We need to talk about education


A new book commissioned by Teach First has sought to lift the lid on the barriers that disadvantaged young people face to education and achievement. Authors Ben Faccini and Greg Villalobos explain what they found and we print some extracts from the teache

Debate surrounding education can often seem removed from the nitty-gritty of students’ lives. This is all the more the case when the thorny question of educational inequality is tackled.

Expert viewpoints, graphs and statistical analysis can only do so much to reveal the realities of deprivation. 

The complexities at the heart of the issue easily escape definition and understanding. 

Our book, We Need To Talk About Education, therefore, seeks to dig as deep as possible into the actual lives and experiences of people who face daily challenges in their education, giving them a direct platform to voice their hopes and opinions. 

A wide range of people were interviewed for the publication, up and down the country: pupils, teachers, parents and community members. Interviews were structured around basic questions such as “What do you want to be?” or “Describe yourself aged 30”. 

These questions, when pushed further, and directed at pupils, necessarily exposed many of the obstacles on the road to adulthood

Writing workshops with themes such as “What makes a perfect teacher?” or “Where do you do your homework?” were further opportunities to channel ideas and reveal the often hidden facets of disadvantage. 

The potential of education, and teachers, in turning lives round was rarely called into question by those who were interviewed, whatever their circumstances. What regularly emerged, however, were the numerous barriers to educational success, or even general success as perceived by society. 

Issues that could seem surmountable to some – such as attitudes, peer groups, other people’s perceptions – were frequently described as damaging by students in challenging circumstances, and intrinsic to a feeling of struggling at school. 

Parental input, the absence or presence of role-models, family support were recurring themes, as were limited financial means, housing and home life in general. The difficulties of schoolwork, too.

Behind the intertwined and embedded problems faced by pupils, the role of teachers became more and more apparent as the publication was put together. Teacher support and expertise were key to smoothing out or nurturing an educational journey. 

And teachers responses to pupils’ issues were as varied as the problems they were being asked to deal with. 

Roles frequently merged with other roles. Teachers were challenged from all sides by educational inequality – on school work as much as on maintaining relations with parents or looking out for children in difficult circumstances.

Those teachers who were upheld as precious supporters by pupils seemed to be constantly straddling many functions. This didn’t stop them from setting up after-school clubs or totally revamping their lesson plans for specific pupils. 

As one teacher from Cleveland said: “For some of the kids here teaching good lessons is not enough. You’ve got to make the kids believe you’ll move heaven and earth to help them otherwise they aren’t going to make the grade.”

It is undoubtedly the case that a teacher can be crucial in helping unravel the knot of educational inequality, but, all too often, they cannot do it alone, without the support of families and the wider community. 

Disadvantage comes in many guises and is an accumulation of many pressing, and sometimes disturbing, issues. It is very much hoped that this book becomes a useful tool for all who wish to dig deeper than the statistics in the news.

Excerpts from the book

Saad, a pupil in London

“I plan to be the first one of my family to go to uni, and I want it to be a good uni. Then I want to get a good job. That’s the basic, and in between I’m going to be happy. 

My family has always pushed me to do the best I can. My friends too. We’re not from a great area, but everyone wants to achieve. 

My teachers are also supportive if you explain things to them. My history teacher has really helped me and made me see what I can achieve. The kind of barriers I’ve noticed for pupils are small things like not being able to afford a school trip. 

My chemistry teacher at GCSE was like a brother to me and that created a relationship and he would engage you and talk to you and I loved chemistry as a result. My history teacher, too, now makes you feel part of the subject. He makes you feel the passion and why he loves his subject. It’s contagious.”

Gordon, a teacher in Cleveland

“I feel that I am achieving the goal of having left the pharmaceutical industry. There have been fairly dark days in teaching but the dark days are extremely rare. And in those days I thought I wish I were back in industry working shifts. The maxim I gave my friends when I said I was leaving to start teaching, because there was much pointing and laughing, and the maxim I give to trainee teachers, because I’ve been a mentor for lots of different trainee teachers is ‘There’s not many jobs where you can make a difference every single day’. And you can: every day.

A daft throwaway line to a vulnerable child can destroy them. And they will stay destroyed for years and years. You can probably remember a teacher you hated because they said one thing to you once. It was like a lance to the heart. 

The flip side is true in that if you say something positive to a young person or if you make their life more enjoyable, or you give them something or you impart some knowledge that allows them to be more successful.

It’s the rarest and best job in the world, and I do sound like an evangelist but I think that, and I think that because I did something else and I didn’t fall into teaching for the want of something else to do. I made a conscious decision, ‘Right I’ve done that job and I would like to try this job’, and it’s brilliant and it’s rewarding.”

Jamie, a teacher in Cleveland 

“For some of the kids here teaching good lessons is not enough. You’ve got to make the kids believe you’ll move heaven and earth to help them otherwise they aren’t going to make the grade. But how do you do that? 

Part of it is saying to them, ‘I’m going to be on the phone to your parents so that when you do something good your parents are going to hear about it’. I keep saying a positive phone call takes 90 seconds. If I can do three of those per lesson per day then that’s about 20 minutes in total and that’s the same amount of time I might have to take for a kid mucking around and with the negative phone call to follow up. So if I can get them on side, and when they are good they get that phone call home, it is 50 times easier in lessons...”

Katie, a teacher in London

“You can have kids who first say “that’s so boring” when I talk to them about Tess of the d’Urbervilles, but then I get to see it through their eyes and it’s amazing. I love it. One girl said to me recently, ‘Miss, I don’t know what you’ve done to me. I go home and I analyse everything and pick everything apart’.

So for me, English is not so much about them writing the perfect business letter, but about their souls and their minds. Of course, they need to read and write as a skill, and it’s a crucial part of their education, but I think it’s also vital to have their minds lifted, to be able to critique the world. 

Literature allows for that and it is also about real-life situations. Tess of the d’Urbervilles is about an outcast and her struggles. The subject is real. It matters. We see her choices. It’s an invaluable lesson for teenagers, for their life. It brings out all the things they experience. 

One girl, I taught her A level. She was followed by the child protection people. She had a terrible life, but she was heading to Oxford. She was a brilliant student, naturally bright and very able. I would tell her that she was going to be able to walk away from her past life and create a new world for herself. 

Then, at the last minute, she didn’t turn up for her A level exams. We sent a taxi for her, but, when push came to shove, she couldn’t do it. Some don’t know how to grab your hand. I can’t take the exam for them. At the end of the day, they have to have parents who will fight for them too. There was nothing we could do as teachers, we weren’t able to act on that last tiny bit. It broke my heart.

The teenagers I teach have tough lives. They want to know how others have suffered. Real-life books do that, but so does fiction. Books are like therapy and they want a mirror of themselves. They want authors who understand their lives.

For me the students need consistency and reliability from a teacher. I hope I deliver consistently good lessons and I say to the pupils that if they listen and absorb things carefully they will succeed and get good grades. I tell them that education is their way out and, I suppose, for many of the kids that don’t succeed it is because they don’t know how to take that opportunity.”

Further information
Commissioned by Teach First, written by Greg Villalobos and Ben Faccini and published by IndieBooks, We Need To Talk About Education is available in bookshops or online via www.teachfirst.org.uk, price £16.

CAPTION: Insight: Kimi, a teenager from London (top) features in the Teach First book alongside Jamie, a teacher in Cleveland who is pictured above with his pupil Morgan


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