Category Archives: Rants

Social mobility, IQ and education

I’m getting very bored of the link up between social mobility, IQ and education, but, alongside my boredom there is disquiet and I am still trying to work out why that is (apart from the obvious). So, I’m going to take the three things, one at a time.

Social mobility

So, I’ve written about this concept before, (you can read last week’s post here) but maybe I haven’t been clear enough. I don’t think, when people talk or write about social mobility today that they actually mean what either I think the term means, or the term says.

To me, when I conjure up an image of social mobility, I think of Hyacinth Bucket or Margot Leadbetter. Caricatures of women climbing the social ladder, and being made fun of in the process. A male equivalent? Harold Steptoe, maybe. Men and women pretending to be better than they are, gardening in their yellow marigolds, playing snooker with a cue poking out of the window, ‘aping their betters’ and branding themselves as Lord and Lady Muck. No class, and certainly no breeding.

OK, so those characters are fictional, but they represent an image of social mobility that I think many of us hold in our collective imaginations, and many of us have experienced; the slow sloughing off of working class roots (although, if my own experience is anything to go by, they run deep, and they are not easily dismissed).

I don’t think that public commentators and organisations mean social mobility. I think they mean an economic ‘mobility’ whereby the individual, by dint of hard work, ‘makes good’. Instead of relying on the apparatus of the state for things such as housing, healthcare and education, they are able to earn enough to own their own homes, buy private health insurance and education for their children.

I think these are two different things.

IQ

I’m not going to spend much time writing or thinking about IQ. I’m not an expert in it but I do know this: it has been used in Western society since the day it was invented and its history is troubling and sad. People have been forcibly sterilised because of it. People have been discriminated against because of it. Lives have been undervalued and lost. To be honest, the thing I mostly think about it is when people boast about their own, or their genius child’s and, if there is anything that having a child with Down’s syndrome has taught me it is this: IQ is no guarantee of anything that matters in life. A high IQ is no guarantee of health (although I do understand the arguments about odds – to which I reply, when you have a 1 in 7000 chance of having a baby with Down’s you still could), it is no guarantee of being a decent person and it is certainly not the benchmark for love.

You can read a post about loving your disabled child here.

To me, IQ is just another one of those labels that gets in the way. As a teacher I firmly believe that we have a duty to meet the needs of the children in our classes without prejudice, and that includes notions of IQ.

Education

Which brings me to education. The marrying of notions of social (economic) mobility to education is, to me, troubling. As a young person, I marched around the streets of Exeter (in the rain, no less) chanting ‘Education is a right, not a privilege’, in the first of the student protests about student loans. I believe that education should be free at the point of delivery, and that we have an equal right to it. I support ideas of a lifetime education; not everyone wants to go to university at 18, and that’s OK.

What I don’t support, however, is the close tying of education to economics. The getting of a good education is not directly related to the getting of a well-paid and fulfilling job. The role of teachers is not to turn out compliant, hard working citizens (who will never need public housing, healthcare or education for their children). I reject the notion of a utilitarian schooling.

Troubled

This is why I feel so troubled by the current arguments that are swirling in my field. It’s difficult to disagree with declarations that every child is entitled to access ‘the best that has been thought and said’ and made. I add made because I take my children to museums, art galleries and places of cultural and historical significance regularly as I consider it their right to participate in the cultural and intellectual life of this world regardless of their age or abilities. I did so as a teacher and I do so as a parent.

And that’s it, I suppose. An education isn’t about fitting a person out to be a good little worker, and only accessible to those who conform. It’s something else entirely.

 

 

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Teaching: a socially mobile career?

Or: winding the web

I don’t know if you know, but I moved house about three months ago (I am trying not to go on about it too much). Due to the demands of a punishing commute on the part of the hubs, we have uprooted ourselves from the town that was our home for almost seventeen years and plonked ourselves thirty miles away and into the next county. It has not been easy.

