One of the lovely things about reading lots of teacher blogs is that it stimulates my mind and gets me thinking about particular issues or ideas. Often, having pondered these thoughts, I am minded to put them into writing here, on my own blog. And thus, I am able to join in that conversation of mankind that Martin Robinson so memorably talked about at ResearchEd Rugby last month.
One such blog that has got me thinking is this one, by David Didau, about changing school culture. In it, he discusses the importance of social norms and how transforming a school’s culture would involve communicating normative messages to a critical mass of influential students. My question, then, was how do we go about changing the social norms and getting those influential students on board with our new culture? I asked this particularly in light of my experience last year working in a school with very challenging behaviour, where students did not seem to have a positive attitude towards learning, at least not of the academic type.
In this school, I had identified a certain number of students who were popular and whom other students looked up to – that critical mass Didau was talking about. They were not studious or particularly well behaved. In fact, what marked them out was their sassy, ‘no one gets the better of me’ kind of attitude. In lessons with NQTs, they would make mincemeat out of the inexperienced teachers. With the veteran teachers, there was a wary type of respect which ensured a calmer environment but didn’t translate into significant academic achievement nor a love of learning. If we wanted to change the culture in this school, then we would have to tackle the attitude of these influential students. Excluding them, as has been suggested, would not be the solution, not least because these students were savvy enough not to cross the line into exclusion territory. What then, could change their attitude?
One policy adopted, consciously or not, by the school, was to employ a significant number of teaching staff from the same cultural/social backgrounds. These teachers or LSAs had grown up in similar areas and could speak in a more authentic voice than say, someone like me. From these helpful staff members, I learned that the word ‘banter’ has a totally different meaning to the one I’ve always understood. To a certain extent, this strategy (if it was indeed a strategy) has worked. Those staff members were able to communicate with the students in a way I could never quite manage. In fact, my posh accent was so alien to the students that, on my first day, several of them asked me if I was from America. I would have been uncomfortable if a predominantly black working class intake of students was taught by a predominantly white middle class set of teachers. So yes, it was a good thing that the teachers were anything but predominantly white and middle class. The hope was, that they would then inspire the students to turn their lives around, leave behind the gangs and aim for university or some respectable profession. In practice, I’m not so sure this was how it worked.
It’s one thing to be able to be ‘authentic’ with students and quite another to convey to them a love of learning. Here is where school culture matters. I remember vividly two conversations I had with some of the students. One boy in year 10, who had a tendency to swear and say very inappropriate things, and who got sent out of lessons fairly regularly, once decided to engage me in conversation and asked me if I had any children. I answered yes, I had an 8-year old boy. He then asked me if I was going to put my boy in this school. I hesitated for a moment and that was enough for him to respond, ‘no, of course you wouldn’t, it’s too rough here’. I shook my head and said, ‘that’s not it at all’ and tried to get him back on task. I was a bit disconcerted though. He quite easily could read in my hesitation the truth that I didn’t want my son to go to this school. But I don’t think he understood why. To him, it was obvious that people like me didn’t mix with people like him. To me, the issue was more about the learning. Would my son be able to learn and stretch himself academically here? I had not been there long before the answer to that question was a resounding no, and not because of the students’ social background, but because of the curriculum, the teaching and the culture which did not value cleverness or even the slight nerdy tendencies in my family. As an aside, Michaela school in Wembley, which I visited earlier this year, has students from a similar socio-ethnic background and I would have few qualms about sending my son there – if we lived in that catchment – because the culture there is one of aspiration and learning.
Another memorable conversation was with a boy, also in year 10, who was from a very troubled background and whose behaviour was quite erratic. On this occasion, he had been sent out of the class by the teacher to complete a written task with me. It was quickly obvious that he had no intention of doing much work, so I asked him, conversationally, why he didn’t want to put any effort into his GCSEs, especially given that he was bright and could achieve good results if he put his mind to it. He answered categorically that university was not for him, that he had decided to go back to Poland and be a forest ranger, so there was no point in getting an education.
These two conversations were only a flavour of the impression I got from many students, that studying was pointless and academic education was not for the likes of them. On the many occasions where I exhorted them to put some effort into their work or to simply listen to the teacher so that they could learn, I would be met with blank stares. ‘What’s the point of doing maths’, one of them said, ‘I want to be a singer when I grow up’. The popular TV shows such as Britain’s got talent or the X-factor have communicated a message that big life changes can be achieved through ‘talent’ not through school work.
So, going back to Didau’s article about changing school cultures, this is what was forefront of my mind when I asked the question, how do we get the influential students to accept new social norms? If I had the answers, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here, asking the question. I suspect the solution is multi-pronged, and that there is no one single answer. My one possible suggestion would be to broaden the curriculum and make schools genuine places of learning. It does not help to have teachers with poor subject knowledge nor to teach to the test, narrowing the curriculum solely to what the students will encounter in their GCSEs.