I’ve been reading ‘Much Promise. Successful Schools in England‘ by Barnaby Lenon on and off for a while now, but I had glossed over a section about school personality, thinking that I had already internalised the main message that schools need to provide an academic atmosphere, encouraging aspiration and hard work as well as having a ‘brand’ as it were that makes them different from all the rest. It wasn’t until I saw a series of programs from the BBC archives about young recruits to the Parachute Regiment of the army that I started thinking about motivation for young boys in particular and how schools’ personalities may or may not be influential enough. Here we had very young men, many of whom had pretty much failed academically; they were seeking more than the security of regular pay, rather they were more eager to see ‘action’. It occurred to me that they wanted to be heroes and were willing to put themselves through some seriously difficult training (which also included being insulted regularly) and living conditions in order to achieve their goal. Basically, the forces presented the option of a completely new identity for these young men. No longer would they be known as ‘so-and-so, the lazy arse from the crappy estate’, they would be known as ‘Private Smith, ready for anything’.
Of course, this led me to think about whether primary schools in particular were providing a ‘second identity’ for young boys to choose to step into. Many would argue that young boys don’t need that kind of extrinsic motivation when they are so young, but I think that even at the youngest age it is really important to not have to constantly be reminded that you can’t control your emotions every time you go for a special intervention session with the HLTA. When I think about schools in disadvantaged areas and the motivation of many teachers who choose to work in primary schools, it seems to me that many schools’ ‘personalities’ inadvertently condemn certain children to continue to be reminded of their disadvantaged background rather than provide an alternative identity for them to step into. This is all done out of love, a sense of ‘This is what we do: we direct our resources to tirelessly working with children with social and emotional needs arising from the conditions they live in. We are positive, we put those interventions in place and we care so much.’
However, despite all that love, it’s still kind of like a collective victim mentality. It doesn’t matter that a school might have a lovely library, or excellent co-curricular clubs or even a free breakfast club: if there’s no ‘second identity’ for children to step into that allows them to forget about their home life and instead choose to be ‘The Best Mathematician’ for example, then they will internalise that their background defines them and there will surely be hardly any motivation during those maths lessons. This situation partly explains why young boys are so obsessed with football: it provides not just fun, running around, a sense of belonging to a tribe and competition, it also provides the ‘fantasy’ that one day they might be football heroes as men and for half an hour on that playing field, no one is reminding them that their parents are alcoholics or why their uniform, academic achievement and general motivation is in tatters.
So, I’m wondering whether providing a ‘second identity’ for young children, boys in particular, might be pretty transformational even in the reception year. Last week I was called ‘The Flash’ by some of the boys in my class when I demonstrated exactly how fast you really need to be when it comes to recall of maths facts. Wouldn’t it be great if they could take on that identity? Of course, I told them that there was nothing special about me, just that I had worked hard and had practised, practised and practised. When I think back to when my own sons started school, they were already equipped with an ‘identity’ because our family is seen as being good at maths. Disadvantaged boys, I have realised, not only come to school with a lack of vocabulary, general knowledge and focus (because they have not experienced routine and discipline at home), but they also come to school with a lack of ‘hero’ identity to hold onto. It does not help that many primary teachers look down upon all forms of competition and the notion of wanting to be publicly good at something (academic) as somehow ‘vulgar’, personality traits that must be erased at all costs. I think this attitude is particularly detrimental to those white, working class males we’re supposed to be helping, not hindering.
In order to provide a ‘second identity’, we need to create a rhetoric in the early years that gives young boys permission to dream a little and choose to leave their infamy (perhaps as the one who shouts, or runs out of class constantly) at the gates. We also need to give children all the knowledge they need so that they can actually be good at something academic.
Who’s with me?