequality, poor white students suffer worst of all.

White students from among the poorest fifth get an average of one fewer good GCSE pass than black or Asian students in the poorest fifth, even though English is a second language for many of those black or Asian students.

A teacher from a school in Northern England dominated by poor white working-class kids looks at the reasons why.


In my experience, it is those white working-class boys — from the poorest layers of the working class — who are doing worst in educational terms.

It is important to recognise, though, that the differences are marginal; a lot of working-class boys from Pakistani backgrounds are only doing marginally better than white working-class boys. The common factor is obviously that they’re poor.

There are a lot of factors behind this; it’s to do with poverty, housing and aspirations. Invariably you’ll find that the parents of these children have had similar problems — lack of support in education leading to poor literacy skills, poverty, mental health problems or health problems generally. This all culminates in these children being more disadvantaged.

The basics for those children are missing from a very early age; they’re often already 18 months behind other children at the point at which they start school. Those are ingrained social problems brought about by poverty, poor housing and poor access to services. In a lot of cases all this can lead to problems with depression and addiction, so these children are getting stuck in a very chaotic cycle.


A lot of elements in this picture can be traced back to the creation of a significant “pauper” layer within the working class — an underclass, almost — during the Thatcher years.

For people who couldn’t afford to buy their own council house in that period, the housing they’ve got access to has become poorer and poorer. If you walk around estates you can tell which houses have been privately bought and maintained and which are still owned by the council. On top of that there’s the general lack of council housing; a lot of our students live in privately-rented accommodation but move around from place to place often.

You can see the effects of what Thatcher did in other problems our children have. A lot of the kids we work with have quite severe dental problems; one child in particular is having problems because one of her parents didn’t turn up for an appointment so she’s been struck off the NHS list, so we’ve had to try and find her a dentist that will see her. Pre-Thatcher, that would’ve been fairly straightforward. We might even have had a dentist who came into school. But we don’t have access to those sort of services any more.

Another factor in all of this is the way the education system is structured, and particularly in its intense focus on an endless series of exams.

There’s been a shift towards telling students they’re “failures” if they don’t get five A-C grades at GCSE, but actually it’s not the end of the world if you don’t get those grades. There are things you can go on to do. That self-image as a “failure” compounds the whole situation.

From the time when they take their SATS in year 2, they’re pigeonholed into categories — the high-flyers, the average ones, and the failures. They know that, and those expectations stay with them.

We’re obsessed with assessing children from the moment they start formal education. That’s not good for boys, especially, because their fine motor skills develop slowly. They often find writing very difficult and just give up.

In countries like Sweden or Denmark where they start formal education later, children often do better.

The intense setting and streaming now common in many English schools is also an issue. Different sets will study almost entirely different curricula; you’ll be told “you’re in this stream and these are your options.”


So just from data created by assessments, children will be pigeonholed. It doesn’t allow for people who might develop later or at a different pace.

The disappearance of mixed-ability teaching has created social problems for children at school. It’s entrenched them in relationships with people who are suffering from all the same problems as them, repeatedly being told that they’re failures, and that can make their friendship groups incredibly cliquey. It’s mainly the New Labour governments, rather than the Tories, who’re responsible for creating that situation.

Teachers are trained to relate to their classes on the basis of the assessment level the kids are at, rather than looking at them as individuals. Teachers will say “I’ve got a lot of Bs and Cs in this class”, rather than seeing the children as people. Every teacher has a constant running tally drummed into them of what level the kids were at.

We’re constantly aware of the threat of imposed academy status or special measures; they’re punitive measures taken against schools if they don’t meet these rigid targets, which apply to all schools regardless of the social factors at play in the community that school serves. That’s the government’s idea of “improvement”.

They need to look at the communities our schools are serve and improve things there, rather than putting this incessant pressure on one group of public sector workers.

Some schools are starting to develop a more sophisticated approach to behaviour management — looking at contextual factors and so on — but there is still a problem of a culture of negative punishments as the default response to bad behaviour. Of course you need general rules that apply to all students, but particularly for children with long-term behavioural issues you need to look deeper into what’s going on there, and look at children as individuals.

There’s no one thing which will rectify the situation, but one change that would have a massive impact on teachers and children alike is smaller class sizes. Wherever you limit class size, there are also big improvements in how teachers view their jobs and in how teachers achieve.

• OECD report: www.oecd.org/dataoecd/50/37/47319830.pdf

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.