I don’t like conflict – never have. It makes my heart beat faster and gives me that sick and anxious feeling. Sometimes the voices on Twitter make me anxious and defensive. This week this world and the events that have happened in it have made me positively despair and, if I’m honest, be a bit scared of the future. But I do like to debate; I totally believe that there is rarely a right or wrong answer, but in doing so I can get passionately defensive and here’s why.
I work in a large (1700 odd and rising) 11-19 school in the East of England. We have one of the largest immigrant populations in the country, in fact during the last election, several of our students charmed Jon Snow when he was out and about filming in the city in preparation for a debate on Channel 4 news. So all this means that 56% (at the last count) of our students are classed as EAL students. We have approximately 60 languages spoken within the school. Alongside this we intake from some of the poorest areas of the city, as well as being set in one of the most affluent areas. We have a waiting list that means that we often have new students, many in years 10 and 11. We are really proud of all of this, but are used to having to be defend our students.
We have students that were born and bred in this country, but whose parents don’t speak English. We have students who have lived in many different countries, whose parents are trying to earn money to make a better life for their children. We have students that are refugees and travelled with their families to escape unimaginable horrors and have seen more than any child should, along with having visible physical scars to prove it. And we have children who have travelled to this country alone on lorries, away from any family and completely alone in this country. Sometimes we don’t actually know how old they really are, but we teach them the same as everyone else.
But it brings pressures, particularly in terms of getting our students reading abilities up to scratch very quickly, so that they are able to access GCSE papers. Often it is very difficult to have a strong communication with home, and the ability to read, to enjoy reading and be able to do it well, has to come completely from within school and we have to be able to constantly access the progress our students make. We have to instil a love of reading in the English language as well as introduce challenging texts, which has a context very different to what they know. If you are from Afghanistan, are you going to understand what on earth Dickens is going on about?
You could therefore argue that the new GCSEs could be seen as an attempt to ostracise non-British students and are the domain of the white, middle class British. But I and my colleagues won’t let it. We just have to find ways in for them, we have to give them that context so they are able to visualise and let’s be honest, human emotions are the same everywhere; they understand a character’s emotional reactions as much a anyone else. To that extent, our students have tended to do, on average, much better in literature. Time will tell if they can do the same in the new GCSEs.
So, we do what works for us and what works for our eclectic smorgasbord of a community. And it is a community; something that it commented on by the visitors to our school, amazed by actually how well it works. But we are very different to others. When I trained, I worked one day a week in a school across the other side of the city that was all white, in fact they had one non-English student in year 9. This was literally up the road from my school. It was interesting, they did things very differently to us; they didn’t have the endless flow of migrants and had time to do things very differently. I really enjoyed it, was respectful and interested in the way they did things, but knew that my school did things in a different way because they had to. It taught me that every school was different and that as long as they could justify why they did it, that was fine. Visiting and speaking to people who work in other schools, in other cities, has justified that idea. No two schools, much like no two children are the same. That’s just a fact.
I love talking to other people about how they do things. I’m always taking from blogs and trying things out; adapting them to work within my context and I’m grateful to the people that take the time out to share, but I will also fiercely defend the things that work for us.
So, I guess the point that I want to make is that not all schools are the same, not all things work for all schools and if a school finds systems and ‘ways of doing’ that work for them and their intake then that’s ok, that’s fine. The proof is in the results – they are the only viable way of proving that something works and schools may do things in a very different way to get good results for their students. There is no such thing as the ‘right’ way or the ‘only’ way.
This year my school won an award. Since 2011, the progress our students make from 7-11 is significantly above national average, culminating in 2015 in a value added figure of 1025.9 which puts us, according to the SSAT in the top 20% of schools nationally. Our PP students also do better on average than the national average for non-PP students. We’ve worked hard, like everyone else in education, and found what works for us – so yes, I will defend what we do and the proof that we have that it works.
But that doesn’t mean that we don’t constantly consider what we can do to change and to improve. You can never get stuck in your ways, or assume that things can never work. But we are realistic that the next few years will be a scary time at GCSE; like everyone else we are working with the unknown and are not sure yet how it might affect our students.
I hear terrible things from my students. We believe in being honest and allowing discussion. I hear from students, stories of adults throwing things at them in the streets; of swear words and abuse being thrown at them and people shouting at them to ‘go back to their own country.’ Unless you live their lives, you have no idea what it is like, and I find myself having to explain that there are those in the country who don’t believe that, and that our school welcomes everybody. In fact, many of the British students do that too, racist incidents are almost non-existent. Children make friends because they like each other, caring little about where they are from, or the colour of their skin and that’s what we can learn from young people. That is what gives me hope in the current political landscape where political ideologies bring forth hate and abuse. My own children went to my school. My son who is now at uni, went out for a meal with his Russian friend the other day and is out and about wih his Lithuanian girlfriend. That’s a lasting legacy of his schooling – he doesn’t see race, or nationality, or colour.
So that’s why I might appear defensive – and I will forever defend. I may not be at my school for the rest of my career, who knows what life will bring, but the time I have been has meant that I have become more tolerant, more open and more passionately defensive than ever. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but I apologise if you do.