‘Keep up the good work’

I wonder if we need to reinforce the critical appraisal of the language we use to communicate with pupils. I know, as a profession, we have rejected the meaningless instructions and comments of the past but have we really progressed as far as we need to? How often do we use terms and phrases which we have used before and which are often the path of least resistance in a pressured day (particularly when marking), but which do not achieve the required meeting of minds? Could do better – how? Keep up the good work – how? what? Satisfactory?

The research into effective learning (in particular Hattie) points us towards the best support for learning – individual feedback. It therefore puts pressure on us to choose our words very carefully. We are not helped by a profession that adopts and entertains jargon and acronym with ease. We are not helped that exam syallabi are very rarely written in student accessible language. We are not helped by our own education and upbringing, which often makes it difficult to be conscious of the ease with which we use language and the many who do not enjoy such an advantage. We could go deeper into the territory of Friere (Critical pedagogy) Bernstein (Restricted code) and draw a parallel between colonial suppression  and the middle class hegemony (via language) of our own culture.

I am fortunate to be able to observe teachers in the classroom and I am continually struck by the critical importance of making sure a class is comfortable with the necessary key words (use and spelling), the importance of sharing aims and objectives in accessible language and making sure that there has been a proper transaction of understanding. Individual exchanges, either in class or via marking also need to be clear about meaning.

Teaching is a time tortured activity involving dozens of daily decisions about where time is needed. I suspect that time spent ensuring that the pupils have the awareness and understanding of what they need to do to develop their understanding and skills, is time well spent. Easy to say and often said, but worth repeating. I can remember the fog surrounding my own education around the age of 8 or 9, so much so that I convinced myself that all the teacher wanted was things done as rapidly as possible ( becuase that was what seemed to achieve praise). Consequently I am still cursed with a degree of impetuousness. Perhaps the art of exposition has been slightly lost in the starter/trigger/intro culture. I note that Hattie’s (ibid) meta analysis places instructional quality a close 3rd behind feedback and prior ability in the list of the most effective learning agencies .

A vision for schools and society: Chord Centres

I think we need to reinforce and extend the bold vision for child welfare and education (expressed before in various intervention programmes, in this country and abroad) to counter the current market and laissez faire approach to schools, with its inherent risk of ‘the devil take the hindmost’.

 The Chord vision entails a degree of ‘all through schooling’  – we certainly need to remove the transition risks, particularly between early years, primary and secondary schooling. Parents would need to begin contact with the Chord Centre during pregnancy. The school should be the location for the Chord Centre and source for advice and teaching on health care and early development – in particular, on how to establish guidelines for behaviour, a balanced diet and the stimulation of  language development and cognitive skills. It would offer Integrated Services/Multi Agency access as well as contact with Voluntary and Community support groups. 

Pragmatically, there would need to be some linkage between receipt of benefits or tax breaks and attendance at the school centre, or some field work capacity for parents who cannot get to the school. All parents would be offered advice on parenting and the consequences for all parties of either failing to support the child or of creating too much  pressure on the child (and pressures on parents themselves). The aim would be to develop a lifelong, supportive relationship between the family and centre/school. Another focus would be on early intervention strategies. 

Idealistic? Yes.  Achievable?  Possibly, and given the high stakes involved, where the consequences of failure and the fruits of success have such a huge economic  and social impact, vital to try. Costs?  Not necessarily huge in finance terms but large in terms of a political investment. Discrimminatory, Big Brother?  Potentially so, but this is why it would need to involve every parent (as all of us can learn) and why it would need to be a system that integrates both the independent and state school sectors. We need to make the argument, that the fate of this country rests on this form of collective effort – probably best to avoid the war time comparisons but when you look at the risks and challenges we face…

Schools are currently judged and managed by a performance data approach that concentrates on the input and output of the school. This is surely an unhelpful convenience, as the more significant and difficult educational parameters relate to and involve family and community. We need to see the whole process of schooling as  a shared endeavour and make it work, so that the damaging processes of  judgement, competition and political interference can be suspended. As the African proverb has it: ‘It takes a village to raise a child’.

Can education compensate for society?

Every Child Matters is both a noble and powerful aim. It can, if it becomes a true collaboration between all the agencies (Schools,Social Services, Health Agencies, Charities, Youth, Community and the Police in particular) it can perhaps help to prevent the desperate consequences of muddled responsibilities that emerge periodically from tragic cases of child neglect. It can also support the greater achievements and welfare of all children. The substantial challenge lies in leading a large number of organisations to a point where the benefits of collaboration can be realised. It is surely right that schools are the focus for the ‘how’ and ‘why’, and although every child matters, we need to focus on success for the most needy. As Bernstein famously reflected ‘ Education cannot compensate for society’ – it may well have been true 40 years ago, we may, with our advanced welfare experience, just be able to create something different today. However, with the shrinkage of many Childrens Services, it may be up to leading schools and local clusters to take the initiative, an initiative that has the potential to deliver substantial benefits.

The logic of Maslow’s thinking http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow’s_hierarchy_of_needs is surely that we cannot aim to educate in isolation of the other parameters for learning which relate to basic needs. Addressing the relevant factors is clearly a shared task for parents, schools, agencies and government.

P.S. It looks as if the Every Child Matters agenda has been cut off at the knees. This could just be the worst case of a false economy anywhere in the current maelstrom of cuts. Schools are one of the most efficient institutions in society and the comparitively low level of funds needed to provide an expert,  sympathetic, targetted and locally co-ordinated approach, would have stretched a long way towards delivery of a preventative and supportive impact on child, young person and family welfare. Please read later blogs on Chord Centres as a further development of ideas on this subject.