Immigrants Do Want to Learn English: Where Is The Funding?

When Sajid Javid, the first Asian Secretary of State, talks about assimilation and immigrants learning to speak English, I do not naturally object to anything he is saying.  His assertion that respecting a British way of life means “things like trying to learn English” seems sound, if a bit vague.  My family, for the large part, did just that and expected their children to do the same.  Conceptually, it’s a great idea.

My parents, East African Asian and first generation immigrants, spoke English pretty well as they came from former British colonies.  My grandparents, older, more set in their ways, found it more challenging.  Assimilation was an idea, a process that I absorbed without really thinking about what it meant politically. I grew up in a predominantly Asian community, choosing  to speak English all the time, refusing to go to Gujerati school because my uncle was the teacher and I was too embarrassed to attend, having my friends call me a ‘coconut’ (brown on the outside and white on the inside) – these were all part of my every day experience.  I became an English teacher.  About as assimilated as you can be, I suppose.

I wonder though, and I may be wearing something of a cynical hat, how much of Sajid Javid’s statements are really about the value of language learning to families who arrive on our shores.  In a political climate in which UKIP’s Nigel Farage openly scaremongers about Romanian families coming to live next door and possibly stealing from you, you can almost imagine the conversation at Tory headquarters.  How does a mainstream political party join in the populist rhetoric on immigration and yet not be seen as a group of fascists or loons?  I know, let’s send an Asian man to say it and then it won’t be seen as such a bad thing, because if the Asians are saying it, it’s okay right?  Right?  Dave, are you still listening?

So forgive me if I’m not seeing this for what it is – apparently an attempt by the Conservative Party to protect Britishness.  It reads a little bit like pre-election UKIP neutralisation, a little bit like ‘easy for me, therefore easy for you’ lazy politicking and also a little bit like internalised oppression.

I teach English to London’s melting pot.  I know the value of learning to speak the language of the country you are in.  Not because speaking a different language is somehow an insult to the country you have chosen to live in, but because it is useful to be able to communicate with education and medical professionals, especially if you have children.

Recently, I set up English classes for parents of a particular ethnic group at my school as I identified that many parents from this group, and in particular, mothers were finding it difficult to communicate with teachers.  Parents’ evenings were hard work and came with much embarrassment for all involved, children included.  I found a member of support staff who was TEFL trained and finally found some money for her to teach English, after school was finished for the day, to a group of parents.  The take up was fantastic and parents were enormously grateful for the opportunity.   It proved to me what I already knew, that immigrant families are keen for the opportunity to learn and will take it when offered.  My school made a small step in encouraging participation in society by doing something practical, by providing a solution.  You see, Mr Javid, as someone who also believes that speaking English is important in England, I put my money where my mouth is.

What occurs to me is that in all the rhetoric, Sajid Javid has forgotten something very simple.  Where is the government funding and access for keen families and individuals to learn English if they should wish it?  While the will may be there from immigrant families, the financial ability to attend classes may not be.  Schools could be, like mine, a hub for community learning, but there are staffing and funding implications for this.  As a qualified English teacher, who knows how important it is to the parents of my students to speak English, I do not have the funding or the power to offer them a way to communicate.  None of this has been addressed in Sajid Javid’s’s speech.  What is worse is that his speech somewhat relies on the fact that people may not remember the Conservative government cut funding to ESOL classes in 2011, meaning fewer immigrants could access these classes for free.   There will be people who ask why newcomers should have access to English classes for free.  Well, people, you can’t have it both ways.  I imagine, when it comes down to a choice between using limited family income on food, clothing and essentials, or English classes so no one around you feels uncomfortable when you speak your own language instead, it doesn’t take a genius to work out which route newcomers take.

There is a real opportunity here to do something extremely positive for new communities in the UK.  I guess this is not just a Conservative issue; I am yet to hear any politician, mainstream or otherwise, provide a real solution to this age-old problem.  Instead of just telling us from what seems like a fairly privileged position what you think about speaking English in England, you could use your influence to provide funding, possibly to schools that already have the premises and in many cases, the staff, for ESOL classes for the immigrant parents of the children.  You could support the work of schools who already provide language classes for parents and the local community. If you are going to send an Asian man to deliver this message, you could have him explain how his family did it – and what resources they used to access the English language.

