There may be sensitivity about the term "working class" but the priorities are clear, writes Tony Parkin
Does social class play a part in limiting achievement in 21st century schools, or should we now be talking about the "impact of socio-economic factors"? Is this a cultural or simply an economic challenge for education? What can we learn from projects such as The Extra Mile and Pockets of Poverty from the Department for Education (DfE)?
These were just some of the issues raised at the annual conference of the Basildon Education Services Trust (BEST) – “Raising Attainment in Basildon” – where a packed house of 270 participants from more than 23 schools met to address the key local education challenge.
Of course there's an irony that this event was taking place in Basildon, the site of much media stirring of class issues – remember Basildon Man? But this issue has always been present. Back in the 20th century the Inner London Education Authority promised to address the three key issues of race, gender and class distinction. It didn’t quite get round to the last one however – now BEST has picked up the baton.
Two of the keynote speakers, Ofsted’s Chris Nye and Denis Mongon from the Institute of Education, both initially expressed their own personal discomfort with the use of the term “working class”. They preferred to consider issues through the lens of “socio-economic factors”. But both went on to contribute a great deal of educational research analysis and considered opinion to the debate that informed and set the scene for the workshops addressing aspects of the underachievement of working-class pupils for much of the day.
The conference, organised by BEST in partnership with the 21st Century Learning Alliance, focused on the challenges and successful strategies in raising the achievement of working class pupils in BEST schools. The practical nature and relevance of the event highlighted design inputs from practising headteachers.
In fact headteachers Eileen Heaphy, Glenys Jones, Jude Gibbon and Tracy Evans had master-minded the development of the conference, working with BEST’s director, Patrick White, and Tracy Slater. Held at The James Hornsby High School in Basildon, it was the first in a planned series of events that will help all the schools build their own action plans addressing specific issues of working class underachievement, then share them with other schools, and later evaluate how successful schools have been in implementing their chosen strategies.
ICT an effective lever for change – but not a bolt-on
After welcomes and introductions, the day opened with a keynote from Brenda Bigland, the recently retired headteacher of Lent Rise Primary School, Buckinghamshire, which has a largely working class catchment area. She described the journey she had been on to transform achievement in her own challenging school.
Graphic descriptions of arriving to fights in the playground (and that was just the parents) and a failing school set the scene for a story of a two-year turnaround and an 18-year journey to huge success. Brenda shared a wealth of anecdotes, specific strategies and resources, which could be explored in greater depth at her workshops later in the day.
Chosing ICT as the lever for school improvement, she showed how projects implementing a range of technologies, particularly video-conferencing, had helped engage pupils, staff, parents and the business community in the school improvement journey. She made clear, however, that this was not about bolting on technology, but about coming up with inspiring projects that excited and motivated all involved, and that other levers could undoubtedly be used to address the under-achievement and low aspirations at the root of the issue.
Her enthusiasm, larger than life persona, can-do attitude and passion left their mark on all those listening – some clearly wishing they could have her as their head, with others appearing to reel at the prospect! But all could see that a school where the nature of the catchment reflected their own experience could be developed into a highly-effective and successful one.
All schools need ambitious expectations – no excuses
Chris Nye, nine years an HMI, followed Brenda to offer an Ofsted perspective, drawing mainly on two Ofsted publications about removing barriers to literacy and studies into good practice with white boys from low socio-economic backgrounds. He strongly believes that all schools must have the same ambitious expectations for pupils of all backgrounds, not reducing them for pupils from low socio-economic backgrounds.
“I will never accept the statement ‘Well what can you expect from pupils with their background,’ from anyone,” he said. He went on to examine the evidence for the need for a focus on literacy from Ofsted research. Contesting the image of a limiting National Curriculum and an inflexible approach, he pointed out that Ofsted always notes that "Most successful schools changed and adapted the curriculum to support the localised needs of their pupils."
Stressing that literacy is not just about phonics, he was delighted that Ofsted will now not only be listening to children read; they will also be checking that they understand what they are reading. He won friends by singing the praises of the attitude of the leadership team portrayed on the television programme Educating Essex, and the great patience and care displayed with challenging pupils. “That is what is needed by all our pupils, and in all our schools,” he added.
Challenges from the floor included the key importance of oracy as a precursor to literacy, particularly in homes where children are frequently not communicated with. This was followed by a related query about the negative impact of cutting SureStart on the oracy of such pupils, and especially on those with English as a second language. Chris won even more friends by agreeing whole-heartedly with that view, pointing out that Ofsted was independent of Government and would not be afraid to report any findings to this effect.
The 14 workshops that followed were variously aimed at equipping primary and secondary staff and leadership teams to deal with specific aspects of the day's challenge. Topics ranged from addressing low self-esteem in pupils through to whole-school strategies to meet working class pupils’ needs, and from aspects of attendance through to the roles of support staff. All the keynote speakers also offered intensive workshops to share the successful strategies highlighted in their presentations.
After the lunch break Professor Denis Mongon introduced research data that challenged and informed some of the thinking about the day. On the theme of High Leverage Leadership, there was a chance to preview some of the content and findings of his new book, to be published in December by Routledge. (He also co-authored the report "Successful Leadership for Promoting the Achievement of White Working Class Pupils".)
'The answers to these issues are in the room'
Observing that the free school meals indicator is often used as a proxy in education for the children from lower socio-economic backgrounds, he stated that, however inadequate it may be, it can also be a powerful and useful tool that we should use to advantage. He showed that the educational expectations of both relatively deprived British white boys and girls are lower than those from other less well-off groups, and that these reduced expectations continue to decline through key stage 4 when they pick up in other student groupings. A depressing finding.
”However, the answers to these issues are in the room,” said Professor Mongon to a rather surprised audience when referring to inter-school variation. “The interesting challenge lies in understanding how a small number of schools, in identical circumstances, manage to overcome these issues, and then we must share what works with other schools.”
Turning to ‘within school’ variations, he pointed out that the best classrooms typically outperformed the worst by an order of five to one by the age of 11 (the end of key stage 2), which grew to a massive fourteen to one by the time students are 16 (the end of key stage 4). “So if we can share the successes of the best teachers in Basildon, and the best schools in Basildon, in achieving success for these less well-off pupils, Basildon will no longer be facing these problems... the answers really are in the room.”
He had other key messages for leadership - “All the evidence shows that good leaders focus on learning orientation, and a concern for improving, rather than focusing on standards, and a concern for proving.” And he ended on the positive: “Evidence shows that what people say about your school on the street, and in the supermarket, is more important than what the league tables say about you.”
A second chance to attend the workshops brought to a conclusion an excellent conference. Judging by the energy and commitment still evident from staff in these final workshops it was clear the day had struck a chord. There was optimism that, despite the different political hues, the thinking behind the current ‘Pockets of Poverty’ chimed closely with that of the well-received ‘The Extra Mile’ from the previous administration. We left feeling secure in the knowledge that what ILEA in its day had failed to address, the schools of Basildon and BEST are now attacking head on.
Raising Attainment in Basildon
Brenda Bigland @ askbrenda
The Extra Mile - How schools succeed in raising aspirations in deprived communities
Pockets of Poverty: The challenge for schools with small proportions of FSM pupils
Breaking the cycle of white working-class underachievement (Denis Mongon)
High Leverage Leadership: Improving Outcomes in Educational Settings – Denis Mongon & Colin Chapman
Removing barriers to literacy 21 Jan 2011 Ofsted Ref: 090237
White boys from low-income backgrounds: good practice in schools 22 Jul 2008 Ofsted Ref: 070220
Basildon Education Services Trust