Don’t forget common humanity when urging pupils to do well at school – achievement shouldn’t be at any price.

Janet Downs's picture
I’ve spent the last three Sunday nights watching Remember Me, a modern-day spooky tale set near Scarborough. I was gripped although the Telegraph judged the final episode a ‘damp squib’.

I’m not going to write a review. I want to talk about Hannah, the young heroine terrified her young brother will become the next victim of a malign ghost. Hannah should have gone to university but threw it up to take a job in a nursing home. Why? Because if she’d left then her brother would have been taken into care – their mother was depressed and incapable.

But if Hannah had told the head praised in the Telegraph her reasons for dropping-out he would have said, ‘And?’

This, according to the article’s writer, Martin Stephen, former High Master of St Paul’s School, was the correct response. A child’s circumstances, he maintains, should never come between the pupil and school work. This was making excuses. Problems should be left at the school door.

Such an attitude is not only unrealistic it is inhumane. Dad has gone and left Mum with a pile of bills. No problem. Mum’s seriously ill and the child’s the only carer. So what? Dad hits the bottle and the kids as well. Forget it. Mum’s addicted to prescription drugs and sells the children’s belongings to finance her habit. And? Child is receiving threatening texts and being coerced into sending explicit photos. Ignore it.

These problems can affect any child, whether advantaged or disadvantaged. They are worsened if combined with poverty. They steal a child’s attention. Saying this is not making excuses.

Reviewing the book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much for The Times*, Daniel Finkelstein summarised the book’s message thus:

‘Essentially the point made by Scarcity is a very simple one…If we concentrate on one thing, other things suffer.’

If you meet an acute difficulty, such as running out of money, then your attention is focused on coping with the problem. This, Finkelstein explains, reduces your capacity to do other things well. Thus, someone with little money will give scant attention to the consequences, say, of eating food which is tempting but has little nutritional value (Baroness Jenkin please note).

This can equally apply to children. Having to face problems of the kind listed above and worsened by poverty reduces a child’s capacity to concentrate on other things. That’s not to say schools are helpless – breakfast clubs, homework sessions, a safe and warm place, a sympathetic ear help all children not just the disadvantaged. But there’s a limit to what schools can achieve when faced with children preoccupied with problems.

Telling children they must forget their worries, however serious, doesn’t make the problems disappear. To pretend they are of lesser importance than doing school work is to forget that life is more than five magical GCSEs or going to university. It also denies troubled children sympathy and support.

Today came news that more children than ever were self-harming. Stress at school was one explanation together with bullying and sexual pressure. Telling children to ignore problems diminishes the child, breeds resentment or helplessness, and drives problems underground.

No humane teacher should say, ‘And?’ when a child reveals problems. To make light of difficulties which would break many an adult is callous. And no politician, journalist or pundit should expect teachers to do so.

*I can provide no link but the review was in a Saturday edition of The Times probably published in about September 2013.
Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Phil Taylor's picture
Fri, 12/12/2014 - 17:13

I agree with you Janet.

But why should we expect an understanding of the problems many children face and the effect on their achievement from a person with his background?

Common humanity is, of course, another matter.

Brian's picture
Fri, 12/12/2014 - 20:02

I'm reminded of a conversation noted by Jonathan Kozol in his book 'Death at an Early Age'

Working with a class of deprived ghetto black children in Boston in the 60's he describes the enthusiasm with which he delivered a lesson about insects and in which he asked the question :

'How many legs does a grasshopper have?'

The response:

'Man, I sure wish I had your problems.'

John Wadsworth's picture
Sat, 13/12/2014 - 13:34

Reminds me of the HMI who told the Headteacher of a school where I'm a governor that "mental health issues are no excuse for underachievement." What planet do these people live on!

