Beware the American Dream
Many organisations working with young people seem to sell students something similar to The American Dream – all you need to do is work hard and want it badly enough, and you too can reach the highest heights. This is reinforced by media depictions of ordinary people’s quick ascent to fame and fortune. TV channels are flooded with shows pitting people against each other, the promise of celebrity and copious wealth within pirouetting distance. Many a student buys into these myths (and a surprising number of intelligent adults too). The American Dream crumbles before their very eyes when you start to unpack the odds for them. I can’t tell you how many times we have helped our participants understand that becoming a premier league footballer – even if it’s your biggest dream – might not be a viable option especially considering you aren’t even in the first team at school and aren’t training more than a couple of times a month. But it goes beyond explaining the odds. Knowledge is power and there are things young people need from their education that isn’t covered by the American Dream. (A few TV channels might also like to take on the challenge of educating the masses on this too). My vision would be to ensure that no child leaves school without a clear understanding of themselves as a member of and a product of society, and without questioning what they want to be going forward – and how they might make that happen. We should want our young to be aspirational and reach for the sky and I don’t believe debunking the American Dream will demotivate them, but will rather empower them.
When grades aren’t enough
Social mobility pundits are seemingly preoccupied with making everyone middle class. To achieve this aim schools, and a plethora of education charities aimed at improving students’ university applications, can be seen to push some students to get into a top university and seemingly to urge them to denounce their background and become a banker or lawyer. It might be controversial to say this but attending an elite university without adequate support is tantamount to sponsoring a life of feeling inadequate, developing imposter syndrome and being left caught between a rock and a hard place. I know this all too well, being the only one in my single-parent, free-school-meals-eligible family with a degree. There is also the danger of giving young people messages that their often aspirational and supportive family are inadequate losers. You can see where this leads – you don’t fit in anywhere in the end. ‘Posh kids’ have social and cultural capital that comes with rubbing shoulders with an array of professional people. Schools do their utmost to try to address this with high expectations for all, free music tuition, debating, rowing, fencing and more. But what of the fact that middle class students will have access to culture, professional contacts and support throughout their journey in life? Again, packing off a young person to an elite university having helped them gain great grades at GCSE and A level, taught them violin and rowing is a start but it doesn’t plug the gap of social and cultural capital. Whose connections do students tap into for job opportunities and to fund an internship? What more can we do to narrow the gap on these life-long inequalities of opportunity?
Metacognition, political and social awareness and self-knowledge in bucket loads
It’s troubling that there isn’t the space and time in schools to ask the question not of ‘what do you want to be when you grow up’ but ‘who are you, what are your interests and skills, where are you willing to invest your effort? What kind of lifestyle are you after? Do you know anything about the people that have that lifestyle? Are your preconceptions even close to the truth?’ My husband always wanted to be an academic. He has worked hard and now he is one It’s a far cry from his 1980s style dream. In fact, he says he has read that there is a direct parallel between academia and drugs cartels. Apparently even the salary is about the same too. And you might be surprised that in neither profession is it very high for anyone but the very top dogs.
In the 1990s, a teacher studying for my Masters in education, I took my whole class on a journey of exploration into the (now discredited) world of Learning Styles. This year-long action research project culminated in my class substantially improving their achievement across the board. The take-away lesson for me, regardless of whether or not there is any substance to Learning Styles, was that my students became engaged in understanding for themselves how they learn (metacognition). Each developed techniques to concentrate, engage, relate to and retain what they learned, giving them ownership of their learning and making them masters of their own choices. They could harness this and use it wherever and however they chose, not just in my English class. The results were stunning.
We should be similarly committed to fearlessly educate our young about social mobility itself and how inequality is intricately woven into the tapestry of everyday life. Just as young men and women need to know about homophobia, racism and feminism, so too do we need to help young people to understand the simple facts about class differences in society.
And as mentioned above, there needs to be space and time for young people to unearth their own personal story, their roots, feelings, and assumptions about themselves not just within a classroom and a school, but as a family member and as a member of wider society and even the global community. This intertwined story of ourselves as both social and personal beings, and as products of and actors in society is one that is not easy to unpick but unlocking it as a concept can be the key to achieving real, enduring success.
Sustainable solutions should be the only solutions
We’ve all heard about schools kettling groups of borderline students into the A*- C safety zone or punting the pupil premium on interventions that make low-level disruption, serial absenteeism and exclusion rates disappear in a puff of lavender-scented smoke for the prized Ofsted outstanding. We assume that means that students are getting a high quality education and gaining the grades they need to go on to the next stage of their journey in life. But how many school leaders have the longitudinal vision to say, hand on heart, that they are pledging public funds to kick-starting their most disadvantaged students’ journey on the path towards being socially mobile and successful no matter their backgrounds? When our education system is so dominated by politicians whose concerns are short-term and, well, political, are school leaders really able to see beyond their place on the league tables? Some believe schools and universities should be held accountable for what happens to their students once they have graduated and entered the world of work as a way to enforce a longer-term vision. But I like to think that some school leaders, regardless of the ever-changing trends and official requirements, are keenly committed to making sure that as many of the young people in their care as possible get everything they need to be successful in life, whether that be as a core part of the curriculum, an extra level of support from public services or bought-in opportunities that otherwise would never come their way.
There is a glut of organisations operating under the banner of social mobility. My visits to nearly 40 London schools recently has got me thinking about services schools buy in and about charities, social enterprises and businesses. I have spent some time over the summer reviewing the services available and there is a veritable mosaic of ideas, methods, outcomes and claims – not to mention groovy branded jackets, highly designed logos and flashy websites. I have heard from many school leaders that they are suffering from ‘interventionitis’ and are unsure of how the many external services actually integrate, duplicate or make sense in their own school. The collapse of Kids Company has made this all the more relevant. There have been some insightful pieces on this issue highlighting that a ‘good idea’ will result in a charity in response. I am the last to advocate for privatisation of the education sector, but I do believe that unlike a business model, charities often don’t check if their offer is commercially viable, responds to a market-tested need, or is duplicates something existing. Charities aren’t even really required to guarantee their offer is high quality, particularly in their experimental start-up stage. They need to identify potential donors, compete for funds and persuade schools to take them on. And schools will be interested because they are already working their socks off for their students, every little helps, and the charity offers services for free – surely there is nothing to lose. And yet, there is so much to lose. Some of the charities working to help deprived young people, work with only a handful at a time and are not necessarily going to survive if their funding dries up. And most worrying is that they may see that demand exceeds capacity and they could end up in hot water, unable to sustain their activity or scale up according to demand. What happens then?
I personally like the social enterprise model – it has to be self-sustaining as a business but has social responsibility firmly at its heart rather than the often distasteful for-profit mantra of ‘return for share-holders’. To know they are spending public money wisely, schools will want to see regular impact reports, a contract and to hold the organisation to account for the quality and completion of the work as described.
I would appeal to all schools to think carefully about what they can do to help guarantee success, for life, for their students. Schools should do their due diligence and be certain that whatever they choose for their students, whether it be paid for or free, that it really delivers the outcomes it says it does, that it puts the schools’ and the students’ long-term interests at its core and that it has a solid past and an equally promising future.
This post is the longer version of the article I wrote for Schools Week http://schoolsweek.co.uk/put-the-students-interests-at-your-schools-core/