Are we returning to the days when "Ragged Schools" were needed?

Francis Gilbert's picture
I visited the Ragged School Museum in Stepney the other day and it made me think about the direction that education and public policy is generally heading at the moment in England. The museum is situated on the site where Thomas Barnardo ran a school for poor children in the Victorian era; many children attended simply to get fed -- the school offered free school meals. If you feel romantic about English society a hundred years ago, you'll quickly lose your nostalgia visiting this museum; the poverty in the east end of London was chronic with infant mortality being very high and illiteracy the norm. I was shown a picture of a mother who had fourteen children, twelve of whom died before their tenth birthdays.

Obviously, the East End now is very different but you can already see that the social policies of this government are heading back towards a more 'Victorian' environment: welfare is being cut back, legal aid is being drastically curtailed, unemployment is rising and much more elitist education policies are being pursued; it feels like this government is only interested in helping the "academic" pupils with other pupils being left behind. But I suppose what strikes me is that education policies exist within the wider context of other social policies where the poor are being demonised in the way that they were in the Victorian era.



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Ben Taylor's picture
Thu, 19/04/2012 - 20:01

Francis it's genuinely odd that you want to say that the poor are being demonised with regard to education policy. We have free schools being established in poor areas such as Bradford, Blackburn and University Technical Colleges in areas like Hackney, Burnley and Newcastle. I suppose it depends on whether you see a UTC as "academic" or elitist - it's supposed to be both vocational and academic in a new mould.

We have financial support to schools to take the poorest children through the pupil premium.

There is no policy to create unemployment, it is a consequence of cock up under the last government.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 19/04/2012 - 20:19

Ben do you remember what it was like to be poor under the last Tory government - when they were offering their voters subsidies to get them out of the local comps into private schools? Tell me in details about what happened to the kids who were left behind. Then you'll know what will happen to the kids who are left behind by the Free Schools policy and you'll have some insight into why the Tories were so utterly and completely despised.

I've written about it on another thread tonight in this forum if you don't know yourself.

Ben Taylor's picture
Thu, 19/04/2012 - 20:50

Do you mean the assisted places scheme? Well I was lucky to go to a state grammar school with a lot of working class friends during that period. My friends in secondary moderns were looked after very well by teachers who always wanted to get them in to the grammar sixth form, local further ed colleges or a job. Maybe if the inner cities had kept academic schooling there wouldn't have been flight to the shires and our free schools, UTCs and academy converters are good bets against the institutional poverty achievement and fetish of Labour governments.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 19/04/2012 - 21:20

Not many area had secondary moderns where all the students were guided towards grammar sixth forms in the 1980s Ben. Whereabouts was this then?

Gemma's picture
Fri, 20/04/2012 - 07:52

We have a system now where if your parents have the money, and the will, they will flee from underperforming schools. How well you do at school is almost entirely dependent on your parents' economic status.

You are right Francis, the system stinks.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 20/04/2012 - 09:10

Actually, Gemma, the research shows that how well you do academically in school relates much more closely to your parents level of education than to how much money they've got (subject to a level of influence of the personality of the child).

Sometimes that gets concealed because people who are more educated are likely to have higher incomes so it's a useful thing to tease out.

Gemma's picture
Fri, 20/04/2012 - 15:49

You appear to be wrong.

But even if you were right the system that keeps bright kids down because their parents didn't do well at school would stink as well.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Fri, 20/04/2012 - 08:35

Although you haven't said it straight out, you do seem to be implying that children from low-income families are not suited to an academic education. Why would you think that? Has Eugenics made a comeback or something?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 20/04/2012 - 09:06

Some children from low-income families are suited for an academic education and it is essential they get the opportunity to pursue one. I'm sure you're not suggesting that I don't believe that and put my life and my energy into it Ricky...

However for the majority, after 12-14 years of education employment is the best next step into the adult word - with the hope that they will pursue further qualifications as and when appropriate during their adult life. Being in education keeps them young and immature. I've often taken tutor groups through years 10 and 11. They're usually pretty horrible places to be at the beginning of year 10 - bitchy, immature, often just generally nasty. In year 11 everything changes and it is not because they've reached a particular age, it's because they're growing up because they are realising they are going to have to take responsibility for their own destinies soon. The vocational GCSEs they study are so important in this process. Despite all teachers' efforts and nagging, cajoling and explaining why their GCSEs matter it's through their exposure to real world opportunities, possibilities, pressures and role models that things really come into focus.

In a good secondary in a challenging area Ricky, typically students will make key decisions regarding options at the end of year 9. Some will choose the traditional academic GCSE route, others will choose a very similar route with a vocational GCSE. These routes could both lead to university but students with a chance of going to a top university will be guided towards the correct academic subjects.