As well as leaving behind family and friends, and going to a place where we know no-one (or I don’t, so that effectively adds up to the same thing), we have remortgaged and found ourselves in the unenviable position of living in a smaller, more expensive house. We have had to chuck out a whole load of stuff (one of the side effects of living in a big old lady of a house is that there is no need to throw anything away, ever), buy a whole load of new, smaller stuff, and committed ourselves to paying off such a large debt that we will never be able to help out our rapidly growing children, should they decide to do what we did and take up the offer of a higher education.

On the face of it, R and I could be the poster children of social mobility. Born out of the Second World War, our parents were all the first in their families to go to college. Most of them, from working class roots, made it up the ladder to teaching positions, home ownership and a different kind of life altogether to the one that their own parents experienced. My parents moved away too, adding a geographical distance to the mix.

As a good friend of mine explained to me, on her return from a three year stint in the States, they had the opportunity to reinvent themselves, to become persons unfettered by other people’s expectations of their backgrounds, wiping away accents and enjoying the opportunity to be a new self. If you don’t have roots, if there aren’t people around who remember the day you were born, your awkward teenage years and that terrible cough you had the Christmas you were the narrator of the school play, it’s easy.

But here’s the thing. Roots, community, family, friendship; these things are important. Without them, we are a little lost unit, making our way in an uncertain, lonely fashion. Without the patriarchal model, where one person goes out to work and the other stays at home to run the kids about to their various bits and pieces, to spend the time not only running the household, but weaving the social web, the one that stands in for you when your family cannot, it’s, truth be told, a struggle. Politicians and the like, who like to talk about social mobility do so only in economic terms, as if ‘lifting yourself out of poverty’ is the only thing that matters.

Maybe that’s why so many people from working class backgrounds, when they graduate, turn to teaching. You don’t have to rip your family apart in order to get on. If you’re lucky you can enjoy the long holidays and the artificial sense of gentility they bring, so long as you don’t rub it in the noses of your wider family (in which case, it probably is better to move away, in an absence making the heart grow fonder kind of sense). You can tell children that if they work hard and they pass all their exams then they too will reap the rewards, based on merit, because that’s what happened to them.

Until, that is, you move away, and you become a creature of suspicion, even in teaching circles; the person with no connections, starting all over again, proving yourself, all over again, winding the web, all over again.

 

 

 

 

School Accountability and the entitlement to a broad and balanced curriculum

I’ve been a teacher a long time, since 1994 in fact, and over the years, I have been witness to the things that Amanda Spielman, new Ofsted chief, spoke of yesterday – you can read her speech here – a speech which I finally found time to read in the evening, while I was supposed to be watching the telly (I still have no idea, really, what the whole Terminator Mark Million was supposed to be about, and how old is John Connor supposed to be these days, anyway?), and, such is my irritation that I find myself cranking up the laptop on the train, as I whoosh through the early morning countryside on my way to work.

You see, what annoys me is not that the Chief Inspector has noticed that the curriculum (you know, the one that has cost so much money over the years), for a lot of children, is not that thing that we all hoped it would be. It is not a ‘treasure house of riches’ (that’s a quote from the foreword of the latest iteration), but a narrow, dry diet that in my view, and I am sure I am not alone in this, instead of opening up new opportunities and new ideas, widening horizons and just being interesting and, dare I say it, fun, for its own sake, puts children off education and makes school the very last place that they want to be.

For seven years, ever since I stepped away from domesticity and back into my professional life, I have been aware that my expertise in music, in history, in DT, in curriculum planning (yes, I am one of those who are increasingly rare in the system), is not valued. It might help you get a job in the first place, if you happen to get an old-fashioned head teacher reading your application, but in the end, in a today when the ability to play the piano in assembly isn’t valued, because you may as well use the CD so that you can use your assembly time for something much more valuable, I don’t know, like marking, or interventions, or catching up on your emails or whatever other job that teachers find to do in their precious non-contact time and after all, what we mostly teach is maths and English, and what do you know about that?