It would certainly take the fear and scaremongering out of the politics and serve to identify the political wheat from the chaff – parties that want to affect real change, not just pontificate on it.

One More Push: Last Minute AQA English Language Revision

Every year I experience the parturient pain of administering controlled assessment marks and last minute revision for the AQA English Language exam. The late nights, the endless cover sheets, waking up mumbling entry codes, the anxiety dreams in which I am faced with student after student asking the same question (“What do I have to do for Question 4 again?”) while I stand naked, wondering why I haven’t planned this lesson and why on earth I’m in a classroom at all. And then, once the exam is done, an opiate release wipes clean my memory of the hell I have experienced. The process starts again. Cue new gestation period.

I’m guessing you are with me on this one, because otherwise, why would you be spending your precious free time reading a blog about preparing students for an English exam? You could be doing anything. If you aren’t an English teacher with a Year 11 class, I strongly advise you to do something useful with your time. Like sleep. Or find amusing pictures of cats on the internet.

If you are an English teacher with a Year 11 class, you are at the stage of labour where the baby is just about to pop out (having not had a child, I am aware this may not be an accurate description) but you are just too tired to carry on. I’m imagining your significant other is mopping your brow, providing you with ice chips (I have seen this on the television) and telling you that one more push will do it. You know that you have to carry on, you know that if you mark one more timed response, it might do the trick. The baby will be born. And you’ll name it C-Grade and look at it with a pride that is just embarrassing.

How do we get through this bit then, folks? I’ve been thinking, as I often do, and I have devised a list of questions that may help you in these final moments. I’ve come up with this list because these are the aspects of my students’ learning I need to be sure of before I send them into the exam. The questions may or may not help you to plan the last few lessons before you say goodbye to Year 11.

Can they tell the difference between diamonds and duds?

Weaker students find it difficult to select the appropriate quotations they need to conduct a half decent language analysis. While you have probably already shown them model responses with appropriate quotations used, perfecting the practical skill of quotation selection can make all the difference in this exam. So, to enable students to select language-rich quotations, I introduced them to the concept of diamonds vs duds.

Diamonds are words and phrases that are juicy, analysable and allow for the drilling down required in Q4. Duds are the opposite – words and phrases that do not allow you to say anything beyond a denotation. You can ask students to sort the diamonds from the duds in two ways. Firstly, they could just read and highlight the diamonds with some guided reading at the start of the passage and modelling of the process that goes with this selection. But I found that it was almost more useful (possibly because students have to interrogate the text in a slightly different way) to ask students to cross out parts of sentences, words and phrases they wouldn’t use to comment on language. If your students understand why some bits of the text might not be appropriate and can discuss the linguistic reasons why, it may help them to make those decisions in the exam.

Have you shown students the difference between 3 marks, 4 marks, 5 marks?

It is instinct to provide students with exemplars that are full marks, in a ‘this is what you should be doing, kids’ kind of way. I started off doing that but with a middle ability group, found that it was a leap too far, particularly for Q4. So, I gave them real life exemplars of work that had achieved 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12 marks. This way, they could place the answers next to each and chart the evolution of the responses. They wanted to know why one received 10 marks and another 11, but on taking the answers apart, they started to see the little differences that could lead to higher marks. Of course, if you have students who are regularly hitting 7 marks out of 8 or 15 out of 16, by all means just focus on full mark examples. And stop reading this blogpost, you probably don’t need to.

Are the students effective annotators?

You can see the different approaches students take to annotation of the texts when you take in mock papers. I looked at the annotations of students who achieved higher marks and this time, decided to look in detail at what their annotations said, rather than just acknowledging the volume of the annotation.