In addition to that some children will take a college route, where they spend a lot of time working on a vocational subject designed to get them in to employment. These are the children who will not manage their 5 c+ inc maths&eng.

You may have an outdoor ed route if your lucky which is designed to get the kids who need to be really physically active out of the classrooms where they go mental - to help them develop manual skills and to give the rest of the kids a chance to learn.

And you're also likely to have and SEN route - focusing on preparing children with little chance of competitive employment for the world which awaits them.

This is not Eugenics Ricky. These kids are 14. They are nearly grown up. They need to prepare for their futures. What's so wrong with that?

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Fri, 20/04/2012 - 09:52

I wasn't addressing my remarks to you, Rebecca.

As you'll see, I didn't use the reply button, but started a fresh comment in response to the Francis's OP.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Fri, 20/04/2012 - 10:19

However, since you have replied to my comment, Rebecca, perhaps I can reply to yours:

Some children from low-income families are suited for an academic education ...

Well, wow that's big of you. Only "some", mind, not 'lots' or 'many'. It seems that you haven't entirely shaken off that eugenics mindset that says poor = thick (actually I think the word they used was 'imbecilic'). Let's substitute Black for poor and see how comfortable you'd be saying: "Some Black children are suited for an academic education..."? Too close to the borderline, I'd say.

..However for the majority, after 12-14 years of education employment is the best next step into the adult word – ...

Thanks to patronizing people in Education, yes it is still the reality that only 30-something% of boys and 40-something% of girls go on to university in this country.

In Finland, 80% of women and something around 63% overall go to university. Countries like Slovakia, Poland, Iceland Ireland aren't far behind. Why is the graduation rate in the UK below the OECD average?

I hardly need to ask. Your comment above encapsulates the poverty of aspiration prevalent among so many teachers and educationalists. I'm not sure as a country we can afford to indulge this negativity any longer.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 20/04/2012 - 09:55

I wasn't taking offence Ricky.
I am addressing my remarks to you because they are relevant to your question.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 20/04/2012 - 10:34


You're welcome to talk to me Ricky.

Please could you reassure me you understand the challenges of educating big classes of kids from seriously disfunctional families, where they have no role models, where they're self esteem is squeezed out of them soon after birth by abuse and neglect passed on through generations.

Do you know what it's like to try and teach the child who's been up all night again because big bro was high and kicked all their doors off their hinges again and the police were out at 1am and at 3am?

Do you know how hard it is to cope with the kids who are detoxing on Mondays and the year 11s who you know will assault another kid lesson 3 if they don't get their morning fag? Do you know the skills involved in diagnosing the various medical issues preventing kids from learning in cases where the families don't notice?

Do you properly understand what the ravages of adolescence do to some children?

Do you know what it's like to teach classes of 16-years-olds with ASBOs and convictions for ABH who you've been told have to get Bs at GCSE or the school will go into special measures? Do you know how much harder that becomes when the inspectors descend and another head is forced off with stress (well if they were capable of being forced off with stress they deserved to go -didn't they, is the Ofsted logic) and you have no back-up when the assaults start because the senior staff are gone and the promised replacement superhead is a figment of some out-of-touch politician's imagination.

Do you know what it's like when you've got a class like that and you manage to get a TA, but that TA turns up green and shaking from a lesson where a kid you're about to teach chucked a chisel at the head of a haemophiliac teacher and you both know there's nobody to do anything about it?

Isn't there anything, whatsoever, inside you that might even slightly make you aware that if the teachers in that school get the kids in that class out into adult life with relevant qualifications and straight into a job, they've actually done quite a good job?

Nothing? nothing at all?

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Fri, 20/04/2012 - 10:56


On your last point:

Any teachers who have allowed behaviour to descend to the depths you describe should be fired and prevented from teaching anywhere else again. Ever. (Head, SMT and anyone else complicit).

On the other points:

Yes, I do know.

But are you seriously arguing that:

* Finnish kids are untroubled by hormones during puberty/adolescence?

* Polish kids never have drunken Dads?

* Family breakdown is unknown in the Czech Republic?

* Irish kids don't smoke in Y 11?

* There is no poverty in Slovakia?

If that's not what you're arguing, could you please explain why it is standard practice for so many teachers in this country to use universal social challenges as excuses for their own particular failures?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 20/04/2012 - 11:06

Ricky you've totally missed my point. This behavior happens when key people in a school are missing - not there. To prevent seriously bad behaviour in schools with very challenging catchments you need a chain of referral. The classroom teacher can't do it all on their own, it needs to a team operation. And schools set up appropriate systems and Ofsted come in and cause them to be shut down and key member of staff to disappear.

