Brunel research ends blame game of failing schools vs. failing parents
• Many children are unprepared at home for school-based learning - this becomes a greater challenge when attending failing schools
• The issue of 'problem families' is overstated - street culture is, especially for boys, likely to be as, if not more, significant a cause of educational failure than problems in the family home.
After nearly two years spent researching a failing primary school and working class families and neighbourhoods in Bermondsey, Brunel University academic Dr. Gillian Evans' research and recently published book, Educational Failure and Working Class White Children in Britain, sheds a unique light on the issue of educational failure for working class children. Far from placing the blame solely on 'problem families' or on poor teaching, the issue is that, for many families, there is a huge discrepancy between what children are learning at school and what they are learning at home. Compared to their middle class peers, many working class children are not prepared at home for what school-based learning requires of them. When these children reach primary school, they find themselves struggling to adapt to the learning environment.
The research explodes the following myths:
Problem children at school are problem children in the home. When children are failing to learn well at school, the assumption is made that children are not being properly cared for at home. However, by conducting research with families in their homes, Dr. Evans found that the most disruptive of boys at school were often 'good as gold', 'mummy's boys', under the strict discipline of their parents at home. So why are they so disruptive in school? Their behaviour stems not so much from home life but from street life where they are beyond their parents' control. On the street, boys can gain a 'tough' reputation, which also needs to be upheld at school, thus making it difficult for them to conform to what being good at school means.
Education is not highly rated amongst the working classes. Dr. Evans found that the majority of working class families value education highly and acknowledge that education is the source of a better livelihood for their children in the future.
Teachers are to blame for educational failure. Dr Evans found that even in a failing school, teachers are dedicated to their profession and committed to supporting working class children to achieve highly in their education. However, their efforts are thwarted if leadership in the school is weak. When teachers' disciplinary measures are unsupported by senior management, disruptive children, especially boys, can set the tone of behaviour, taking the power struggles of the street into the classroom and school.
Speaking about the research, Dr. Evans says: “After spending a year in the homes of families in Bermondsey, I got a very good picture of the 'blame game' which unfolds between schools and families when children aren't performing well at school. Whilst families blame the school, the teachers in turn blame the families, often linking a child's poor educational performance to the perception of a tough home life lived in poverty. But educational failure is much more complicated than this 'blame game' suggests.
A child that isn't performing well at school is more often than not well cared for at home. The issue is that their home life does not necessarily equip them for a learning environment - a school. In a failing school, children are not well cared for when disruptive boys are allowed to rule the school. This failure creates a high adrenaline, sometimes violent atmosphere in which 80% of the teachers' energies are often spent on behaviour management rather than curriculum delivery. The failure to control disruptive boys effectively undermines the chances of the other working class children in the class, who are willing to learn, to do well.
In many working class families, where the parents themselves may have received a poor education, learning is viewed as separate from what caring for children means. This doesn't mean that working class parents don't care for their children. It just means that the way they care doesn't necessarily focus around the development of learning tasks. This is not the case with middle class families, where the tendency is to link formal learning and caring from the very beginning of the child's life so that children as young as two years old are prepared for what educational institutions require of them. These children have an obvious advantage when beginning primary school - whereas many working class children may struggle to adapt from the start.
Worse still, in a failing school, working class children are doubly challenged. Not only do they struggle under the weight of low expectations - a form of institutional class prejudice - they also often fail to reconcile the dissimilar cultures of school versus the street. On the street, where violence and intimidation may set the tone for behaviour, tough boys cannot maintain their reputations if suddenly, at school, they become willing pupils.“
In order to improve the current situation, Dr. Evans believes that the following need to happen:
• Assess educational failure at the primary school level
• Analyse disruptive boys' peer groups as a social phenomenon in the context of the working class neighbourhood and street, rather than judging individual boys and their families as failures.
• Develop home-based measures to help those parents and children who are motivated to incorporate formal learning skills into the caring relationship in the home
• Develop street-based measures to make the street a safer place for boys and girls to escape to and for the public in these neighbourhoods to enjoy. For example, the development of estate-based amenities for younger boys and girls to distract them from street conflict
• Develop measures to challenge the power of the school head in a failing school who is able to manipulate the governing body and manage impressions before Ofsted inspections
• Ensure that those children who are failing at primary school have statements of their special educational need before they leave for secondary school.
These and many more issues can be explored in detail in Dr. Evans' book, Educational Failure and Working Class White Children in Britain, which is now available from Palgrave.