Fiona Philips, the former GMTV presenter, has attacked her old school for its low expectations and its lack of discipline. She said that, as a youngster, she arrived at her old school, Millbrook School in Southampton, at the top of her class and, despite being in the top sets, she left as a ‘vile’ teenager with only one O-grade in English. When she stated her ambition to be a doctor, the teachers at the school suggested that she might be better to have a look at hairdressing.
The same accusation, albeit on a far broader scale, is made by David Laws, an education minister, former investment banker and graduate from Cambridge University. He says that schools have “depressingly low expectations” for their pupils. He goes onto to say, “Teachers, colleges, careers advisers have a role and a responsibility to aim for the stars and to encourage people to believe they can reach the top in education and employment”. Once again teachers have been put in the firing line for a societal ill.
On the surface it may seem that teachers are letting their pupils down. Yet is this a fair picture? In Fiona Philips’ case defending a school that has lost its discipline presents a difficulty. Discipline has to be the cornerstone of any school and failure in that respect deprives many pupils of the opportunity for achievement. However, schools only have discipline issues because other factors play a massive part: the value put on education by the families of the pupils, by the pupils themselves, the opportunities provided in the economic realm and the culture in which educating takes place.
Why would pupils value education if their parents don’t turn-up to Parents’ Evenings or help them with their homework or provide no direction at home? How many pupils do not seem to care about the effort a teacher might put into a lesson, or hardly read work with feedback written over a weekend? What if there are few chances of economic opportunity? What if the culture extols celebrity and notoriety over all else? And what if advertisers and TV shows find it profitable to promote a material version of success, to raise unrealistic expectations about what individuals can attain, creating fantasy and falsified images passed off as reality (missing out the crucial connection to work and preferring to promote the idea that buying a type of drink, footwear, or razor is the gateway to success)?
Ultimately schools accept that discipline within the school is their responsibility; it’s another debate about all pupils and families accepting responsibility for the discipline in the classroom and valuing education. It’s another debate addressing the issues that might be preventing pupils and their families accepting those responsibilities. But should teachers and schools have to accept the blame for a poverty of expectation?
Aneurin Bevan, a miner, Minister of Health and the founder of the NHS cited the ‘poverty of aspiration’ that bedevilled poor areas. This lack of ambition is seen as such a flaw in a meritocracy that politicians, business leaders and the media continually examine the social landscape for causes: regularly the focus falls on state education. Schools are an easy target. They are easier to attack than address the issues of alcohol addiction, drug addiction, economic deprivation, mental health issues and the legacy of history.
In a recent article in the Guardian a primary school head who works in a deprived area notes some of the immense difficulties her very young pupils face: ‘In the group there is suicide, separation and other kinds of loss. There are violent older siblings, violent parents. There is mental illness and depression.’ Calming the children down is the order of the day, first and foremost. Starting to talk about being anything you want to be hardly seems a curative for such issues. Expectation must be grounded in reality.
One of the attractive aspects in teaching is the challenge of reality. Nearly all teachers have to be realists otherwise they could not do the job. If you cannot deliver lessons to the real ability of the pupils in front of you, then behaviour issues are going to undermine you. A lack of realistic assessment is going to create problems with classes, pupils and parents (and quite possibly fellow teachers). Teachers have to try to support ambition and balance it with reality; most teachers realise that to create unrealistic expectations can be cruel, and disruptive, and often the pupils don’t believe you anyway; precious credibility leaks away.
(I remember having a difficult class who ignored my calls for a high-minded ambition, and approached their work with apathy and indifference. A change of tack after a few months and a long talk about what they could achieve, coupled with lower expectations it has to be said, was a turning point: they worked well and a few even achieved beyond their aims. But none can be said to have set the heather on fire.)
Can people have aspirations that are out of touch with the actuality? Yes! I don’t know if Fiona Philips could have been a doctor. If she did have that ambition did she ever ask for extra-homework? Perhaps the teacher that recommended hairdressing had looked clearly at her behaviour and her reports, making a judgement on the evidence rather than what Ms Philips said. Another pupil I remember from my early days, not in a top class but in a well-to-do school, stated she wished to be a doctor. I said I’d help her and initiated a specific homework programme just for her: she never did the homework, never asked for more and rarely handed in the class homework. Her aspiration was not supported by her perspiration, to put it pithily.
It’s fine for David Laws to arrive from Westminster and, having talked to pupils, be appalled and depressed by their low expectations. I doubt David Laws is teaching a class where pupils need to be calmed down because of domestic abuse. Perhaps that is unfair, as these are rarer cases: but if David Laws examines the situation closely I’m sure he’ll see that the problem of low expectations goes beyond any encouraging words or challenging work offered by a caring teacher. If it was that simple, we’d have solved the problem by now.