In almost all cases, the students who received highest marks were annotating in a really specific way. They were annotating inferentially, rather than factually – or worse, using a raft of underlining and highlighting. For Q1, where the bulk of the higher marks are awarded to the inference and not the fact, this was making all the difference. This might not be groundbreaking information to you, a professional annotator, but I did wonder whether students all understood the process of annotation. So I decided to teach it as a specific skill. Again, it required modelling. The key thing was: for Q1, do not just highlight or underline what you learn. This will always lead to regurgitation of the source material with no inference. As you read, note down an inference next to a sentence that is a judgement on that fact and use that as the first line of each point you make. For example, if the text states: “Esmerelda worked three jobs whilst studying for her degree”, the annotation should be ‘hardworking, dedicated, determined’.

Training students to annotate their inferences means they are engaging with the source texts before they start to write. The technique can be applied to language analysis too – when annotating their diamonds, they should be guided in annotating the effect, rather than just identifying that the word/phrase exists.

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So, a few more bits that may help. Do let me know if any of this is useful or if you’ve tweaked any if it to be better – or if you have something better that you know has worked with your students!

Now, lie back. One more push. Breathe.

AQA English Language GCSE: Defeating the Beast Part 3 – Writing

In my last two blog posts, I have concentrated solely on the reading section of the AQA English Language paper, with the vague promise of more on the writing section. Since the last blog post, I have been frantically marking mock exams and vacillating between joy and despair. Joy because there have been significant improvements on Q4 and despair at the handful that still have far to go before they can effectively demonstrate their skills in this paper.

This time last year, I requested a copy of every marked script from the exam board after the January sitting. This was done to check that a) the consistency of marking was accurate across the papers as I had heard from conversation with other HoDs that they had found it wasn’t and b) to provide detailed feedback to students and the team on what needed to be done better.

What we discovered as a department was that the marking on the writing section was stunningly harsh, meaning we had to rapidly adjust what we considered to be quality work from students. In essence, we found that unless the written work was nearly flawless and ticked the necessary boxes, it didn’t get above a Band 2. Pedestrian work that was technically accurate scored higher; students who didn’t necessarily show a great deal of flair or originality were rewarded. As a department, we objected to what had been awarded marks and what hadn’t, but knew that we had to adjust our teaching.

So this year, I have been trying to maximise the impact of feedback to students when it comes to their writing and to steer them in their content in a much more focused way.

Stimulus Material – The Blackfish Effect

The AQA English Language writing section is always broadly thematically linked to the reading section. As the content is required to be uncontroversial and accessible to teenagers, picking stimulus material is incredibly important. I made a list of the possibilities: environment and ecology, food and health, sports, travel, technology, family life – the list goes on. It is almost impossible to anticipate and cover every topic that may come up in an unseen exam, but I wanted to give my students exposure to the best range of themes that I could. And who would have thought that the best work we produced would come from a whale? More specifically, a violent, possibly psychopathic orca called Tilikum…

As a class, we watched ‘Blackfish’, quite honestly one of the most heartbreaking things I have ever seen and students sat, entranced, through it. It concerns the treatment of orcas at Seaworld. When we were done, we orally rehearsed argument about keeping these beautiful creatures in captivity – and built up to writing Q6 type arguments on the issue. I found articles related to Seaworld and orcas and planned reading responses – Q1 and Q4 covered in one go.

Since the ‘Blackfish’ revelation, we have also watched ‘MissRepresentation’ about representations of women in the media and I have scheduled in ‘Vegucated’, a documentary on veganism. How many of us have complained that Literature is brilliant because the students enjoy and are stimulated by the content, but that Language is dullsville? The point is that the right stimulus material has made a difference to what can otherwise be quite dry and led to better, more focused writing.

Live Marking and the iPad

I may be late to the party on this one, but the biggest movement in marks in the writing section happened after this sequence of lessons. I wanted to show that the examiners were exacting in their marking of the writing section – that technical accuracy was of utmost importance and that they did not have all the time or space in the world to demonstrate their skills. After a piece of writing had been completed, I took a snapshot with the iPad – just a couple of paragraphs of work – of four different pieces of writing, across the ability range. No names were placed on the work (but students could identify their own – and we’re told not to say anything if it was theirs) and then printed off. Students had to rank the work according to the mark scheme before I ‘live-marked’ their work as if I was an examiner, on the board. The key to the ‘live-marking’ was the commentary. In the spirit of making the implicit explicit, I narrated the examiner’s thought process as I marked work, attached marks from the mark schemes and commented on band/grade equivalency.

