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The Waste

Yesterday I tried to write something about Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, and his statement that he would ‘not tolerate’ primary school children going on to secondary education without the basic skills in literacy and numeracy.

I said something like: that’s all very well but how are you going to achieve that? An authoritarian stance and set of words is not quite enough. And then I noted that he was going to turn some of the primary schools into academies to presumably address this. By the end of the day, I had about 800 words but not much cohesion and quite a lot of crossness. Today I’ve got a little less crossness and fewer words (my mother will love that sentence!).

I started off down the road of the language of education. How I wince when I hear people (professionals and learners themselves) refer to people or groups as bright. What, I think, is the inference for those people without the label. Do you think they don’t pick this up? What is the effect of this?

And then today I got a helping hand to hang my thoughts on. This report from the OECD shows how bad the UK is at developing the self-confidence and resilience in our children that enables those from tough backgrounds to achieve and progress.

Our views and language of people is part of this picture. So much of how I work is not about people’s skills and abilities, but their deep-seated beliefs about their skills and abilities. What they think they can and can’t do is a powerful motivation or barrier to any kind of achievement.

Getting to the bottom of this cannot be forced in an adult. It can take nearly a year before a learner gains an insight into where some of their ideas about their abilities may have come from. Sadly, I have to report it comes usually from indifferent teaching and the language of labels. Support from parents also plays a role, but most parents have been through the same system and been inculcated in the same way. As we believe what we were told (or inferred) about ourselves, so we believe the views that are held about our children. And how many parents have the confidence to challenge the teaching and learning?

Here is my own story. It has become evident my own 9 year old is not progressing in numeracy. She is becoming an avoider. She has worked out that she does not, at this point, have the same skills as many has her peers. She is, to be frank, developing classroom strategies to get by, whilst judging herself unable to ‘do maths’. The teacher must be aware of this, because I have sent in a note. Have I followed this up – no. Why? Because – she is the teacher. Instead I am looking for some extra help for my daughter. And the help is a very particular sort of help. It is the kind that believes that every child can succeed, providing the teacher is prepared to take the responsibility of building the child’s self-confidence by teaching as many different ways as are needed to build those skills.

A curriculum is all very well, but to build the resilience and self-confidence the OECD report talks about, we need a wider discourse and curriculum. One which is not just intent on delivering the same curriculum to all children at the same time and tough if they don’t get it, but one that is founded on the belief that every child deserves a more than equal chance to develop a strong sense of their intrinsic value and worth.