By CivilServiceWorld

28 Mar 2012

An inner-city school struggles to juggle the demands of disadvantaged pupils and national attainment targets

“I’m an English teacher at an inner-city secondary school. Many of the children here have much lower than average abilities, behavioural issues and challenging backgrounds. I came here over ten years ago, as I wanted to work in a school where I could really make a difference.
Our school is one of the smallest in the area but we have double the average proportion of children who access counselling. There are no end of emotional problems, they’re under-nourished, and there is lots of immaturity. There is also a general disregard for education, so one of our main jobs is to get the kids enthusiastic about learning. They just can’t see the benefits.

Our main problem is that there are lots of targets but no practical ways for us to achieve them, so they end up being more of a hindrance than a help. For example, the national strategy has a target that 35 per cent of students should get five GCSE grades A to C, including in English and Maths. The idea is that schools get judged against each other, and those that under-perform face the dreaded Ofsted.

However, with such low literacy levels upon entry, we spend all our time working to get the grades rather than teaching the kids what they need to learn, such as the benefit of being able to read and write competently in the big wide world. In addition, because meeting the targets seems so unachievable, staff get frustrated and switch off. Morale is at an all-time low.
The 35 per cent means nothing to me. It’s as if someone has just plucked it out of the air. Targets are important because they give you something to work towards, but they have to be achievable. We reached 28 per cent, which was really good for us. But surely schools in leafy suburban areas, with middle class families that care about education, should be achieving 80 per cent? The way we’re compared with schools like this feels unfair.

Indeed, we are slowly moving towards a system of judging against progress, which is better – so we’ll be measured on how we improve children’s performance rather than simply on how our test scores compare with those of other schools. It’s more about how much progress individual pupils make, which definitely feels fairer than having to achieve some random figure.
The other main issue for me is that government is full of new initiatives but they don’t last more than five minutes. It’s one push after another, every academic year. A good teacher will pick and choose the best of these initiatives. For example, we’re supposed to introduce learning objectives at the start of every class so we and the children can measure what they have learnt. But if you’re not careful this can become artificial, a token gesture, and you lose sight of what you want pupils to learn. Good teaching is about knowing the children and what will work for them.

Another new facet of education is safeguarding. Parental support for either pupils or teachers at our school is negligible, and parents are often aggressive towards staff. But this isn’t just about staff; it’s about making sure our pupils are safe, too. We all have to be trained in child protection, and there are very strict rules about disclosure: every little hint that a child may be at risk has to be reported, no matter how small.

However, our students sometimes take advantage of this. They like a bit of drama, they think they’re on the Jeremy Kyle Show, and they know what to say to get your attention. This sounds like I’m anti-safeguarding, which I’m not. The risk, though, is that teachers get bogged down with paperwork. While we hear a lot about reducing bureaucracy, there are still an awful lot of forms to fill in.

I’m lucky because I have a head who is very understanding and approachable. But I do feel that heads have been disempowered. We’ve got falling numbers, so we can’t tell parents to take their children to a different school: we have to take those children who’ve failed elsewhere. We do get funding to support us, which has paid for teaching assistants and equipment, and we can turn these children around. But a lot of the time the need to accept all applicants adds more disaffected kids to the cohort, which doesn’t make our job any easier.

I love my job and my school, and I have no intention of going elsewhere. When I joined the school 11 years ago, I couldn’t get the children in the classroom, they wouldn’t take their coats off, and they didn’t have bags or pens. I used to go home and cry every night.

Now, though, the children listen to me. I’ve made progress by making lessons engaging and having a joke with the kids. When you teach a good lesson and you know they get it, or you read a piece of work and you can see how someone’s improved, that’s when you sleep well.” ?

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