The net result was clear. Students recognised that in their paragraphs, even a snapshot could determine a level and they could demonstrate a range of skills in that short a space on the page. It increased the density of skills demonstrated in their work. Single sentence for effect, use of semi-colon, rhetorical question, exclamation mark, use of embedded clause. Most of all, I was able to use this phrase from then on: “If I took a snapshot of those two paragraphs, what would you be demonstrating?”

Memrise the Vocabulary

No, folks, not a typo in my subheading. I was introduced to memrise.com by a colleague and I think it is brilliant, even if it just shows students that their range of vocabulary is limited and needs expanding. The website, free to all with an email sign up, provides a range of courses (across subjects) in which the content is fed to students in small, memorisable chunks. The concept is simple: memories can be planted and need watering. I got the laptops out with Year 11 and got them signed up. After a few minutes of “wow, I can learn Elvish/Yoruba/Russian!”, students settled into the English vocabulary courses on offer. Because it has social networking functions – students can ‘follow’ each other’s progress – they were soon competing in collecting points and learning the definition and spelling of new words. It’s not something that makes a huge difference immediately, but if you want to stretch the ‘vocabulazy’, it can act as a good starting point.

There isn’t long to go now before that English exam is upon us. Before then, I imagine that you have controlled assessment moderation and administration to complete. Tiredness is kicking in – but we are nearly there! It has just occurred to me that I ought to have some sort of catchphrase to sign off these AQA posts, but at this point on a Monday night, I have neither the wit, will or wisdom to create one. Keeeeeeep AQA-ing?

Just as lame as I thought it would be…

AQA English Language GCSE: Defeating the Beast Part 2

Time is ticking away and I am sure, like me, that some of you are getting heads down to make that final push towards the English Language GCSE.  Every time I speak to the students, I am reminding them that timing is essential and that if they are to succeed, they must finish the exam.  Ergo, they must look like this at the end:

Blog image 1

So, with timing messages going in, I’m turning my attention back to teaching activities that work in engaging and supporting students to make at least three levels of progress. This blog post could just as easily be subtitled: How to Move On From The Bleeding Obvious.  But it’s not, so without further fuss…

Question 2: The ‘I just don’t get it’ Question

Thank you AQA, for creating a question that is on first appearance, a question about the presentation of a text.  Looking at the marking criteria and the listening to the advice of AQA examiners, I know that this low-down, sneaky, good-for-nothing question is in disguise.  It is, at heart, a language question.  Understandable student instincts kick in when they see the words ‘headline’, ‘caption’, ‘picture’ – steering our wards away from obvious interpretations can be like shifting a tectonic plate with a pinky finger.  Students want to tell us, and the examiner, that the purpose of the headline is to stand out as it is big and bold.  I have started off by explaining that this is not a GCSE in the bleeding obvious.  Students have responded well to the information that the examiner already knows that the headline is big and bold and that its purpose is to introduce the article.  I spent a lesson allowing students to make all of the generic statements they could about the features of an article until they were clean worn out and could hear just how boring a response could be.  A Bleeding Obvious Statement Purge, if you like.  We then stopped.

I grouped students into news teams.  Their task was to create an article on a sheet of A3.  One person in the team was responsible for creating the headline using a range of devices, another wrote the text of the article, another created the picture and the caption.  You might think, at this point, that I had gone mad, allowing my GCSE students to draw (!) this close to the exam; however, my friend, you are somewhat missing the point.  They had to re-enact the process of connecting the headline, the text and the picture.  So, a case in point: one team came up with the idea of Miley Cyrus visiting the school and students being very disapproving of her.  The headline was created: “It’s Not Twerking!” and it was accompanied by a text that included details of Madamemoiselle Cyrus’s antics on stage.  The (rather amusing) picture matched the text.  Each group followed suit.

