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Violent lessons

What’s holding young people back? The widening gap: violence, language difficulties and lack of resources in inner city London schools.
Emilia Chodorowska
17 October 2010

What’s holding young people back?

After working on a teacher training scheme Emilia Chodorowska looks at the violence, language difficulties and lack of resources in an inner city London school.

Are the new government plans for increasing the number of academies going to result in a widening gap between the high achieving schools and those with a high intake of children from disadvantaged backgrounds?

Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, has often stated that he has looked to the Swedish Education system and to the charter schools in the United States for inspiration. Writing in the Independent, Professor Alan Smithers of the University of Buckinhgham has warned however that these charter schools ‘tended to attract the better pupils, leaving other schools worse off. They have also tended to take fewer pupils with special needs.’ After witnessing the conditions in an inner city London school where I was sent on a teacher programme to ‘raise pupils’ aspirations towards higher education’, it seems imperative that schools like the one I worked in, struggling to meet national standards, are not left further behind.

It’s Monday morning, I see a head bashed against the glass, ‘don’t go outside’ said my supervisor, ‘I’ve phoned some of the men to come and deal with it’. No I am not in a warzone, I am in an inner city London secondary school. I have been told to stay in the classroom, to wait for a male member of staff to break up the fight in the corridor. This is one of the many outbreaks of violence on school grounds which has led to a police officer permanently being stationed on site.

I am standing in a class of 28 screaming 13 and 14 year-olds. ‘Year 9, settle down and open your books, now!’ I shout at the top of my voice. I have already tried all the calmer ‘mutually respectful’ tactics they taught us in training. ‘Daniel, why isn’t your book open?’, ‘I haven’t got it miss.’ I fumble through drawers searching for paper whilst simultaneously watching to see if a fight is breaking out between the two boys mouthing off at each other at the back. ‘Have you got a pen miss?’, three voices shout from different directions. Then I realise my classroom- with a torn curtain half covering one of the four windows, all jammed shut, the room with the 1960s carpet covered in chewing gum, the room which so easily could have a lick of paint to stop the walls looking like they have scabies, the room with the broken desk and the ‘interactive white board’ that has smeared ink all over it (because despite its technological capabilities it is not very good for simply writing on with a board marker), the room which doesn’t have enough chairs - does not even have plain lined paper. The cover teacher is standing in the corner reading something, looking unphased. ‘It’s a cover lesson’ she says, ‘don’t expect them to do any work’.

You get surprisingly accustomed to the aggression, but when Sam, a 6ft year 11, swaggers towards me swearing and grabbing his balls, it is difficult to remember I am standing in a school in London and not a youth detention centre. On my first day, passing the canteen, I enquire about school dinners: ‘You don’t want to go in there, trust me’, said the teacher showing me around, ‘that’s where all the stealing, fighting and bullying gets really bad’.

‘I don’t feel like writing miss, I feel bad today’, says Mark from my year 10 class. I sometimes hear students say that to me as a cheeky half-hearted attempt to get out of work, but Mark is a bit different, I know he wants to learn. I was working with him the other day, he seemed calm, polite, softly spoken and when he left the class he muttered ‘Thank you miss… for helping me with my work.’ I mentioned him to my supervisor, ‘Oh yes, really smart…you know he’s tagged.’ I look up at her in surprise. ‘Oh, loads of them are here’ she says, ‘I have to go to court with him next week, he mugged someone again last night’. I couldn’t understand how he seemed so harmless and kind, and yet out of school he is like the youths I avoid in underpasses at night.

The next day, when I learnt about his background, I realised the difficulty of his situation. As Professor Smithers argues, the apparent success of Swedish ‘free schools’, which Michael Gove finds so impressive, is linked to home background. Mark left the Congo when he was ten; his aunt had been looking after him, and suddenly he was sent to the UK. When he arrived in London his father was preoccupied with a new girlfriend, he beat him badly and social services took him away. He went to live with another aunt, who also abused him, so he went back to stay with his father. When he told the school that the violence at home was getting too much, the school informed the authorities. Then they sent the father on a ‘why you shouldn’t beat your children’ course, as my supervisor called it, but when he came back the abuse was even worse than before. Mark is involved in violence in the school corridors, in the streets and at home. It’s a depressing cycle.

Some of these young people feel they have no-one supportive to trust. When trying to sort out a problem, a fight, late work, or just asking if something was wrong, students would often talk about troubling things at home, about bullying, about learning difficulties. There just wasn’t enough time to have the one-to-one chats that were so badly needed. I would pass the messages on to the right people but frequently the problems reported are not dealt with, either due to lack of staff, lack of training, or simple incompetence in the school office.

