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A fascinating day with ‘challenging’ kids

Posted on 2 October 2010 | 7:10am

Had a fascinating time yesterday, my first day as part of an education experiment. I was teaching a group of ‘challenging’ teenagers who have gone through the school system without overly troubling the GCSE scorers, and who have been brought together to see whether ‘inspiring, passionate, achieving’ people (why thank you experiment organisers) can turn them on to learning.

It makes for a few interesting combos in the staff room, of which more anon. But having been wound up by some of my fellow teachers to expect something close to a war zone, and having heard how another teacher had already fled, I cannot deny a few nerves.

My own kids, the product of excellent North London comprehensive schools with their own share of challenging kids, were great with advice. As I tweeted last night, their basic lesson was ‘be firm from the off, offer praise, show no fear, explain clearly and never ever talk down.’ I think I managed it, and though it was not always easy to hold their attention and keep them talking one at a time, we got through a lot and they gave a lot back.

My subject is politics, media and campaigns. I wanted to use lesson one to show that politics mattered, was central to their lives, and they were more political than they might realise. Most said in advance they found politics ‘boring.’ None had heard of George Osborne. Four knew of Nick Clegg. All recognised PMs Thatcher and Blair from photos. All but a couple recognised Cameron and Brown. None recognised Major, or had heard of him. They all recognised Obama and Bin Laden. Most recogmised Katie Price, Simon Cowell, Jay-Z and Gandhi,

But whilst many maintained throughout that they had no interest in politics, they sat pretty rapt watching short films on the fight of the Pankhursts to get votes for women, the US civil rights movement, Nelson Mandela’s long walk to freedom, and on how Labour legislated on gay rights. And by the time we started discussing campaign ideas of their own, they came thick and fast, and at times with a real passion and knowledge born of experience. By the end, some were asking if I would help them put together campaigns they were interested in getting involved in.

They will all have their own stories to tell about home, background, school, and they will likely all have reasons as to why school did not work for them. But I left their company quite excited and inspired by their potential, and a bit angry that despite the undoubted improvements we made since 1997, there are so many bright kids seeing their potential go to waste.

The experiment is due to run for a month, and I will popping in and out, so more later …

  • @mikeriddell62

    Yes it is understandable that you see the potential in kids, when you get up close to them. they all have their stories to bear – and so many have had life-changing experiences at such an early age – haven’t they? This is why they’re hardened. But under the crust on the outside, is a tender delicate soul on the inside. it just needs connecting with – to be listened to.

    And unfortunately our (education) system prevents that from happening. Teachers really are another brick in the wall – take another look at Pink Floyds video The Wall:
    feature=fvst if you need convincing that this is the wall that keeps the rich rich, and the poor poor.

    We need a new system that supports the existing one. One that educates kids about themselves. One that coaches them not to feel as though they’re at fault for the way they feel or what they are, and to a large degree to WHAT THEY DO. One that encourages them to tell their story which in so doing validates others to feel more confident about sharing their own tales of despair and destruction, heartbreak and sadness. We don’t know how lucky we are, do we?

    “A child is born with no state of mind, blind to the ways of mankind…”

    Time we valued EQ as much as the current system values IQ.


  • Mal Hunte

    The tragedy is that Osborne is the one who will have all the say over the decisions affecting their futures. And if they don’t even know who he is how can they argue against him?

  • Shelley Kingman

    Saw you doing that programme on public speaking a while ago. You were brilliant with the kids, so if you apply the same approach you will be fine, no matter how challenging they are

  • Paul Hillman

    There is no doubt schools are better, but there are still too many kids who have no chance by the time they get there. I do fear however that the coalition only care about those who are successful already, not the ones who will need full on learning to make the most of themselves.

  • alienfromzog

    A few years ago the NSPCC ran a poster with a picture of a ‘difficult’ child and the caption “This child needs a jolly good listening to.” Spot on in my view. I have met many kids who aren’t maladjusted – they’re very well adjusted to the cirucmstances they find them in. Of course there is personal responsibility and most will take it when someone, anyone believes in them.

    I am now 32, my current income is about two and half times the UK median income, so I guess I should be a Tory. But I know where I have come from. I went to a school with a poor reputation, but in truth it was a really good state school that did really well with what they had. ‘Failing schools’ says so much more about the social cirumstances than the school. Programs like Surestart are so important. Having parents in Employment is so important, nursery places so single parents can work… I could go on and on.

    I am very concerned that by pandering to their base of so-called middle England, the Tories will abandon these kids.

    Politics is important because these are the real issues that affect real people’s lives.

