A critique of assumptions underpinning provision of extra-curricular activities

This was a question that I asked (myself) during a recent discussion about the length of school day and the provision of clubs for children. We’re all about Hirsch and want to provide a knowledge-rich curriculum, but when it comes to extra-curricular provision, the assumption is that the more we provide that is similar to the life experiences of better-off children, the more we can ‘close the gap’. However, I think we’re looking at the wrong thing when it comes to advantage. I don’t think it’s karate and horse-riding that gives an advantaged child the edge in life, even though these activities are pretty fun, I think it’s the fact that they’re more likely to be experiencing dinner table conversation, homework supervision, music practice, bedtime rituals which include reading and being read to every single day. This is surely the real reason advantaged children enter reception year with a vast store of words and facts in their heads, as well as that advanced ability to concentrate, communicate and appreciate which ultimately leads to creativity, success and happiness.

knife and fork

There is this other curriculum that no one seems to see or acknowledge. Maybe this is because many teachers (teaching is a middle class profession) assume that a civilised dinner conversation is more or less what everyone experiences, that it doesn’t really matter, or perhaps they’re too scared to talk about this in public lest they be accused of being to ‘judgy’.

Instead, we look at the glamour of fun, entertaining and distracting activities and assume that if we give as much of these as possible to disadvantaged children, they will also achieve in the same way. The modern view that happiness for children should be a goal rather than the by-product of hard work could cause us all to lose sight of what really needs to be looked at. In this case I think it is what happens at the dinner table, at multiple points of the day, a steady drip, drip, drip of the following that makes the difference:

  • teaching, modelling and practice of sitting still and waiting
  • teaching, modelling and practice of a script for civilised conversation (‘How was  your day? What did you learn?’), including the inculcation of the habit of listening
  • teaching, modelling and practice of sharing
  • teaching, modelling and practice of tier 1, 2 and 3 words as well as interesting facts that they can refer and make links to in class

A simple calculation of 3 x 20 minutes of ‘dinner table curriculum’ a day gives us a child who has had almost 2000 hours of said instruction and practice by the time they start school. I’ve often thought that the real difference in ‘ability’ and attainment that we see open up in reception year is really a manifestation of whether a child has received the curriculum above (or not) which would then affect that child’s ability to receive the teacher’s instruction when they start school.

Reverting to the provision of middle class experiences as a way of closing the gap provides the following:

  • teaching and practice of constantly moving about and being heard
  • teaching and practice of a script for shouting matches
  • recycling of a child’s own limited vocabulary, opinions and feelings
  • an expectation of constant entertainment that ultimately leads to disappointment and ingratitude

My conclusion: maybe we need to somehow implement a ‘dinner table curriculum’ as a way of closing the gap instead. They need our time, attention and high expectations.

Who’s with me?


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