“There’s another thing I know. Whether a man comes from a mining family or a statement home, whether he’s a Colonel Blimp or a wild-eyed revolutionary, whether he believes in the cane and church twice on Sundays or blood on the barricades, whether he worships the working classes or thinks they stink, he is middle-class to the marrow of his bones when he says to them: “You do not know what’s best for you. Do as I say because I say so.” Trot or Tory, they are brothers under the skin.”
Jill Tweedie (The Guardian, Monday 27 October 1975)
I have over the last six months had a fortunate experience of working alongside (incredibly unexpectedly) one of my former teachers. I have run interventions for children in her class as well as two others in the same year group. Last week, while teaching a numeracy intervention, I asked children to hold up their cards in a way that meant that none of the others would see it. There were the usual children holding them up instead of in front of their chest as asked, being told off and then them countering the claim with an ‘I can’t help it’ excuse.
I reasoned and then when it still happened, I went old style and lectured them on being selfish and individualistic when what was needed was a group approach so I could do my best to understand what they knew to teach them better. However, this time, the lecture included an introduction to the reason they have a school in the first place, a very short explanation of what the system was like pre-1948 and how Lord Beveridge had created the plans for a better funded and expanded education service for all children.
The children listened and then found a newly discovered ability to hold the cards to their chest instead of waving them around and then something very unexpected happened.
One the boys just stopped me and said that he felt really sad. He is normally such a lively, jovial, over excited boy and loved the activity we were doing so I knew he wasn’t just being disruptive. He then went on to explain that it was the thought of all the children who did not get to go to school or learn as much as him that was upsetting him. I hadn’t thought it would hit him this way so I just did my best to reassure him that the past couldn’t be changed but that he could make sure that he took full advantage of the opportunities he had been given. `He seemed to accept the explanation but I realise that something had changed for him that day.
Then yesterday, I went to my old teacher’s class and found myself doing exactly what that boy had done the previous week. I stopped her because I was upset and because I wanted her to help me make sense of it. The thing that I wanted her help to make sense of was a fact that I had read in Peal’s book Progressively Worse (Peal, R, Progressively Worse, Civitas, London, 2014).
In the section Reading Wars Round 2 from the chapter Reform 1979 – 1986, he mentions an NFER report based on self-reported reading age attainment in the 26 councils, which found that in 19 of them, literacy levels had declined between 1981 and 1990 and that the reading age had declined on average by four months. It also revealed that the crazy idea that reading could not be taught was being taught without critical analysis by ITT.
So why was I upset? Because of the dates – that is the time that I went to primary school, one of the ones that used the reading schemes that were ‘boring’, you know the ones that are meant to have put children off reading and so needed to be scorned at and thrown away. A bit of onset and rime and some letter-sound correspondence – the old fashioned way of learning to read which was no panacea but still worked for most children.
So I felt it, the same dawning and realisation that the boy had felt at my words, that there were children who had not learnt to read as well as me. Those who, like me, had no learning difficulties had been held back by the approach to reading and whose teachers had done nothing about it. These teachers who learnt to read using reading schemes, and could see their children struggling to learn with their methods had not reflected and been critical of their practice and tried to change it. They carried on. They carried on because progressive ideologues told them too. They did it because apparently it was less boring than the way they had been taught. They did it because it should work.
Even when the report came out, its findings were dismissed. This was only the councils that conducted the NFER test, many of those that didn’t would undoubtedly have been even more progressive (not wanting to test) and the decline would have been greater. I need to get my hands on the report and see if there was any further breakdown regarding social class. Peal does not mention it so I take it there wasn’t but it doesn’t take a great stretch of the imagination to work out that the decline was an average and those affected by the greatest decline would have been poor and or working class children.
It made me cry and anyone who knows me knows that I do not cry easily. But they were just tears of sadness, that children, who like me, went to school and trusted their teachers were not taught to read properly due to the ideology of their teachers. Their teachers, instead of simply changing their method, resisted and chose to blame the background of their pupils instead. The LEAs and Trade Unions supported this stance from those teachers instead of challenging it based on the outcomes it was leading for children and the cause of social equality. The fact that the education department of the university I attended, was, in fact, well-known for peddling the very ideology and methods that held back those just like me, seems too awful to be true and yet it is.