We know this; this story of narrowing and dryness and maths and English in the morning and again in the afternoon, the lack of access to the arts, to PE, to DT and all the other interesting things there are to learn in school, and which I notice children, my own included, enjoying so much, to such a degree that they chatter about what they have been doing in the evening, over tea, and skip off to school in the morning because looking at their timetable, today is their favourite day, is no longer one that belongs only to teachers (and you can concentrate and multiply this effect for children with SEND – the ‘lower attaining – let’s call it what it is). Parents, politicians, journalists and now inspectors have got wind of it.

I’ve written about it lots of times before, such is my consternation. Here’s a description of my daughter’s recent experience.

But this is not why I am irritated, annoyed enough to sit typing here, worried that my fellow travellers might spill their coffee on my new computer. Working as I do, for an educational charity with a national voice, I have the opportunity, unlike many of my former colleagues, to escape the powerless trap and feel, at least, as if I am doing something about it.

I am cross because of blame. In her speech, the Chief Inspector doesn’t just draw a picture and reassure the profession that she is going to do something about it – that would be a welcome pronouncement. She refuses to take, for the organisation she heads, one jot of responsibility, but instead points the finger of blame at teachers and schools.

Now, I know that schools aren’t perfect. They are human institutions made up of human people who make mistakes, just like me. But I do know this. The actions they take on curriculum, and ensuring that children have access to the things we, as a society, deem important, are driven, not by the curriculum itself, but by fear. The fear of our punitive inspection system, all in the name of accountability.

And here’s the thing. Here’s the thing that hurts: when, as the parent of a disabled child, you really need your school to be accountable, to you, in the interests of your child, they aren’t.

Sunday Best

I had the oddest experience the other day. As you (probably don’t) know, I moved house recently and, as the nights are drawing in and I have reached the conclusion of my hemming and hawing, I thought it was about time I sorted out some sitting room (the hubs calls it the lounge, which I tease him by declaring that that name is horribly bourgeois) curtains. I found a nearby branch of a fabric place I have used before (I’m not what you might call skilled in the matter of sewing), and off I trotted, measurements in hand – and they refused to sell me any. Not in so many words, you understand, we ran out of time and I had to make a dash for it (slave to the school-and-college run that I am), but still. I got the distinct impression that something was…off.

I thought about it afterwards as I scratched my head and googled around to see if there was anywhere else I could get hold of something to keep the darkness at bay, and I came to a depressing conclusion. I think it was something to do with me. Not that I barged in to the shop and demanded to be served, not that sort of thing (people who do that never seem to have any trouble getting what they want, after all), but that I didn’t look like someone who could afford to spend the kind of money that the curtains are going to cost (don’t worry, I have saved up – I’ve bought curtains before, I know they are costly things). Seeing as I had been cleaning the house (the other treadmill of my life), and the fact that it was raining, I had not considered dressing up a necessity – rather, I was considerably dressed down. Outward appearances did not tell the truth of the matter.

I’ve come a cropper in this way before, you see. I went through a phase of dressing up for church, when the kids were little. In an unconscious echo of my teenage years, when I dressed up (or down, depending on which way you looked at it) for the evening service, it was my one opportunity of the week to wear something swish, after a week of anonymous dressing in the ubiquitous uniform of early motherhood.  I’d even do my hair (well, sometimes) and put on makeup. I knew I wasn’t presenting the right kind of image after I had one very difficult conversation with someone or other (I had done something wrong, spoken the wrong way or asked for the wrong thing – in the wrong way) and I had to point out that I, as the mother of a disabled child, was the very person that, perhaps, they were seeking to reach.

Sometimes I think it was the same when  Sam was at primary school too (although we never had the same full and frank exchange of views about it). I didn’t fit the mould of the person who might need a hand, every now and again. Some people get all the help in the world, the cups of tea, the signposting to official people who you can ask for help, some people get the sickly sweet patronage of the welfare state and others, those hampered by their membership of privilege, instead of helped, are pathologised. Demanding. Fussy. Pushy. Difficult. Asking in the wrong way and at the wrong time, not following the plan, or being the right kind of mother.