Another lesson was then  dedicated to evaluating how the specific headlines matched the article and why; students responded to questions on how individual words and devices in the headline linked to specific sentences in the main text.  They did the same for the caption.

You might think that the analysis of the picture is nowhere near language analysis, but it is.  It asks the student to analyse the ‘language techniques’ of the visual image: size, shape, position, choice of focus and composition.  But the biggest mistake students make in analysing the picture is not linking its component parts with the words of the text.  We ironed out this problem by looking at each finished article in turn and orally rehearsing responses before committing anything to paper. The result?  The average mark for this question when I did the question by question analysis the first time they did a mock was around the 3.5 mark  After spending some time unpicking the question by creating articles and analysing how they are put together, the average mark was around 6 out of the possible 8.

Question 3: The ‘Common Mistakes’ Question

Personally, I love the simplicity of Question 3.  It requires students to track the thoughts and feelings of a narrator, often on some sort of jolly in a far flung land.  It is also the question that provides the most belly-laughs.  My favourite mistake (and one I have used anonymously as an example to other students) is the one where our faithful narrator was on his way to Giza to see the pyramids.  My lovely student pointed out with huge enthusiasm that the narrator must be a trucker, because he kept using the word “Giza” and this is how truckers speak to each other.  And hilarity ensued.

The fundamental thing that I hadn’t taught him at that point (apart from the fact that Giza is a place), is that Question 3 is not a language analysis question and under no circumstances can it be treated as such.  Question 3 is about things that happen – the event, the reaction to an event, or the thought process during events in the text.  Far too often, my students were looking for the language clues and spending precious time providing me with connotations of individual words and phrases.  We did two things to stop this from happening.  We practised tracking the narrator’s thoughts and feelings logically from start to finish.  The reason we did this was so students could learn to spot the ‘pivotal point’ in the text, where thoughts and feelings might change.  The examiner is clear in giving credit to students who can spot subtle changes in narrative, so this was useful.  Again, by using their own work as samples, we eliminated poor technique.  The usual clanger follows this pattern and I wanted to nix it:

Point: The writer feels very nervous at the start of his journey.

Quotation: “I felt very nervous at the start of my journey

Inference: This suggests that the writer felt very nervous at the start of his journey 

Instructing students to use their own word in the Point (apprehensive vs nervous) was a good start.  They then had to use another synonym in their inference but add a ‘because’.  It meant that they were not, again, stating the bleeding obvious and were showing that they could infer successfully.  We practised using an ‘umbrella’ sentence at the start of the response that outlined how thoughts and feelings changed.  Students sang the Rihanna song unprompted and unceasingly.  This irritated me, but I could see how it had happened.

None of the above is rocket science but it has gone some way in refining technique in the howling demon that is the AQA exam.  Any of your suggestions are welcome on things that have worked for your students.  Sharing is caring, people.

 

AQA English Language GCSE: Defeating the Beast

Anyone who knows the AQA English Language exam knows that it’s a monster. Not one of those cute ones in Pokemon, or like the ones in Where the Wild Things Are. Monster like a spitting hydra, or Medusa on steroids, or a zombie Margaret Thatcher. That’s a strong statement, I hear you say, shying away from my clenched fists and slightly manic expression. Yes it is. But I’m not retracting it. This exam sucks and I’m not doing it anymore. For this current Year 10, I have chosen to switch to the far more reasonable OCR English Language exam.

However, my current Year 11s are still sitting this paper. In the spirit of going down fighting, I am throwing everything into defeating this monster. In any great mythical quest tale, the hero is armed with magical tools – invisibility cloaks, golden shields, quirky metal owls, enchanted swords. I have none of those things. Just some very dedicated staff members with a relentless focus on progress and a determination not to be beaten. And three things that have made a big difference.

In a brief Twitter convo with the ever-lovely @Edutronic_Net – also known as Chris Waugh, a fantastic Head of Department, we decided to share some of our strategies to win the battle against the AQA English Language exam. If you have more, join the conversation and comment away!

