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Enemy of the State

How the ‘disadvantaged children’ narrative and politicisation is both misleading and damaging.

What a difference a few months make. The death of Caroline Flack shocked the nation and we were all ‘throwing kindness around like confetti’. To a global pandemic, hoarding of bog roll and more recently, the return of the nation’s favourite sport – teacher bashing. 2020 is not even 6month in!

A narrative being used to justify schools reopening during a global pandemic is two-fold. Firstly, ‘disadvantaged children’ are falling behind their more affluent peers and secondly, teachers need to be more resilient and willing to return to work. The latter I will not delve into too much as I believe it is a complete myth and a way to divert attention away from the incompetence of political leaders in dealing with COVID19. It’s truly remarkable. Where the government prioritises sending children back to school amidst a global pandemic but does nothing to tackle annually rising child poverty. What a time to be alive. Has anyone asked these ‘disadvantaged children’ if they want to go back or if they would prefer homeschooling until it’s safe to return? This silence and ‘intellectual’ arrogance shown towards the deprived quarters of society is appalling.

It is estimated that by 2022, 5.5 million children will grow up in poverty. Instead of plugging this ‘disadvantaged children‘ narrative in relation to schools, we need to assess wider socio-economic issues that permeate into our classrooms.

‘Disadvantaged children’ is a term that interests me. I was classified as a ‘disadvantaged child’ at school. My father was a Salesman, mother was a Carer and I was entitled for Free School Meals. English was my second language and I remember full well the school initiatives and ideas tested on me like a Guinea pig. I had TAs, spent time in Sure Start centres, placed on AimHigher schemes and Educational Maintenance Allowance at the heart of my formative years in secondary school. Yet, ‘disadvantaged’ doesn’t mean ‘disillusioned’, ‘disengaged’ or even ‘unloved’. I was ‘disadvantaged’ according to socio-economic circumstances which permeated into my school life, but it didn’t thwart me. What I didn’t have in cultural capital, my family made up with working hard so I could focus on my studies. This is not to say many in my peer group were as fortunate, but I believed in meritocracy and education was my only realistic route to social mobility.

In the context of today, as I left school in 2011, ‘disadvantaged’ groups of students come under a plethora of umbrellas such as Pupil Premium, EAL, FSM, SEN and many others. The narrative in the press about these groups of young people and their families oversimplified, dangerous and misleading. I have five major concerns with this ‘disadvantaged children’ narrative and although this is not an exclusive list, it starts an important dialogue about our purpose and role as Educators. Also, the role of the media is misleading public debate and prolonging this phase or orgy of ‘teacher-bashing’ that has gripped public space.

  1. Disadvantaged children need saving – they don’t. The notion that a disadvantaged child needs a saviour is far from the truth, as what they need is an education system that enables them to thrive, a democracy that gives them voice, an economic system that rewards their skills and talents and a welfare system that supports them during a time of need. They need good teachers which makes the current wave of teacher bashing by policymakers and journalists very counter-intuitive. You can name the policy relating to disadvantaged learners and it has been rendered ineffective. The coloured marking policies, the Pupil Premium book swaps, etc. The best way to support deprived students is placing a good teacher in front of them who can lead good lessons. A self-righteous, sanctimonious saviour of the masses are not required.

  2. Inequalities can be equalised within schools – neutralised to an extent, possibly through the equality of opportunity but not equalised. Richard Tawney back in 1932 stated that the underachievement of working-class children was the ‘hereditary curse of the English education system’. Policies such as AimHigher and SureStart which I am a product of didn’t create this Blairite utopia. The inequalities that begin at birth can only be somewhat slowed down by schools, not equalised by them. Schools have insurmountable pressures on them, both internal and external, thus for them to be vehicles of equalisation, the social structure of society would have to change. We need a radical redistribution of wealth, changes to models and frameworks of education and tackling social class inequalities. There is clearly no attempt to radically reform society thus pushing this ‘disadvantaged children’ narrative fails to look at the wider socio-economic dynamics that have created deprivation. As famous Sociologist Basil Bernstein once said, ‘Education cannot compensate for society’.

  3. ‘Disadvantaged parents can’t adequately home-school or monitor their children’ – this is classism. There is also an underlying implication that parents who are less affluent, are unable to support their own children. This may be true for some, but not all. Disadvantaged families face the burden of having to return to work amidst a global pandemic simply to cover their living costs and also to home-school their children. The simmering classist assumption about working-class intellect is wrong and needs to be challenged. All parents want the best for their children and will do whatever they can to support them. When times were hard, my Grandad would ensure I had lunch money or the correct books for school, even if it meant he wouldn’t eat for a week. The sacrifices disadvantages families make for their children cannot be ignored and to say they can’t adequately home-school, perhaps this is more of a reflection of the deeply polarised and unequal society we live in.