I don’t know, maybe I should just suck it up. Maybe I should dress up for shopping and dress down for church, just so people know I mean business. Maybe I should cry in school playgrounds, not save my tears for the washing up or when I’m cutting onions; maybe I should publicly broadcast a somehow acceptable disability story so that everyone can feel sorry for me, and good about themselves for helping. Maybe I should hide who I really am, don the cloak of hypocrisy so that they don’t get defensive and I get…I don’t know what I get, a relief from disappointment, perhaps.

I’ll go back and get my curtains. I’ll screw up my courage, flick my hair over my shoulder, put on my sunglasses (even if it’s raining) and remind myself that I don’t have to care what other people think, or appear to think of me, that it’s the results (in this case, curtains) that matter. One day, I’ll transfer the lesson and I’ll stop being phased by the criticism of wrongness and then we’ll see.

Afraid

I was chatting the other day,  with some mothers of children with Down’s syndrome; what was it about Down’s syndrome, we were asked, that everyone, the world and his wife, finds so scary?  It’s a question that knocked on the door of my consciousness long before it was posed.

You can find a post on the fear of disability, and Down’s syndrome here.

It doesn’t happen straight away, but once your child is no longer a baby, or a cute toddler, a little one in a too big school uniform, once your boy starts to turn into a man, people’s attitudes change.  The miasma of fear hangs around them.  A fear of male sexuality.  A discomfort with a feminised masculinity; a man who will always need to be helped.  A not-quite someone.

You can find a post about Down’s syndrome and manhood here.

And I have written about the judgement on women, on mothers who dare to have a disabled child. Framed as choice, the discourse has more than a whiff of judgement about it, there is a you made your bed now you lie in it stench.  I have read about, thought about and written about the blame that is hung around the neck of mothers of disabled children.  Too needy. Hysterical. In denial. Awkward. Liars, even.

You can read a post about the inherent sexism present in our schools here.

Mothers of disabled children are set about with rules. In a digital age, we are told we share too much. We place our children in danger; we share stories that are not ours to tell, as if the stories of women, of mothers, are somehow less important, less deserving of a hearing.  In an economic time of debt and austerity, we must both pay the bills and stay at home. We have no need of ambition; our fate is to lay ourselves down at the feet of our children, the price we must pay for bringing to birth a disabled baby.

Today, for work (although I’d have read it out of interest), I read a report into the mental health and wellbeing of children with SEND (that’s special educational needs and disabilities) in schools, and, to be honest, I wasn’t shocked.  Depressed and angered, yes. Shocked, no.  You can read it here.

You see, we know that SEND is intimately connected with poverty and economic and social disadvantage.

We know that having a disabled child puts a strain on adult relationships and many such children grow up with an absent father.

We know that teenage girls are deeply unhappy with the world around them and their place in it, and that this is especially pronounced in girls who don’t, or who feel they don’t fit in.

We know that disabled adults and children face greater levels of bullying than any other group – and disabled girls even more so.

The report paints a picture of a toxic cocktail of powerlessness centred on the experience of women and girls; of individuals caught in the feminised state of disability.  No doubt there will be calls for change, for interventions or plans, for government backed initiatives, citing the well known unhappiness of the UK’s children in justification.  We have a big problem, requiring a big solution.

Except we don’t, not really.  To be kind costs nothing.  To be alert to bullying and to help our children and put a stop to the behaviour that has blighted the lives of so many costs little; some thought, some understanding, maybe a bit of training and a heap of commitment.  Challenging workplaces and demanding societal support for families, so that caring is shared, not carried by one person, might take a bit more, but still.

Without that commitment to change, when you look at it, when you really look at it, who wouldn’t be afraid?