So I went to my old teacher and expressed what I was feeling and was overwhelming me and how I just couldn’t reconcile myself with what had and is happening. I explained some of my experiences as a teacher and how as an adult the reality has dawned on me bit by bit and slowly over time that my experience of education, which like everyone else, I thought was the norm in state schools was nothing but. In fact, it seems to have been positively unique.
I was taught the 3 R’s very well and did as well as I could, I never experienced any barriers because of my background, gender, race, social class, I did just waltz my way through the education system and out the other end. With the exception of about two teachers, I only had positive experiences of being taught, pushed to do my best and experiencing varying levels of success in different subjects but coming out of secondary school with nothing less than a C even in the subjects I did not consider myself to have the greatest aptitude in.
Joining the profession as a primary school teacher. I realised that there was a real lack of diversity in education. Teaching in Brixton, I finally understood the true meaning of institutional racism and why my ethnic minority colleagues had developed a deep distrust of the white teachers that had taught them, who had grown up not seeing them as teachers as I had but racists who held deep prejudices against them. I would like to point out that the majority of my teachers were white, middle class and were without fail cut from the traditionalist cloth. It was their sense of right and wrong that caused them to give me opportunities because, like many people, they revised their prejudices in the light of real humans in front of them. They could have stood in my way but whatever their upbringing had taught them they put it to one side and made sure I did as well as I could. This is real anti-racism not the empty words from those who say what they think is acceptable.
So now, after ten years of teaching I have learnt that children my age literally grew up with a lower reading age, less ability to read, lower literacy skills because of this and the institutions that should have guarded against this or checked were too busy damning teachers and schools that took a more traditional approach, even when, and possibly because, they were successful.
So what did my old teacher tell me? She said that knowing involved both loss and gain and gave the example of learning to use an apostrophe. You gained the ability to use it but lost the ability to look at words in the same way as when you didn’t know. It was better to know as knowledge is always better than ignorance. The knowledge has left me feeling angry on behalf of my peers who were not given the same chances as me, wondering whether I really did deserve my university place or whether it really should have gone to someone brighter than me who never got the chance, how in different circumstances in this same education system in the same country I would have been taught in a way that would have led to my failure, not success. That this failure would have been blamed on my parents’ income, my ethnic background, my gender, basically anything that let those teachers continue to teach using their methods but not accept responsibility for their failure.
This morning I realised that the source of this unhappiness went deeper than the loss of my peers and their right to the same education and opportunities that I had. It was the loss of what earlier generations had tried to do – those who had learnt to read and write and had proven that children with my social class and ethnicity were just as capable as their white and or middle-class peers and deserved the same shot at an education.
Those who ventured first into further education and university and paved the way for others. The reformers who pushed and pushed so that an academic education could be made available to all. Who argued that it was our common right to inherit the knowledge passed from previous generations and, without the ability to read, we would not have access to.
It is all the people I know I have to thank for the opportunities I have had. But to know they were being given to me while being denied to others is a bitter pill to swallow.
Lesson learnt? Progressives who have been unmoved by their repeated failures, and who have turned the education system for those from challenging socio-economic backgrounds into little more than créches, are not going to change their ideas or opinions due to reason. Their deeply held prejudices infect the very fabric of the education system in this country. Their neediness would continue to lead to children ending up in nurture groups for their gratification and they will fail to follow up to see what the consequences of such interventions are. They will continue to create barriers for those who disagree and subvert reforms that would make this system more equal. As one well-known progressive confidently wrote in her blog recently, those who wish to change the methods of teachers were not going to manage it. Indeed, she is right, the progressive do indeed know how to dig their heels in and insist on their way, prevent real reform and change the circumstances for the poorest.
I do not wish to leave this blog on such a pessimistic note so here’s one thing I did learn from my experience of education. Collectively, the single greatest thing my teachers did for me was level the playing field. They did it in the only place it can be done and where it can’t be easily undone – that is in my head. So let me finish the book and figure out now what role I need to play to move things forward because if you have been given the opportunities that others have been denied, then it is surely your duty to find a way to give those opportunities to others in some way, however small.