Education Policy, School-wide Literacy
Comments 12

Schools, Character and Justice

Schools cannot teach character while we perpetuate injustice.

I’ve just read some fab posts on teaching character: Summer Turner’s nuanced piece challenging the view that character is superior to knowledge in ‘real life’ and Heather Fearn’s observation that doing the right thing doesn’t necessarily make one successful. This post on Drowning in the Shallow by @ImSporticus on The Fountain of Character contained a link to this powerful interview with Anthony Ray Hinton (from 2:10:35). Hinton showed unrelenting hope in the face of gross injustice. This set me thinking about inequality in schools, and how institutions tend to insulate themselves from reality rather than face up to the impact of their practices, especially on those with the least power.

Graffiti - listen to the voiceless

And that led me to ponder on the character of schools. You see, I’m in the business of showing schools how to teach kids to read. Kids who’ve been let down by ‘the system’ and have arrived at secondary school with very poor literacy, and often poor numeracy. I think that our character is often demonstrated by how we treat those who, seemingly, have nothing to offer. Do we continue to marginalise them or do we do something to resolve or improve their situation?

Students with poor literacy, who are thought not to make a difference to the school’s results, are often not prioritised. Results are seen as the main goal – the crowning glory of the school, their raison d’être. In many schools it is fair to say that a disproportionately large amount of funding and time is invested in pulling up students on the ‘pass/fail’ (4 / 5) borderline; at the same time, those who are not regarded as likely to ‘make the cut’ often have their opportunities reduced further through withdrawal from exams (surely an admission of the school’s failure, not the student’s). The level of investment for these weaker students often consists of special access arrangements, a TA in the room, and the least experienced teachers.

Graffiti - we cry for justice

The character of schools is revealed in the way we view these more vulnerable students, reading years behind their chronological age and predicted grades of 1, 2 or at best 3. Well, they’re not very bright – after all they’ve had years of teaching so a lack of intelligence must be the problem. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, can you? They’re ‘dyslexic’ so we’ll make sure that we put adaptations in place to compensate. It’s their behaviour, isn’t it? If they would just stop being disruptive and pay attention in class, they wouldn’t be in this situation. And so on.

I think that there is a pattern here of placing the problem within the students – blaming them if you like – labelling them. I see very little of schools taking responsibility to change the situation. Sure, there’s not a total abdication of responsibility: extra time in exams, reader / writers, provision of laptops, etc. But what is being done to actually change the situation? Some will say: look, of course we care – we affirm them at every opportunity, so that their self-esteem doesn’t take too much of a battering. And we’ve given them a reading intervention, but they still didn’t make much progress, so they obviously do have severe limitations. All of which is to say, we can’t change the situation – or possibly, it’s not worth the investment.

Graffiti - scales of justice

But schools are not just institutions – they’re made up of people. People like you and me. When we take responsibility, institutions change. Are we going to wring our hands in sympathy, or are we going to take responsibility and be agents for change in our schools? If what we are doing is not working, do we accept failure as inevitable or do we look at other approaches? Do we really look at what is effective practice, or do we take refuge in time-honoured conventions that result in traditional levels of failure?

What if we can actually teach these kids so that they do learn? What if it’s the teaching that needs to change? It doesn’t require a lot of new money or someone’s latest great idea. It’s possible to invest in practices that have been tried and proven successful – not a risk, but a pretty safe bet. The evidence for such approaches has been around for a long time. It’s not a question of whether something can be done; it’s a question how we deal with our own preconceptions, and the value we place on the education of less ‘able’ students.

Graffiti - woman's left eye, eyebrow & hair (Pixabay)

For an example of what I am talking about, read Emmanuel’s story. From reading at a six-year-old level in Year 10, he gained nine years in thirteen months (including the summer break), went on to gain five ‘good’ GCSEs, including English and maths and is now at a ‘good’ university. Emmanuel’s experience is just one of many whose futures have been changed by being taught to read successfully. It’s a measure of Emmanuel’s character that he has allowed us to share his story so that others can learn what is possible.

While we are debating the merits of character education, let’s remember that our own character – or lack of it – is on display every day in the choices we make regarding our most vulnerable students.

(This post was updated 24 January 2018.)

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  1. Great post – I’m totally with you in this.

    At the March 2015 Reading Reform Foundation conference with the theme of ‘Some schools teach all their children to read, why don’t all schools? or words to that effect, this issue of the ‘within child issue’ being responsible was addressed strongly in the talks. Most of the talks were filmed so hopefully we’ll have footage to share from this conference.

    I am persisting with this theme in my wider work and in the talks for the two researchED Literacy Conferences (April, May 2015).

    As part of this theme, I’m doing my best to draw attention to the fact that in England’s schools, teachers are working very hard providing ‘phonics’ but often misguidedly – and their pupils don’t get enough practice – it’s as simple as that in many cases – and then those children left struggling are invariably about ‘the child’ and not ‘the teaching’ when the Reception and Infant teachers are providing what they think they are expected to provide.

    I’ve drawn up a graphic to try to make this point – The Simple View of Schools’ Phonics Provision’:

    If we can keep improving phonics provision in the early stages of children’s schooling, you wouldn’t need to work so hard with the secondary pupils.

    Having said that, the whole thrust of my researchED talk has been my suggestion that the WHOLE teaching profession should be trained and knowledgeable about phonics – and, as part of this, I’m trying to change the perception of phonics from ‘baby stuff’ to ‘adult stuff’ because, as you know, phonics is a lifelong body of knowledge and skills for reading and spelling new, longer and more challenging words.

    Keep up your excellent work – great to have you ‘out there’ writing such great stuff.


    • Thank you, Debbie. I agree that it would be much easier if children were taught properly from the start, rather than having to unlearn poor strategies. And the whole question of practice suggests that there needs to be system-wide recalibration to ensure sufficient time is allocated, especially in the early years. I think we could probably eradicate illiteracy within 10 years with a ‘pincer’ effect – effective remediation at secondary and effective beginning reading instruction in primary. It just needs the will to do so – the methods are there.


  2. Lucy Prabhu says

    110% agree with your blogpost, and Debbie Hepplewhite’s comment above. If I, as a parent of a formerly ‘dyslexic’ child, can find out about and learn how to teach ‘good’ phonics to my own children and local struggling readers, then surely any competent teacher can?

    The more often this is highlighted and demonstrated the better, and your excellent posts do this in a most thoughtful and concise way. Thank you.


    • It’s something that needs to come out of the ‘too hard’ basket. It really is a solvable problem and in the meantime kids lives are being blighted by illiteracy.


  3. Great post. Thank you. As a secondary science teacher in the US one of my greatest challenges has always been how to help my non-reading students learn to read.


    • Thank you. What is so frustrating is that it is a solvable problem. It just needs the will of school management to actually do something about it. The cost of illiteracy is too high – the cost to the individual in lost opportunities and also to society as a whole.

      Liked by 1 person

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