  4. Since when did the government care about ‘disadvantaged kids’?– The past decade has seen brutal cuts to educational funding, rising child poverty and austerity. In all this, when have the government ever stepped in to help the most disadvantaged? I understand that we are still in the neo-liberal Thatcherite phase of ‘there’s no such thing as society’. When I read Lord Adonis Tweet about disadvantaged children, did he mention the wider socio-economic inequalities that have caused this disadvantage? When did someone who cared more about privatising schools through academisation ever care about the children and their families? When has Katie Hopkins or Isabel Oakeshotte ever mentioned disadvantaged children on their various platforms? It isn’t ideological, it is fact. A serious period of self-reflection is required here as the chasm between disadvantaged children and their more affluent peers is increasing but teachers are working harder than ever to bridge this gap. Are the government? Is Lord Adonis? Where was the uproar when the UK Child Poverty Report was published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in February?

  5. Singling out – by singling out the that disadvantaged children are falling behind, there’s an implicit assumption that teachers are allowing these students to go into free fall. There’s an assumption that teachers are not putting in interventions and differentiating for the needs of these students. Contrary to popular belief, teachers are not sat in their gardens with a Pina Colada, sunbathing whilst taxpayer money pours into their accounts. Teaching remotely has created it’s own workload, demands and pressures. Setting work, monitoring students, completing data, emails, meetings, marking and the plethora of new software packages to get accustomed to, it is no easy feat. Teachers are catering for the needs of their pupils as I know my school monitors the work of targeted students very closely to make sure there isn’t a widening attainment gap. By listening to the spewing nonsense in the press and on social media, it is assumed teachers are passively allowing disadvantaged students to fall further behind. This is not true and a real shallow claim against teachers who continue to work with the tools at their disposal to give every child the best opportunity to succeed.

In Summary

This article analyses the dangers of the ‘disadvantaged children’ narrative that seems to be at the very heart of this teacher-bashing movement we are seeing during the COVID19 pandemic. We never refer to ’privileged children’ do we? Disadvantaged children need good teachers not saviours nor the pity of a handful of poorly informed media personalities. This account of disadvantaged children needs to be observed carefully and considered alongside wider contextual factors. The assumption that poor kids just ended up on this earth from another planet, thus need to be ‘saved’ is so deeply classist.

Returning to school has nothing to do with ‘disadvantaged children’ falling behind. This is an economic imperative that is being hastily pushed through with such embarrassing short-termism. A complete disregard for teachers and a mere reflection of the professional mistrust in the countries educators. ‘Disadvantaged children’ were further disadvantaged by austerity, poverty, cuts to children’s services and the tripling of university tuition fees. Track and trace that back to the 2010 Conservative manifesto. I’m astonished with people who want to talk about ‘disadvantaged children’ without reference to the origins of this disadvantage. E.g. austerity, poverty, cuts to children’s services, etc. Without some element of historical, social or political context, you are dangerously overlooking key social issues. This is just mind-boggling hypocrisy, classism and whimpering tokenism.

Are kids falling behind? Absolutely. Nothing beats being in the classroom, the routine and the interactions we have with our students. It is challenging to monitor students progress when we are not in direct contact with them but if COVID19 has taught us anything, it is a disease that does not discriminate, we are all at risk. Many students will fall behind but teachers will work night and day to help them catch up. A reasonable solution is to continue to encourage vulnerable and disadvantaged children to come into school but not use their status as a means to recklessly force mass reopening’s. The dangers of this outweigh the benefits.

Teachers are being dragged over hot coals at a time where our public service counterparts in the NHS are being applauded as heroes. Yet our plight is similar as we occupy professions that are criminally underfunded and underappreciated. Why are teachers unwilling to go back? We are continuously told that we cannot overwhelm the NHS. So, reopening schools and potentially spending more cases to the NHS, aren’t we simply just going to overwhelm the NHS? With no PPE, tens of thousands of people who have lost their lives and with a virus that no one seems to have any concrete understanding of, we are all fearful. We are not workshy or ‘lefty snowflakes’ and to suggest otherwise, I would love to see Lord Adonis et al complete a day of supply at my local comprehensive. Let’s see how you handle these ‘disadvantage children’ as clearly you are their mouthpiece! These people will incorporate them into discussion when they see fit. It’s a dangerous homogeneous, oversimplified category that is misleading public debate on reopening schools.

Teachers should not be the enemy of the state as only we know what’s right for our students. finally, can we take a moment to think about all those who have lost their lives to COVID19 and our fantastic NHS staff who are working tirelessly.

Thank you for reading. P.s, whilst our fellow professionals are being eviscerated by the press, we must use our forum to defend one another.

Shuaib Khan

Twitter: @Shuaibkhan26

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