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Bennett’s blog – #5 Shhhhh – the children are listening. It is time to be the adults in the room

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Carole Bennett, CEO

This isn’t the blog I was going to write this week.  But I have been watching the news this week and getting just a little more nervous with every debate.  I am listening to the panic about schools needing to go back, and a constant refrain about gaps and the disadvantaged.  And I have been saying the same things all week.  But just lately, a nagging feeling has been growing, one that I have finally placed.  It is a worry that in all of this, the children are listening and we are not doing them any favours.  I have just heard one teenager say that he might never get a job as now he may fail his GCSEs; and listened to a well-meaning interviewer talking about the disadvantaged all being left behind.

I go back to one key thing – for children to learn they need to be calm and settled.  If they are beginning to think their education is ruined, they are not in the right place to learn.  This is a horrendous time, but schools have been away for the same time as the school holidays.  With work being set.  This is not insurmountable.  We can do the gap filling if we plan carefully and the children are not told they cannot do this.

A related ongoing worry is this sweeping generalisation about the disadvantaged.  At this point I have to tell you, dear reader, that I would have been classed as economically vulnerable at school.  My friends would have been.  I grew up in an estate in Nottingham where no-one we knew had ever been to university and everyone was economically challenged in some way.  I had relatively low ambition and was not particularly bright.  But I did have the best parents in the world.  I remember listening to an education professor describing his horror at reading that he came from a deprived area.  He had no idea.  And I was much the same.  My parents were brilliant and passionate about me doing well at school, having both missed out on post-14 education.  When a teacher told them I was ‘more likely Polytechnic material’, my dad replied loudly that I would, one day, be able to go wherever I wanted.  When I was sobbing the boys in the snooker club said I shouldn’t be there because I was a girl, he pointed out that if I was one of the only two girls there, I must be one of the top girls and I should work hard and shine. 

So this is another growing concern.  It may be understandable to talk about the massive data gap between the vulnerable and the not.  But it is not true, or fair, to imply that the socially disadvantaged will all be behind and miserable.  My children, who now are from a middle class kind of family (thanks to the sacrifice of my dad who saved a £1 per day for three years to help me through teacher training, unbeknown to the whole family), have probably had less attention than some of our most vulnerable.  I am working all day and sadly, have spent far less time with them than my parents would have with me.  My dad didn’t get everything right – he knew nothing about the exam and education system, so he couldn’t.  But what he didn’t need was constant reminders about that which dented his confidence.  He needed his love harnessing and supporting, not to be told that our financial, social and educational family background gave him a reason to think I would, and was expected to be, behind.

I am not suggesting for one second that we don’t talk about this.  We need to think about how we will help children to catch back up.  It is just that we need to focus on the ‘how’ and plan to have a more personalised strategy than working from a presumption that all vulnerable, Free School Meal children have had a more difficult experience than those in traditionally affluent families.  So, as all good schools do, we need to see and know our own children – and work out who needs what support when they get back.  Not by groups, but on a more nuanced level.

Equally, the language we use has to be positive.  This has been an awful and horrific period.  But humans have lived through wars, civil unrest and mass illness before.  We have always found a way to recover and we have to do that again.  My son asked me to help with his history learning about the Battle of Stalingrad.  I have to admit this was not something I knew about, but again, this was horrific.  Children must have witnessed things and experienced events that no-one should.  So we are not unique in having to overcome mass adversity.  All countries are going through this and we will need to find a way to recover together.  It isn’t an option.  So children need to know we are here, planning to find ways to get them back on track.  Not hear about how awful and concerning this all is educationally.

Our children are listening to us.  What they need now is for us to be calm, to have a plan to get them back on track and not be telling our most vulnerable loudly that they are way off track.  When they might not be.  They need filling with confidence that they can get back where we need them to be, because we know them, we care about them and we are good at our jobs.  They need to believe they can get – and go – wherever they want, with our help.  I heard that, and I believed that.  If I hadn’t, and if I had heard that I could go no-where and I was behind everyone, I am not sure I would have ever left home.   

We can do this.  We will do this.  The children need us to, so we will.  And if we believe it, they will too.