Timing

You’d think that 2 hours and 15 minutes would be enough. Most Heads of Department I have spoken to have agreed that the timings are tight on this paper. I hate the idea of sitting the paper tactically; it really shouldn’t have to be done that way. However, if you have students who struggle to complete the paper (and missing a question can mean dropping down two or three grades), I gave some advice to my students that really helped. We discussed the idea of pairing questions to ensure that students have the depth of understanding they need to approach each question – and that they have the chance to read the sources more than once. The method that led to the greatest number of complete Higher papers was:

Scan source texts for inspiration
Question 5
Question 6
Read Source 3 in detail (this is the most important Source)
Question 3 (higher marks for those who can spot a ‘pivotal point’ in the text)
Read Sources 1 and 2
Question 4
Re-read Sources 1 and 2
Question 1
Question 2
Check answers

There are lots of arguments for doing the paper in a linear way – especially as the paper works, in theory, on a building up of skills and if you have students who are speedy writers, go ahead and do it in a linear way. For other students, particularly students struggling to stay above the D mark in the Higher paper, this formula was excellent. We ran a walking-talking mock, where we allowed students to sit the paper with a commentary on timing from the teacher. Students were more confident as they were dealing with pairs of questions and have applied these timings to an actual mock with success.

Fairy cakes vs Fudge cakes

Lost of students write huge answers to the reading questions, don’t score very highly, or knock into the time they should be spending on other questions. To help students understand what a quality answer should be, I used the analogy of fairy cakes vs fudge cakes. Fairy cakes are light, fluffy, full of air. Fudge cakes are dense, thick, rich and delicious. Answers to Questions 1-4 are often more fairy than fudge. In a class this week, I asked students to look at 5 real life responses and rank them fairy to fudge. They then had to identify why the fairy ones were fluffy and airy in comparison to the fudge ones. They looked at phrases that add to the writing workload but don’t add to the marks – for example, in Question 1 phrases like:

- This is a text about…
- From this text by X, the reader is able to understand…
- From this quotation, I can tell…

I taught them the difference between a full essay response structure and an exam response structure. Whichever formula you use for full essays (PEE, PQC etc), this can be condensed into one sentence. By teaching condensing, you can have a greater range of detail. You get fudge, rather than fairy.

The Dreaded Question 4

Considering the national average mark for this question is low, it’s clear that students find it difficult. It requires them to be able to combine several processes at the same time: comparison, word level analysis and whole text comprehension. I’ve been working hard on this one and teaching the component parts of those skills is working. For word/phrase analysis (the exam board makes it clear that simple identification of devices is poor practice), I’ve introduced a 4-part analysis process that needs to be taught before comparison takes place:

- Identify language rich word/phrase
- Connotations of word/phrase
- Link connotations to context of the article, tone, purpose, audience
- Develop by considering links to other parts of the text (lexical grouping, echoing)

The problem my students were having was that they could identify language rich quotations and talk about connotations, but failed to see that language and its effect can only be explored successfully in conjunction with the text’s context. They have to be able to link the function with the point of the text. This week, by looking at real responses and weighing up the differences with examiner reports, they noticed the top marks went to student who showed they ‘got’ the text and the way the language works. Whole text comprehension suffers when students do not have the vocabulary to define tone in a nuanced way. Providing students with a lexicon of words that describe tone to move them on from happy, sad, angry meant that students were making more astute descriptions of tone and effect when looking at the language.

There’s no magic bullet for his and I wish I lived in world where my curriculum at KS3 prepared students for the KS4 exam. I clearly don’t live in that world, and I am looking back at my KS3 curriculum to ensure that it embeds reading skills that can be adapted to a KS4 course of study. In the meantime, though, see if these strategies work for your students in this exam and let me know!

Tough Young Teachers: In Loco Parentis?