It happens for other reasons too but the staff who are left and who are continuing to take it full force and are carrying on and generating good results for any child who will in any way cooperate ARE NOT THE PROBLEM. They are the ones who were never labelled as being failing teacher by anyone.

Please, please, please in some remote way get in touch with the real world Ricky.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 20/04/2012 - 11:12

"If that’s not what you’re arguing, could you please explain why it is standard practice for so many teachers in this country to use universal social challenges as excuses for their own particular failures?"

I'm not linking this to failure. You are. I've worked through these situations and have generated results well in excess of FFTDs. You think that's failure. Nobody else does. Not even the kids who were the cause of the problem when I bump into them out on the razz down town. Come and see. I'll take you out drinking and you can talk to them for youself about what it was like. In a world where nobody else gave a toss about them we, the teachers, did. Again and again and again, no matter how horrible they were. They know that and they remember that and they value it. And those who were lovely and were affected by the behaviour we couldn't always prevent understand too. Because they live in the real world and they knew why those kids were as they were. Despite their problems they were their friends.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Fri, 20/04/2012 - 11:37


I’ve worked through these situations and have generated results well in excess of FFTDs. You think that’s failure. Nobody else does.

An interesting post by Warwick Mansell on that point:

I’ve had contact from a teacher and, separately, a parent, who both have made the interesting observation that FFT data can actually act to demotivate children.

The teacher said that she teaches in a school where many children are from poorer backgrounds and arrive with low predictions under the Fischer Family Trust’s “D” indicator – often F or G grades at GCSE.

The teacher adds: “Firstly, I don’t have to do much to meet my targets for these groups of children and wonder if FFT data therefore helps to maintain the status quo – ie we are not expected to achieve much with the most socially deprived pupils we teach. Secondly, my experience shows that pupils at this end of the spectrum often have far more ability than is predicted by FFT. In my first year of using FFT data, a pupil predicted grade F achieved grade B and pupils have regularly exceeded targets in these groups – quite often pupils achieve two or three grades higher than predictions. This tells me that poverty is not necessarily correlated with ability and we do pupils a disservice if we use data based on this assumption..

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 20/04/2012 - 11:49

In the kind of circumstances I've described some children will fail to achieve their targets because they are failing to function at the time those targets are measured. Overachieving with others is essential to balance that out.

I use the targets to work out how many students should achieve in excess of each level or grade. If, at the end of the day, that's achieved then I focus my energy more on the holistic educational experience of the children - working on their enthusiasm for learning and their preparedness for the particular journeys into their world they are going to take.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Fri, 20/04/2012 - 12:17

I focus my energy more on the holistic educational experience of the children – working on their enthusiasm for learning and their preparedness for the particular journeys into their world they are going to take.

Why don't you just stick to making them smarter at Maths?

And what's your line on other varieties of snake oil - Brain Gym, Learning Styles....etc. ?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 20/04/2012 - 13:43

So I might show them some YouTubes about the current developments in maths research like String theory/M-Thoery and we may watch Flatland the Movie to get a feel for its implications. Or we may do a practical project like evaluating the costs associated with emergency projects. Or we may look at some rich tasks where nobody quite knows, including me, what the outcomes of our investigations will be. Or MathLab stuff. Something to create maths lessons which are really contemporary, engaging and exciting.

If the kids are into art we may do more on fractals or consider 'Mobius transformations revealed' (see the YouTube). I like looking at hard stuff or real life stuff with them that nobody quite understand and then linking it back to their core curriculum. It makes it more relevant and interesting for them and it creates firmer foundations for future study.

It's a problem that students overreach themselves to get their final grades - focusing only on the test not the subject. So I try to flesh it out a bit and connect it up so they will remember it better in the future.

A local school is looking for a head of maths to help them get their level 4 primary leavers up to Bs instead of Cs because Ofsted are demanding an extra level of progress now. This is not what teaching or life is about. Other heads of maths are saying the same and voting with their feet. I was never in it for the money - I was in it for the love of it - the love of making kids confident and happy in maths. That's not allowed now so I'm out. And yes I do feel guilty, because those kids need good heads of maths. But I can't face special measures again - it was too horrific.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Fri, 20/04/2012 - 14:18

There's a general point to be made that too often education policies are seen in isolation and not put properly in their context: cuts to legal aid, to housing benefit, to other benefits, the constant demonisation of children/parents from deprived backgrounds that we see in the media have all led to an atmosphere that is very 'Victorian'. You can see looking back at the late 19th century/early 20th century very similar forces at work.

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