Once were schools with reputations so parlous, they made national headlines. Some were intent on reviving the ancient sports of tossing the chalk/desk/teacher out of the window. Others were the sorts of places locals would pass at speed, bags and briefcases clutched a little closer. And then there were catchment areas in which GPs regularly issued scan referrals, lest a patient’s internal organs had been pick-pocketed during a moment of distraction near the school gates.
Once the stuff of undercover-documentary dreams, a number of these schools have managed to reverse their fortunes – some so comprehensively that they are now the institutions of choice for those whose parents would rather have lived in discarded crisp packets, than send their offspring there. One infamously riotous establishment is now a national beacon of behaviour management, and rightly so: unambiguous boundaries; systems of rewards and sanctions; and, crucially, their swift and consistent application. Nothing revolutionary here, but teeming kite-marks fly from its turrets.
In common with other schools of its ilk, this one is located in an inner-city area and serves a relatively deprived local population. For their ability to support their intake through behavioural challenges, I have no qualms about recommending several of these places. So too for their dedication to picking up those who have fallen behind, and helping them to make up some of the lost ground. In fact, my only real reservation is that phrases like ‘inner-city kids’, often bandied around schools with benign intentions, sometimes translate into a paucity of expectation.
About two years ago, an ex-colleague applied for a job at an institution that had remade itself impressively, its head extracting it from its own arson attack. She’d already visited the school, observed lessons and helped Year 9 students to engage with some literary techniques to a depth not addressed in their lessons. Lightbulbs were illuminated over young heads and the students she’d worked with were genuinely grateful. On the night before the interview, Emily was sent details of the lesson she was to deliver: an introduction to a new author for a Year 8 class. A Powerpoint display was obligatory, and technicians would be on hand to help with any other techno whizz-bangery she’d like to use.
Emily didn’t get the job, and is the first to admit the correctness of that decision. By mid-morning on interview day, she believed strongly that another candidate, already filling a very similar post in her current workplace, was the best fit for both the position and the school. Despite her earlier visit, Emily’s visceral sense, that the place was not for her, grew throughout the day. Regardless, she found herself in the last two, cacking herself at the prospect of being offered the job and envying the candidates who had already been sent home. She sucked in her cheeks and tried not to look relieved when told that she’d been unsuccessful.
The main bar to her employment (or the one that could be admitted) was the lesson Emily delivered which, she was regretfully informed, had been “somewhat challenging”. No shit, Sherlock: that does tend to happen when teaching something unfamiliar. Or worth knowing. I’d looked at her lesson plan and resources before the interview: fifty minutes on inference, starting with visual texts, progressing to a grippingly elliptical opening chapter and finishing with the production of a piece of writing. The students gave her a round of applause at the end of her lesson. If they’d found it challenging, it hadn’t, apparently, been off-puttingly so – not least because of her careful monitoring and prompt intervention. The coda to the lesson feedback was that “These are inner-city kids”, with no further elaboration of the statement’s significance.
Syntax is important here: there are young people who live in inner-city areas; and there are inner-city children, spoken of as if who they are is determined by the place from which they come. I’d like to dismiss Emily’s experience as a one-off. Direct experience, including the euphemisms of colleagues and line-managers, tells me I can’t: “We don’t mention ___ – this is an urban school…”; ” We don’t teach ____ – these kids are from a council estate…”; “ We don’t think it’s appropriate, given our catchment area…”. Little wonder, then, that Jack, a fiercely bright young man, also had one of the most astonishingly high truancy rates I’ve ever encountered. I shan’t deny that a couple of issues at home had an impact on his absences. But not one of those was alleviated or addressed by boring an intelligent student out of his wits at school.
Jack’s situation is, perhaps, a predictable consequence of well-meaning but misguided assumptions about home cultures. In our desire to evince our understanding of their circumstances, we sometimes run the risk of impeding our students’ life chances in the fullest sense of that phrase. When allied with the hoop-jumping and hurdle-clearing that now shape almost everything about contemporary schools, the outcomes may be statistically desirable but epistemologically toxic. Removing students from courses they find interesting, that may be relevant to their career aspirations, and forcing them to spend extra time on core subjects in which they are already achieving well, is more about number-crunching than it is about their best interests. ‘Value added’ achieved by removing value, if you will.
The school where Emily was interviewed only allowed top-set students to take GCSE English Literature. It did, however, foster a culture of reading among all students, with staff-nominated texts ranging from War Horse to the backs of the crisp packets that local grandparents once inhabited. Lest the challenge send the students down the path known to Spinal Tap’s drummers, it was deemed safest to stick with what you knew they knew. In an act of genuine grace, Emily was told that she’d be welcome, if she wanted to, to spend some time in the school, observing its workings.
So that she could learn more about inner-city kids.