On Tough Young Teachers this week, we witnessed a delightfully awkward Charles negotiate a fine line between tragedy and farce at parents’ evening when attempting to sternly inform a non-English speaking mother of her wayward son’s poor exam performance. Walid, the aforementioned naughty, made it quite clear that his mum did not have a good enough grasp of English to understand the gravity of his poor performance, a fact picked up on by Charles as he walked away at the end of the evening, with the kind of deflated skulk only experienced at the end of a long day – and evening – in January.

The show has struck a chord with teachers at all stages of their careers, because of the universality of the experience of training to be a teacher. When I started teaching, as a Teach First participant in an inner city borough, I brought my own naïveté with me. I grew up in a community where the standing joke about Asian parents was that if you went home with a B grade, they’d smack you with a sandal and demand to know why you didn’t get an A before threatening to ship you off to a boarding school in India. The truth was, when I first started teaching, I thought all parents were like that. But they’re not.

In eleven years of teaching, I’ve never met a parent who didn’t want their child to achieve. Even the most difficult parents show you eventually that they care desperately about the health, happiness and future of their children. Parents who do not speak very much English show, sometimes by their very presence, that they care about their child. It is very rarely indifference that makes it difficult for a teacher to enlist a parent’s support in disciplining their child, or helping them to revise. It is almost always a lack of understanding of how to help, the language barrier, the lack of space at home, a problematic personal experience of schools. Like one frustrated father says on the show: “I don’t know how to help him.”

How poignant, then, when Charles’ mum tells him that he might be the only adult in some of those children’s lives who can make the difference. In her words lie a truth about our society and education system. It is problematic that she is held up in contrast to parents on the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum. But, she’s right; he can’t give up on the children because they need him to be, in some ways, a substitute parent for his wards – to fill in the gaps left by parents who cannot provide what he can.

It was interesting to see the differing approaches to relationships with students. Meryl, ever the warm hearted idealist, stated that a child’s whole life can be affected by a teacher. Charles’ view was less effusive. There needs to be a degree of separation, he said. “I’m not their father, or their brother.”

All of this brings me back to the phrase ‘in loco parentis’. In 1855, Cheadle Hulme School in Manchester adopted the phrase as its school motto because their student population was made up of orphans. The staff there were literally in the place of the absent parents. However, as teachers in mainstream schools, we are not responsible for orphans – they have parents and we cannot work in isolation from them.

So what do we do when experiencing that sinking feeling at parents’ evening, when you realise that the parent is no more capable of influencing their child’s behaviour than you are? Firstly, resist the urge to speak loudly and slowly if a parent doesn’t speak very much English. Check with children about the language abilities of their parents, speak to other staff and find out before the evening starts. Enlist an interpreter if you can – not the child, as we all know how that can go (“Of course, mum, she’s saying that I’m an excellent student and I don’t need to do homework ever again…!”) An older student who speaks the same language will do the job nicely. Even better if the school has invested in staff who reflect the ethnic make up of the student population and community – interpreting staff are an invaluable asset.

We spend a lot of time as teachers debating as to whether we can be substitute parents, ‘raising’ children in schools that are open all hours. What if we spent some time ‘raising’ parents? This week, I spent an hour helping to teach a group of parents how to speak English. It was a humbling experience as it showed me that I may have to discard some of my frustrations with parents who do not know how to support their children – as their frustration is worse. And it is not just about parents who don’t speak very much English.

Parental engagement and support is absolutely vital in schools for parents of every walk of life – and it is often seen as such a Herculean feat that many schools do not attempt it. When it is committed to, it can change the educational experience of students, staff and parents alike. It’s worth it because everybody wins and parents’ evenings are suddenly less painfully awkward. It’s worth it for that alone!

First published on the Communitas PR Tough Young Teachers blog here

What is The Benefit of Benefits Street?

Channel 4′s controversial new show, deemed ‘poverty porn’ by social commentators, TV reviewers and critics, is an uncomfortable, uncompromising experience. Having watched two episodes now and having felt a little bit grubby afterwards, I have questioned not only the motivations of Channel 4 in airing something that has solicited such negative attention, but my own motivation and inability to turn it off. What is it about the show that makes it compelling?