Students in year 9, 14 year olds, with a reading and writing age of 8, who clearly need a learning difficulties check, would get put on an indefinite waiting list. My supervisor spent a year trying to get one boy tested. He may be one of the young people that leave with no GCSE’s, who have gone through the English school system and still cannot read and write. I remembered a friend of mine who had similar experiences on a teaching scheme…in Cambodia. I had to keep reminding myself that I was not in a developing country but in London.

Many of these children arrive in the UK at an age when they are sent straight in to secondary education but they can barely speak a word of English. Much of my time at the school was spent teaching English as a foreign language to students desperate to understand. I came to help teach literature, not expecting that at secondary level communicating about books would be such a difficulty for so many students because of a language barrier. One Polish boy, Paul, broke down in tears at the end of a Year 8 English class and started talking to me in his mother tongue. I can speak a little conversational Polish so I listened as he explained how he felt scared and isolated. He has lived here three years now but can still understand very little: ‘I should be able to speak by now, shouldn’t I?’ he said despairingly. No-one he sees outside school speaks English, there is no-one to help with homework, he spends hours just working out what tasks he has been asked to do. In Poland, he says, he was one of the best in his class. Now he is facing an identity problem as he explains how he is slowly forgetting his writing skills in Polish, and in English he feels hopeless. He talked about his feelings of depression, about not being able to express himself adequately in any language. He urgently needs some counselling, a mentor, and some more intensive English lessons.

Paul’s situation is deeply troubling. The school was simply not set up to deal with such a high influx of children who speak English as a second language. Teachers have classes of thirty so they cannot spare enough time to go back to basics for the benefit of four or five. Often not enough English support lessons were timetabled into the school programme. It seemed an impossible task for a secondary school, especially one already struggling to meet national standards, to teach primary-level English as well as the full curriculum. In some boroughs, where so many children are requiring basic English, there needs to be some provision made to give pupils enough grounding in the language that they can enter the education system without feeling like they are floundering. Being thrust into an institution which does not have an adequate coping method can be unproductive both academically and psychologically.

Perhaps the most striking thing about being at the school is that it was not all doom and gloom. Quite the opposite, I left with an understanding of why some teachers are addicted to their work, to trying to help. At times, I saw such openness, energy and desire to learn. The same boy who shoved Jake to the ground at break time held the door open for me and said ‘After you, Miss’. That does not excuse the fighting, but maybe young people start to respond differently when they feel they are being listened to or when someone cares. The violence of their ganglands is just one way of groping around for a sense of dignity and meaning. After weeks of talking about how learning to express, articulate and represent themselves in the wider world will gain them respect in the long run, I felt that there was some small change in some students. They asked me more questions about books, which novels I would recommend, and they seemed to try harder with their work. Small victories count; like seeing a year 10 get excited when you tell her a new word she didn’t think existed.

It’s the students that defy probability that stand out as remarkable minds and personalities. Amaya loves English, she wants to go to university and she will. She is predicted two As and a B – if she does the work. In a school where the expected achievement at A-level is two Ds, I was amazed. At the end of a lesson she asked me questions about my university library, what it looked like, what the lectures where like. The excitement in her eyes was startling as she asked me if I had read Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. Yes, I had read the revenge tragedy- at university. Seeing a girl in one of the poorest schools in London passionately engaged in discussing a play which most of my university colleagues have not even read brought a trace of tears to my eyes. ‘They don’t give me enough work Miss, they are too busy trying to make sure the others don’t fail. They think it’s alright ‘cos I have a B, but I know I can get an A, and you need that for the really good uni’s, don’t you?’

Amaya defied her environment, or at least she was trying to. Many students want to learn but they don’t feel empowered, because the odds are stacked against them. The violence in their surroundings, the poor resources, and low targets of their school do not encourage a drive for achievement. The least we can do to give Britain’s youth the best chance to make a good start to their lives, is try to provide the right educational setting. That means making better provisions for students who speak English as a second language, but it can be as simple as making sure that basic resources are available. What is the point of a teacher who can’t find enough chairs or a board marker having a ₤1,000 interactive whiteboard? I spent the duration of one year 10 class personally holding the lead from the department’s one semi-functional television into the wall socket.

One student, Serena, had big ideas for change: ‘I am going to write to the Prime Minister and who is the education minister?…yeah him. I’m going to write to them. I mean look at this place Miss, how can we learn like this? The windows don’t even open it’s so hot in here, I can’t see the board because of the sun, and that’s the least of it, have you seen our toilets?’ No, I had not seen their toilets, and after seeing what the staff room looked like, I did not want to.

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