Thursday, 31 October 2013

Gifted, Talented, Stultified

When I was in secondary school, in the Blair Years, I was a product of New Labour's focus on Gifted and Talented pupils. At the time this gave me - a working class boy whose parents' traditional slightly DailyMaily attitudes manifested in me as unblinking compliance - the chance to feel superior to those of my peers who, by whatever subjective decision-making process took place, were not judged to be bright. Gifted and Talented was almost exclusively just a social thing - we did very little of substance, just gathered together once a week. This lack of action, aside from separating 'the top' from the rest, only adds to the sense that such groups have eugenic underpinnings.

Now as a teacher, with the idea of malleable intelligence and the infamous Rosenthal and Jacobson research 'Pygmalion in the Classroom' both firmly in my head, I find G&T deeply problematic.  It implies that ability is static and as such, it cements inequalities - if 'those doing well' at a given point are 'gifted', and if 'those doing well' are overwhelmingly the most economically, socially and culturally affluent, then the G&T label merely consecrates privelege. Not only consecrates though; it also legitimates. Once 'giftedness' becomes the master trait; the child's attainment becomes seen solely as a consequence of their (alleged, co-opted) giftedness, rather than their parents' ability to pay for tuition, ability to imbue their child with fruitful cultural experience and so on. It sits uncomfortably - it disconcerts.

When recently reading into Critical Race Theory, I found an interesting reflection which prompted me to think more critically about my own practice. In order to inspire pupils in a school with a majority of black pupils, a black lawyer was invited. The motivation, typical to all aspiration-building speakers, is to emphasise that if you, children, work hard, you can also become a successful black lawyer. It is hard to argue against this? But when faced with the negligible number of black people operating at the highest levels of the legal profession - single figures - is it inspirational or disingenuous to tell a hall full of 200 black kids that with a bit of hard work, they too can be the next generation of barristers?

This is my problem with gifted and talented programmes in schools which serve areas of social exclusion and disadvantage. We live in a flagrantly unjust society and those children identified as Gifted and Talented from poor areas represent the kids with - apparently - the greatest potential. What do we do, as teachers, with their considerable talents? We push our top ten children from each disadvantaged area into one of the tiny number of places in Oxbridge allocated - with statistical consistency - to those unfortunates in low participation areas.

As educators with a heartfelt commitment to justice, by pushing kids through the hallowed institutions that represent centuries of educational aprtheid, we are perhaps just providing a few token poor kids,  a few token black kids, a few token Bangladeshis, for them to plaster all over their prospectuses to maintain the illusion that they represent complete meritocracy and fairness.

The alternative? I don't know yet, but a solid starting point would be helping our 'gifted' disadvantaged pupils to realise the cold verifiable truth that the education system is weighted against them. Show them the Sutton Trust reports. Show them the admission statistics. Equip these students, of great academic potential, with the critical consciousness and apparatus to problematise, challenge and flag up the meritocracy-that-isn't.

Perhaps this action, a break in the existing discourse on how to promote 'excellence', is necessary in order to shake up the self perpetuating cycle of privelege, for which our brightest poor pupils are expected to pedal.

Monday, 14 October 2013

We strike because we care

As I look through my ‘Online Contacts’ list on Facebook at 1am on a weeknight and find the entire staffroom of my school online – planning , designing displays and resources, writing risk assessments, studying, marking books, putting together ideas for school events and responding to work emails – it becomes very obvious why teachers need to take a stand this Thursday.

We care a lot. We care about the children we teach. We care about our capacity and development as educators. We care about our colleagues. We care about our children’s learning and their assessment results.

It is great to work in a profession that has the potential to restore faith in humanity through small everyday actions, to shape young minds, to help kids make sense of the world and to build lasting meaningful relationships with adults and kids all united in their shared aim of learning. The problem is that the whole culture of teaching is blanketed in a dependency on our goodwill – to be a good teacher, as anybody living with one will know, requires levels of sacrifice which affect you and those around you.

Because we take pride in the work we do, we have a real sense of devotion. It makes us arrive at school before our pupils wake up, and for some of us, we are still working when our charges are put to bed, and we do it because their successes and hopes become our motivations. This devotion, however, makes us pliable to those who want to reap the labour out of us, pushing us to complete two, three, four, five occupations where one would fit comfortably.

I can’t speak for all teachers, but I think we are different to other unions. Our working lives are not necessary shaped by collaboration and constant teamwork, like factory-workers, and as a result we lack that immediate strength in numbers, because there isn't a clear 'Them and Us'. No group can shake off the upset of being misrepresented and stigmatised in the public conscience, but at least the miners (for example) had that sense of camaraderie which breeds solidarity.

Teachers in today’s schools don’t have that, really. When, after a 12 hour day in school which followed four hours sleep, you pick up an Evening Standard to see some new slur against you, which questions your professionalism, ethic and morals, it rankles and it hurts. It makes you question why you spend hundreds of pounds of your own money making your classroom somewhere the children want to be. It make you question why every weekend and holiday sees you catching up on  an ever-growing work backlog.

But it does not and will not make us question our care for our children and for the importance of their education. If we lost sight of that, we wouldn’t be worth defending.

We are striking  this week because we want to be able to teach to the best of our ability. We are striking because we think the work of teachers should be valued by government like we value it. We are striking because we don’t want a performance-related pay structure which will ultimately encourage the destructive attitude that ‘being a good teacher’ means ‘never saying no to management’.

I will personally benefit from performance –related-pay; I would still rather it didn’t exist. I would rather have a solid salary structure which pays me less if it means I won’t work in a socially divisive institution in which the most pliable staff who are willing to sacrifice their time will be promoted ahead of teachers who take a stand in order to create work-life balance, which leads them to have their ‘dedication’ questioned. It's not about the money.

We're the people who help your children towards the academic achievements that make you feel proud of them. We, like you, spend a lot of time anxiously worrying about your children.

We are striking because we care and you should support us.