  • Sarah-dodds

    Well done from a fellow teaching professional!
    One of the crucial ways to motivate these kids is by having more men in the teaching profession. Teaching at primary level is way too much of a woman’s world, and many boys are turned off by the end of KS1, and sadly we never get them back. Maybe you should re-train….
    The main problem with reaching kids from a teachers point of view is the sheer numbers of kids in a class. Thirty is better than the thirty five I started off with when I graduated in ’96, but nowhere near the optimum of under 25. Individual teaching and attention is impossible, believe me I’ve tried it. We try our utmost, we really bloody well do, but there is a snow balls chance in hell of us reaching the children who really need that help.
    Which brings me nicely on to one of the best schemes that Labour developed, 1-1 tuition. Last year I started teaching under this scheme, designed to reach the kids who do not have special needs, but are falling below average. The idea is that with a bit of a boost ( 10 weeks in Numeracy or LIteracy, one on one with a qualified teacher ) they should be able to reach the “average” and either mantain the improvement or exceed it. I have had the total honour of working within this scheme and seeing these kids flourish – some of the results have been good, some have been outstanding. But the scheme has had better results than just better SATS levels. That level of individual tuition has allowed these kids to flourish emotionally, led to diagnosis of previously unknown special educational needs, and sadly highlighted (again previously unknown) child protection issues.
    The reason for highlighting this here? The scheme is only in it’s second full year, and talk is that it is already going to be scrapped by the coalition. Forget your Acadamies, Free Schools and associated Tory blah, blah, blah.
    You can even forget your Pupil Premium. Because the coalition needed to do nothing, apart from carry on with this programme and see if the long term results warrant continuing with it. But we can’t have the Government actually agreeing with something Labour did now can we??
    Now that the scheme is up and running, it costs just £338 per child in teaching costs and admin for the school. That is for an teaching opportunity that has the chance to change a life forever.
    Tragedy is, we may never get to know just how good this scheme could have been in the long term. It goes without saying that this kind of individual tuition is out of the question on the private market for the children it is most designed to reach within our schools.
    And if anyone can give me a new job I’d be most grateful……. most individual tutors round here have sold themsleves to the devil and privately tutor for the 11+….but it’s OK if you are a family that can afford it I guess.

  • Julie

    Teaching in what I think you (or Fiona) once referred to as a ‘bog standard’ comprehensive, I love it when non-teachers get the chance to experience the excitement of being in a classroom with young people, leading them to the ‘light-bulb’ moment. It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.

    I agree with Sarah on the value of 1-1 teaching – it has had startling results in my school. ‘Challenging’ students and those with special educational needs are well provided for in my school; Gifted and Talented students are challenged in the classroom and have a wide programme of extra curricular activities which are provided by dedicated teachers in their own time. But it is the quiet kids who fall behind, the ones who do everything they are supposed to do but who are neither at the top nor at the bottom. They fall behind because, with 29 other kids in the class, I often don’t have time to sit and explain something in detail. Often, this is all it would take – me sitting there for 5 mins going over a homework activity or clarifying instructions for a speaking and listening task. 1-1 has benefited both children and staff alike. Children have not only grown in ability, but also in confidence and have become more effective participators in the classroom which allows them to take control of their own learning. The feedback from staff is positive as they have enjoyed the personal element of teaching 1-1 and the satisfaction of seeing the results in improved standards of work. A win-win situation I’d say. Tragically, it is about to be scrapped. How typical of the Tories to give no credit to Labour for anything – you’d think the deficit had been spent on a new wardrobe, a family sized car and two weeks in Marbella for every member of the Labour party the way they bang on. And as for this constant demand for an apology – I never heard anyone in the Labour party asking the Tories for an apology in 1997 for annihilating British industry, leaving every major city looking like a wasteland, destroying communities, investing nothing in education or health and for leaving the country with the highest levels of unemployment ever.

    Rant over – sorry, got carried away and went a bit off topic.

  • Teresa

    My youngest son isn’t quite as academic as my other children he’s always been more in to sport, he was also born late July, and I’ve always wondered in going to school that much younger if it made any difference, but I suppose it just depends on the individual. My son did the 10 weeks in Literacy last year, he enjoyed it and it did make a difference to his work, this year he will be doing Numeracy. It breaks my heart to think the Government may just take this away, something that means so much and does make a difference.

  • Quinney

    Ally, at one time these kids who didn’t do so well academically would have gone into manual trades like I did. Kids like these need father figures in jobs as well as at home. The decline in manufacturing has left a hole that hasn’t been filled. We need a manufacturing strategy, to invest in winners like the US, Japanese and Germans do and we need to get genuine apprenticeships back.

  • Sarah-dodds

    Teresa – I think the summer birthday thing makes of a massive difference, especially to boys. I used to teach reception, and I strongly believe that we start formal schooling way to soon here. Many boys just are not ready, and I’ve often wondered whether if it was girls who were struggling whether it would be an equal opportunities issue that would have been resolved by now. I’d advocate a two year foundation phase, which would allow those kids who are ready to move on the freedom to do so, whilst giving the other ones time to mature. It would mean that they would move up to year one on a much more even footing.
    As for the 1-1 tuition, after writing all that blurp yesterday, I have since found out that the situation is a little different. Some money will be available for it, but it will be at the descretion of the head. The money will no longer be ring fenced. I guess what happens to the scheme will depend on how good or bad the final overall settlements for the schools are. I can’t see heads carrying on with the 1-1 if they don’t have enough money to keep their existing staff together, so I will have to wait and see. But if your son still needs more tuition Teresa, make sure you tell this to the Head – as I say, some money should be available.

  • Sarah-dodds

    Julie – have since found out that 1-1 funding won’t be scrapped entirely, but just not ring fenced. It will be up to the heads to decide how to spend this little pot of gold. But you and I both know that this will depend on the overall settlement that schools recieve for 2011-12. I’m guessing that not ring fencing may be the same as scrapping in the long run. It goes without saying that where it has worked, teachers and parents need to be very vocal to their management teams about keeping it.

  • guardianreaderheehee

    what chairy was it? sounds like a fantastic idea

  • Teresa

    Thanks Sarah 🙂