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 13/12/2014 - 14:19

John - I suspect it's a planet where human feelings are suppressed in the relentless pursuit of results. Worse, they're not just suppressed, they aren't valued. They're seen as emotional, wishy-washy responses showing a lack of back bone. It's where success is the ultimate goal and those who don't succeed are viewed as lacking 'aspiration', 'grit', 'character' etc.

A planet where some people (overwhelmingly advantaged) think if schools taught these things, then disadvantage could be eradicated. But it's difficult to instill aspiration into young people like fictional Hannah whose responsibility for family members overrides personal ambition. It's difficult to teach 'grit' to someone living in a family burdened with poverty, poor health or debt (especially when the one extolling the benefits of 'grit' is comfortably-off and says to the poor, 'Let them eat porridge'). And 'character' is developed from within not imposed from without.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 16/12/2014 - 19:38

Janet - Pupils can be presented with all sorts of barriers to effective learning. You mention significant distractions that can arise through poverty, deprivation, abuse and bad parenting. Consider any pupil sitting in a lesson with or without such disadvantages that just doesn't 'get' what the teacher is trying to communicate. Philip Adey and Michael Shayer were both Chemistry teachers and this is the issue that they have successfully confronted.

All of quantitative chemistry requires an understanding of the mole concept. This links chemical equations to masses and volumes of the elements and compounds that are the players in chemical equations.

Here goes with a really simple example.

2 molecules of hydrogen combine with 1 molecule of oxygen to create two molecules of water

How do you know how many grams of hydrogen and oxygen you need to create a given number of grams of water? If you want to ask the question in terms of volumes rather than masses (of steam) there is an added complication. Clearly you have to know the relative masses of hydrogen and oxygen atoms, that hydrogen and oxygen molecules each contain 2 atoms and that a water molecule contains 2 hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom.

Is this enough information to solve such a problem? Yes, but only if you understand the mole concept. If you do, then not only can you solve simple problems like this one but you can solve any such problem involving any chemical reaction, however complicated.

The point I am trying to make is that the distractions you mention do not prevent a child from understanding the mole concept. Furthermore, taking away the distractions caused by deprivation will not help a pupil that does not understand the mole concept to gain such an understanding and therefore to gain access to the whole of quantitative chemistry.

Understanding the mole concept is a 'Eureka Moment' for every student of science. It is like riding a bike. Once you can do it, it is hard to imagine ever not being able to do it. If you believe Piaget was right, as I do, then as a teacher you will know that pupils that have not passed over the Concrete to Formal cognitive hurdle will not be able to understand the mole concept regardless of how hard they try, how rich their parents are, the height and power of their aspirations or the skill of the teacher. Or perhaps if they are really turned on by chemistry, their mental efforts to solve these sorts of chemistry problems may indeed take them over the cognitive hurdle. They will then be able to solve similarly hard problems in maths, physics, English literature and history that pupils still at the concrete stage will not be able to do.

What has this got to do with this post? I am trying to make the point that that the distractions of deprivation are only significant if they hinder the developmental teaching and learning that leads students up to and over the concrete to formal cognitive hurdle. Of course such deprivation may indeed have this result, but it is not inevitable, any more than removing the deprivation will inevitably boost understanding of the mole concept.

The link between social deprivation and learning is much more complex than that. The right kind of developmental learning can bring about enhanced understanding regardless of the degree of deprivation. Removing social inequality cannot on its own achieve this result.

Andy V's picture
Wed, 17/12/2014 - 11:55

On first reading I agree that the anecdote creates an awful impression of that particular HMI. However, after that instant response and allowing a calmer approach to take hold, there are other important strands that are missing and these become obstacles to reaching a conclusion/judgement about the HMI. that is to say, the context of the comment is critical e.g.:

Was it about an individual pupil?

Was it about 'mental health issues' in general or specific terms?

Was it about pupils at the school known to be suffering mental health issues and supported by an appropriate diagnosis by a qualified professional?

Was the HMI speaking for themselves or conveying an official Ofsted perspective?

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.