Issues of youth culture and behaviour are at last being placed at the centre of Britain's education debateby Katharine Quarmby / August 1, 2007 / Leave a comment
Andrew Adonis, the schools minister, returned in June from a tour of the far east to declare, in a lecture, that Britain must strive to be an “80/20” society, in which at least 80 per cent of 16 year olds achieve five good A-C GCSE grades by 2020. At present, fewer than half of 16 year olds achieve such grades in GCSEs, including English and maths, but Adonis believes the improvement is possible, citing the achievements of countries such as Ireland, Finland and Singapore. The mechanisms for success listed in his lecture are familiar—more early-years’ investment, better pupil tracking, extended school hours and provision, more targeting of resources for those on the margins of good GCSEs and more business involvement in schools.
Yet almost entirely absent from the lecture—indeed the elephant in the room of much mainstream educational debate—were the intertwined issues of culture, upbringing and behaviour. Are Britain’s families producing enough children with the self-discipline and educational ambition to fill the 80 per cent quota even if everything else were in place?
The latest evidence on low achievement makes for dispiriting reading for Adonis and other optimists. In June, Robert Cassen from the LSE published a big study into low achievement. His team found that nearly half of all low achievers are white British boys. Poverty is strongly correlated with low achievement, as is lone parenthood and low-achieving parents. Cassen also noted that “male kinds of behaviour” in secondary schools cause difficulties, and boys are, as a consequence, far more likely to end up being excluded from school. While many children are well-adjusted, there is a “difficult minority” which many schools do not help.
One man who has experienced bad behaviour at first hand is Paul Grant, a head from Barking and Dagenham, in east London. Robert Clack school, set among the high-rise concrete towers of the Becontree estate, was once one of the worst in the country. Just 16 per cent of its pupils gained five good GCSEs in 1996—the year before Grant became head. Many openly smoked. Some were warring with a neighbouring school; hundreds were playing truant.
Within a fortnight of taking over, Grant had excluded one third of the pupils, introduced a (heavily subsidised) uniform and enforced a strict behaviour policy. Last year, 79 per cent of his pupils—most of them the poor white sons and daughters of Dagenham car workers, culturally wary of education—gained five good GCSEs, many in hard subjects, such as the individual sciences. Looking back on his ten years as head, Grant says that “clear behaviour management was absolutely crucial.” Teachers were pushed hard to improve their performance—and motivated to do so by the emphasis that Grant put on behaviour. Discipline, he says, set free children who “were enslaved by gang culture in the school.” Grant “threw the book” at those who sneered at high achievement. And he widened the notion of success—bringing in vocational courses for those in danger of dropping out, using sport and music as motivating factors, shelling out school funds to take children to west end theatres. His parents’ evenings were once empty—now most parents attend.
Grant’s school is no fashionable city academy, it has no glass atrium and is non-selective. Instead, it has committed and well-led staff, a police officer to patrol the school to stamp out behaviour on the edge of criminality, and parents who believe in what the school is doing—and back it up at home. Grant praises the Adonis targets, which he has hit despite having 40 per cent of his children on free school meals and many with special educational needs—but stresses that without the “freedom to hold pupils to account, the excellent teaching and learning we are doing comes tumbling down.”
The behaviour issue is, of course, as old as formal education itself. And for much of the last century, there was a strong suspicion of book learning among many working-class families. Even if that attitude is receding, the educational virtues now have to compete with today’s less stable families and the temptations of an ever-present popular culture usually advocating instant gratification. Tabloid newspapers overflow with stories about tanned footballers’ wives and girlfriends who hit the headlines for their shopping sprees, not for their second degrees. It is surely significant that one of the nation’s favourite television shows, Big Brother, bans books, pens and paper.
Gillian Evans, who published detailed ethnographic research into working-class culture in Bermondsey two years ago (Educational Failure and Working Class White Children in Britain), believes a large part of the problem lies on the street. “The predominant form of peer-based masculinity on the street mitigates against educational success in school. If this is not addressed at the policy level, then no amount of billions of pounds poured into schools will solve the problem of working-class boys’ educational failure.” But she wants some understanding of working-class pride and history too: “If you create employment conditions in which it is difficult to survive on anything other than the breadline, their preoccupation will be with survival and employment and money—not education. This is a social dynamic years in the making.”
Alan Smithers, the academic educationalist, argues for the old idea of improved non-academic “ladders to work.” This is backed by David Chaytor MP, one of the most influential members of the education select committee, who is doubtful about the government’s mantra of five good GCSEs. He hopes that the new 14-19 vocational diplomas, due to start next year, will draw back in some of the disaffected. Smithers is not keen on the government’s idea of making it compulsory to stay in some form of training or education until the age of 18. Rather than motivating the educationally frustrated, he thinks it would lead to more truancy.
But the new Brown-led government does seem to be placing behaviour issues at the heart of its education policy—as witnessed by the fact that youth crime and antisocial behaviour has been folded into the new department for children, schools and families. Researchers at the Institute for Public Policy Research have been worrying away at these behaviour issues for years. And the IPPR’s former director, Nick Pearce, has just moved into government to work on youth policy. Expect to see more structured activities for young people, better mentoring, more action on youth offending. The new prime minister’s educational slogan is “behaviour, behaviour, behaviour.”