Today was another day spent mostly out of school. I work closely with two other Head teachers in, what we jokingly call, a ‘Triad’. It entails us going, in pairs, into the school of the third to undertake learning walks, talk to children, look at books etc. We each give the others the focus for the visit. My colleagues had come to my school a week or so ago (see my Breathing Space blog) and today it was my turn to go to one of theirs.
This school is about as different from mine as it is possible to get. It is a middle class church school. Of course it has its own difficulties but today, what was brought home to me, was the difference between the children.
My colleague and I were tasked with looking at writing and Rights Respecting through the school. We did this by talking with groups of children from each year group. Having the time to spend talking to children like this is a real privilege. We started by visiting Reception. The children were delightful, eager to show and to talk about their writing, which was impressive. They showed us their home learning. All of them had some to show. Their understanding of Rights and Responsibilities was just as good.
The rest of the children met with us in a meeting room and brought with them their literacy books. We started by asking them to show us a piece of writing that they were proud of and we used this as a way in to talk to the children about how writing was taught in the school. The progression through the school was clear and the writing, on the whole, was of a very high standard indeed. Like in our schools, there was some obvious inconsistency in the teaching. I think that this is common to all schools and is at the core of school improvement – trying to iron out inconsistencies.
What impressed my colleague and I (his school is in a context like mine) was the children’s vocabulary, their sentence structure, their innate understanding of the structures of our language. You could hear the conversations around the table at tea time, the conversations in the car, walking down the road, at bath time. You could hear the conversations about the bedtime story. They didn’t struggle for words, they were clear about what they wanted to say and were very articulate in their interactions with us.
This provided us with a stark contrast to our children. It is not that these children are any brighter than ours, it is that they simply have not had the same language experiences as them. It is not uncommon to see children on the estate with dummies in their mouths at the age of 5 and they seem to be pushed in their buggies, facing away from their mothers, for far longer than necessary. They are entertained by the televison. Their parents do not understand how to interact with them, how to play with them, how to talk with them.
It is hard not to sound patronising but that truly is not where I am coming from. It just doesn’t seem fair that children should have such different opportunities in life. One of the problems we have is that if children haven’t had these experiences when they are very small, before they are about 3, it is very, very difficult for them to catch up. This is what makes our job and the job of the local Children’s Centre so important. Language deprivation is a massive issue on the estate. I think that from it stems all kinds of other problems – perhaps the high levels of domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, educational difficulties, unemployment. People are unable to communicate effectively with each other or to express their feelings. I have had a parent, in the playground in the morning, struggle to find the vocabulary to explain to me what was happening to her baby, who was on a life support machine in hospital. She filled it with ‘you know’s and ‘the thingy’s and ‘that stuff they do’. It was very poignant.
Deprivation is not simply about lack of money. There are plenty of people struggling financially who have a richness in their lives and who have high aspirations for their children. We have parents like this at my school. It’s the language deprivation, the lack of parenting skills that puts the children at a disadvantage.
The challenge we have is to try to break the cycle. If we can equip children with the language tools they need to survive then maybe their children will also have a better chance in life. It’s just so fundamental.