Critics have slated the show as being a vehicle of ridicule for the residents of James Turner Street, citing their lack of awareness of how they were going to be portrayed on the show. 4.3 millions viewers have tuned in, commenting loudly on social media using the hashtag #benefitsstreet. Certainly, a problematic aspect of the show is the level of aftercare for the residents, considering the negativity the show has attracted. It also glosses over some of the reasons why the families living on James Turner Street live the way they do, allowing the public to make their own assumptions – a dangerous gambit. Owen Jones has been particularly critical. I have engaged in several debates about whether it is ethical to watch the show at all – after all, what is the benefit of Benefits Street?

Watching the show this evening, possibly against my better judgement at the end of a long day, I experienced the gamut of emotions I have come to associate with my Benefits Street viewing experience – a heady mix of disgust, of concern, of anger, of shame (yes, shame for watching!) and of horror as I followed the Twitter hashtag. Perhaps my argument today is a result of an inability to reconcile the desire to watch with the fear that I am part of something hideous – a baying crowd for what is reassuringly ‘Other’. I have to find a reason for the show, to understand it in some way, or I am just part of the circus that accompanies the whole thing.

So, with that in mind, it occurs to me that that the show provides something we do not often experience. For many, the recession is something other people have suffered. Financial hardship is at an arm’s length and we care about it in the same way we care about starving children in third world countries – with a condescending pity. We watch because it is comforting. We are not like those people. I am not like those people.

Yet it courts the worst elements in society. Follow #benefitsstreet and you will see the dregs of humanity, spewing the vilest comments. The inadvertent (or entirely intentional?) result of the show is the turning up of the rock. The show exposes not only the residents of the street, but the rampant prejudices of its viewers. And the viewers have reacted exactly as they must: a middle class, seemingly moderate crowd who bemoan the show’s exploitation of its ‘stars’, whilst keeping a respectful distance. But you see, I’ve had that thought. And I watch with everyone else, with my central heating on and food on a plate because I am not those people on TV. I have something to be grateful for. And I can watch them and follow the viciousness on Twitter because it reaffirms everything I subconsciously believe. I am not those people, on screen or off screen.

Maybe those who have complained about the show are uncomfortable with the truth that it accidentally exposes. We don’t live in a Working Title movie. While we might have believed that the recession meant that some people had to ‘tighten their belts’ and that government cuts meant that some people might be a little less well off, the show shatters any rose-tinted illusions about inequality and the income gap. There are some very poor people and as much as social media and the press may want to point fingers at those individuals to blame them for their own predicaments, it is also clear that the poverty depicted on the show is ingrained – not a conscious choice, but the result of decades of neglect and failures of the state to break the cycle of that poverty.

My worry is that the show is actually too subtle for some watching it. Look closely and you might see the crippling addictions of one its characters, the strange anger of a serial criminal and the self destruction that goes with his behaviour. Look closely and you will see the contrasts presented between different groups of residents in the street. But the reactionary world of Twitter and Facebook, where armchair commentary means you can swing your fist no matter who you punch in the face, is rife with those who have not stopped to consider the smaller points. It is altogether easier for some to utter the immortal words about Romanian immigrants: “Go back to where you came from if you don’t like it here!” Probably whilst making several grammatical errors.

It is easy to level the accusation that Channel 4 are behaving irresponsibly by airing the show because they are providing fodder for the racists and misogynists online and elsewhere. Is it better to play it safe and sugar-coat our national identity so we don’t have to what it can be like on ‘the other side’? Or should Channel 4 show us that we are capable of turning into a baying crowd when faced with an aspect of our society we cannot assimilate into our consciousness?

The vitriol on the hashtag that accompanies the show should be a stark warning to our government. What causes such anger against people less fortunate than others? Have we always been a nation so lacking in empathy that we would suggest ‘bombing’ James Turner Street? When did we become these people?

In many ways, Channel 4 has accomplished something that very rarely happens in the mainstream media. It has managed to create a three way dynamic that forces us to question ourselves. It has asked us to watch ourselves watching the residents of Benefits Street. Now that I can see that, I’m not sure I like what I see.