A blog post by Jon Rainford
Jon spent five years at the coalface in education, formerly as a member of support staff in a school for children with special educational needs and latterly as a teacher in a large secondary school specializing in Art and Design. He now works in the field of widening participation to higher education.
As part of their education reforms, the government introduced the Pupil Premium, which is, in their words ‘additional funding given to schools so that they can support their disadvantaged pupils and close the attainment gap between them and their peers’. What I would suggest, however, is that better understanding of how inequality affects young people is the answer to this issue and not funding.
Very early on in my career, I was taking a group of students from the Midlands down to London in a coach. As we approached Dunstable, a town some 30 miles from London, I heard one student say to another “Look, we must be in London, the houses are well posh”, another student responded, “We haven’t been travelling long enough to be in London yet”. This shows how the experiences often shape knowledge of the world that many of us take for granted.
The overt focus on assessment and attainment in primary schools, leads to a reduced curriculum. There is more focus on core skills in literacy and numeracy and less on developing a sense of understanding of the world. For those children from affluent backgrounds, this is often mitigated through family activities. The tendency for more exotic holidays or educationally focused days out, often helps fill in the gaps left by schools but many children are not this privileged.
I can’t deny that teaching the basics is extremely important in primary education, but so is developing the building blocks for greater understanding. If children are not taught to delight in the wonders of life, such as how civilisations rise and fall, how amazing nature is or how exciting stories can be then they don’t develop that spark that makes them want to learn. Without this, school becomes a chore and a series of tasks to pass through in advance of escaping the system.
The government introduced the pupil premium in hope that it would address issues of inequality by providing funding to enable them to access a wider range of enriching activities but throwing money at the problem isn’t always the solution. Having the financial resources alone does not allow these opportunities to be provided if it is not accompanied by the time and the space within schooling for them to take place. There needs to be explicit time and scope in the curriculum to allow students to develop this wider education of the world with less focus on instrumentalist testing of subsets of skills. The love of reading doesn’t come from success in phonics tests, but from finding the magic in a story. Scientists aren’t motivated by successfully solving equations, but by the desire to understand how and why things happen. Until the education system starts to address this issue for all students, then there will continue to be inequality due to the fact that much of this education is what takes place without the school gates. With nearly fourteen years of schooling, surely we can worry about testing students once they’ve had a chance to enjoy learning and to develop a base level of understanding about the world. If we start by testing, teaching and resetting, the ones who start on a back foot will always feel inadequate and therefore always be at a disadvantage.