'Don’t bother with me I’m White trash.’

Written by: Simon Taylor | Published:
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How about we designed an education system that is relevant, accessible to all, and seen as 'fit for ...

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'Don’t bother with me I’m White trash.’ After receiving this response from a student, Simon Taylor reflects on the huge challenges we face in breaking down social disadvantage and closing the gap...

“White trash” – this was the first time I had heard this label used other than in American films. I had to look it up to actually understand what this student was telling me when I was trying to support his work in a maths lesson.

“Slur referring to poor White people, signifies lower social class inside the White population and especially a degraded standard of living, people living on the fringes of the social order, without respect for authority whether it be political, legal, or moral. The term may also be used self-referentially by working class Whites to jokingly describe their origins or lifestyle.”

So clearly my student had a strong view of himself and I know that he, his family and friends are the same, disapplying themselves from society by simply not taking part and mulling along in a twilight world.

My concern is that this attitude is far from being confined to a small niche of modern society. We are now in a position where White working class boys are the lowest educationally attaining and achieving group and at the moment very little is having a positive effect on tackling this. A tiny percentage make it successfully through the system – in spite of millions spent on the blanket funding stream of Pupil Premium.

The issues which seem to be driving this working class, or workless class, social phenomena are multi-faceted. In my experience there is an element of fear which generates strong barriers to success. But fearing what? These individuals, mainly boys but not exclusively, routinely do not complete work and do not take part actively in learning. They are passengers in the learning process.

Socially they tend to have distant father figures and are indulged by loving mothers and grandmas. Their family units exist just above poverty definitions, but are rich in time and often in material possessions. To appear to strive and have aspirations is embarrassing; to achieve is a complete no-go.

It would be disloyal of them to break the mould which has been established over several generations in the community. Parents do not wish to engage with school or challenge their children to improve their lot; they are frightened of success and where this may lead.

Increasingly, the label “disadvantaged” does not cut it for me. It’s not disadvantage, it’s a lack of the social edge that being advantaged gives you. A multiple lack of advantage generates a lack of experiences that are character-building and which form a bedrock that solidifies over time and on which individuals draw when needed. We call this stamina, determination, and resilience.

Mental health issues based around anxiety and depression increase, born of a lack of emotional resilience. Mix this with a likely SEN label, and the changes to exam structures and rigour within curricula, and it adds to emotions of inadequacy and fear.

Increasingly in school it is better not to talk and plan for removing disadvantage because you simply can’t, it’s already absorbed. Instead, we talk about creating social advantage, emotional bedrocks and resilience. The work is hard and draining and requires perseverance and excellent classroom practice. Ratios are important here and anything above 25 per cent in a group and the dominant effect is too large. Unfortunately, this year my new cohort will contain 51 per cent of 11-year-olds who have not reached age-related expectations in anything.

Creating social advantage starts in the early years and is marginally successful to secondary age, but increasing social awareness and hormones undermine the hard work, making it increasingly impossible to maintain positive advantage. Negative values oppose positive ones, with parents offering limited or no support through fear of challenging their child with positive assertive discipline, thus working its way into the achievement equation and not in a positive way.

Having worked with the effects of multiple deprivation for the past 24 years, I am convinced that schools cannot have all the answers despite current expectations. Society cannot look to schools to perform every function possible to counter the negative social influences in whatever form they occur.

Even worse, we cannot continue to be rated on our efforts to deal with these issues. Inspection frameworks should not keep changing to reflect the latest social nuance that a government advisor tells the DfE it needs to be concerned with.

“It takes a village to raise a child” is a proverb that applies. A school cannot do everything that the village can do and neither should it. It starts with basic good parenting where food, study and sleep routines are an everyday occurrence, not an afterthought, where family units have strong bonds and emotional attachments. Where forming strong positive affiliations by taking part in what’s around you is something to aspire to and where being part of a community that is achieving and striving through education is valued, not ridiculed. Where concerning behaviour patterns are dealt with swiftly instead of becoming accepted. How does this develop? In any society, the driver is work. A career or work with training should be aspired to for all.

If schools face this challenge alone, we risk losing the battle – and it is a battle when a father says to me: “School never did owt for me.”

  • Simon Taylor is principal and CEO of Kirkby College in Nottinghamshire. He is CEO of the North Ashfield Behaviour and Attendance Trust, which operates a learning centre for local secondary schools. The group has a policy of zero permanent exclusion, which it has achieved for six years now.


Comments
How about we designed an education system that is relevant, accessible to all, and seen as 'fit for purpose'? What purpose? To prepare our children and young people to be successful in the world they will find when they leave formal education. That is about so much more than 'subjects' and valuing and measuring such a small element of our human intelligence.
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