The Meandering Social Worker

wandering : wondering : learning

Archive for the tag “teaching”

Can white understand colour?

This US teacher gets it – and it works for social work and other caring professions too – read what she has to say HERE.



She did not groom him

I am writing at the risk of adding yet more verbiage to the reporting on the latest unbelievable ignorance by a member of the judiciary.  I am of course talking about Judge Greenberg in her summing up of the trial of Stuart Kerner for having a sexual relationship with a 15/16 year old girl pupil.  Stunningly the judge admitted she did not really know if it was the right word to use as she suggested the girl had ‘groomed’ Mr Kerner.  It wasn’t the right word to use and now, fortunately, she will be subject to an inquiry.

But let’s take a step back and consider the aspects of the case that are publicly known along with what we know about child and adolescent development and normal human behaviour.

The girl was 15/16.  An adolescent.  It is normal for young people of this age to be developing their sexual identity.  It is normal for young people of this age to develop a ‘crush’ or ‘infatuation’ with one or more of the hopefully ‘safe’ adults in their lives (same or opposite sex), often at a ‘safe’ distance in the form of a pop star or football player, etc.  It is even normal for young girls to experiment with flirting with (heaven forbid) their dads, older brothers, uncles, teachers.  It’s a part of growing up.  It is not normal for those adults to respond by getting into a sexual relationship with that child/young person.

It is quite possible this schoolgirl thought she was in love with her teacher and acted in a way that let him know of her attraction towards him.  Assuming he is a normal male he would have felt flattered by the attention and sexual interest of a younger person.

But he was also a professional in a position of responsibility.  Another of those relational facts of life is that some (many?) women find men in a position of responsibility attractive.  Films such as An Officer and a Gentleman help illustrate this idea but there are plenty of everyday vicars and doctors and surgeons and police officers and therapists, as well as teachers, who have to deal with the attentions of vulnerable people who are attracted to them because of their position and role in society. That’s why these professions have codes of conduct.

Mr Kerner should not have succumbed to the flattery of the attention of a young girl.  He should have recognised his responsibility towards her as a pupil.  His own emotional vulnerability while his wife was pregnant should never have come into it. As a teacher concerned about a pupil’s behaviour and attentions he should have spoken to another, more senior, member of staff in confidence according to his school’s procedures.  He and his seniors would need to acknowledge that in a tiny percentage of cases the girl could have made a false allegation against him for denying her advances.  They should have worked together to support the girl and ensure that everyone was appropriately protected from an inappropriate relationship.  Clearly that didn’t happen.

This young woman, now 19, should be able to sit down with her friends and giggle over a glass of wine about the time she had a crush on the RE teacher, old Mr Kerner.  Instead she has to face the memory that he took her virginity in a cleaning cupboard and that some nutty old judge turned around and blamed her for it.

All heterosexual references above can equally apply to same sex relationships.

Girls play soccer

Imagine you are the deputy head of a girls’ soccer academy. It’s a small school, around 150 pupils aged between 14 and 18. You have a regular teaching assignment, teaching science. Right now you are standing in front of a class of eager students all waiting to learn. Each one has a Kindle with all their text books downloaded on to it, a pen and a notebook for recording their notes in neat handwriting. You know that those Kindles are treasured and none will be lost or damaged. Each girl is proud to wear her school uniform with the logo “Education is the key to our future”. Each one is different, they all have their own personalities. Some are members of the school soccer team that has won so many trophies you only have room for a quarter of them to remain on display. You know that if you ask the class who wants to set up in their own business when they finish school nearly every girl will put up her hand. You also know you’ll get a range of answers as to the type of business they want to go into. One wants her own butchery business, another wants to go into wholesale, while yet another wants to go into the beauty profession and one wants to be a psychologist.  Most want to continue their education post 18 and go on to college or university. Some would like to come back and teach here. Working with children with such ambitions and love of school and learning makes your job your joy. You’re delighted that the school is growing and that this year the school has had its first intake of boys. The school is popular – two hundred children applied for the 70 places available for the last intake.

With so many reasons to enjoy your work you become more determined to overcome the stresses.

You see the girls smiling faces. You don’t see the ragged sleeves of their jumpers, the frequently repaired skirts and blouses, the shoes that are down at heel and with the broken straps. You don’t see that the old and tiny wooden desks are crammed in tight to all four walls of the classroom with barely room to move a chair and just enough room for you to stand beside the door. You don’t see the rough walls that haven’t been painted since Barclays Bank sent over a team for a “do good day” several years ago. You don’t see the mud courtyard and path that runs around the school, with an open rivulet of water and raw sewage running through it, clogged up with plastic and other rubbish. You don’t smell the stench of garbage that pervades the air all around. You don’t mind that you don’t get paid while your teaching colleagues get on average 25% of the national wage for a teacher. You don’t mind because in return for being house mother and house father to a dorm of ten students whose parents can’t afford to keep them at home, you have a roof over your head and you are able to join in with the free school meals.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen you are not teaching you are talking to sponsors and potential sponsors, finding little bits of money here and there for the things your students and the school need. Some more school uniforms for the students who would not be able to come to school otherwise as their family cannot afford to buy their uniform; the money to pay for the free school meals for everyone otherwise they would almost certainly go without; sanitary towels for the girls so they don’t have to pay for them with free sex to the boys who offer to buy them on their behalf. And that’s before you even think about buying supplies for the science room or some extra books, novels and general fiction, for the school library.

Some of your sponsors are bigger than others – such as the company that provided the Kindles. This means you can pass on your old text books to another school that needs them and free up some more space for another classroom. Another sponsor wanted you to offer places for boys as well as girls and provided you with funds for another building. Right now you are campaigning to raise funds to build a new school-house, the old buildings to be converted into a dormitory so that more of the children can stay at the school all week and make better use of the facilities there.

True to what the school teaches about developing business for independence, you are also involved in supporting a photography and film company, Shedders, run by the school, which helps ‘shed’ light on the reality of life living in a slum and brings in some welcome income from some quite prestigious contracts. You are overseeing the setting up a new internet café where you will also offer photocopying and passport photos.  You help manage the micro-finance scheme that enables your former students and the families of your students to set up in business themselves.

As well as the very successful soccer team the school has a successful drama club that tackles the issues of discrimination, poverty, health problems such as HIV/AIDS, politics and religion that are relevant in their community. The debating club tackle many of the same issues as they take on thorny subjects such as as school dropout, early marriage and domestic violence. The science club recently learned how to make solar power light bulbs and turned their experience into an income generating opportunity.

The school where you work is more than just a school, it is a community resource.  It’s the Kibera Girls Soccer Academy which was founded in 2006 with the philosophy of ‘working against extreme gender inequalities because we know that by educating girls, there is a power ripple effect through the larger community and future generations of leaders’.

What is Kibera?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs it name suggests the school is based in Kibera, a district in Nairobi, Kenya. Kibera is the second largest slum in the world and the largest slum in Africa. In an area of 1.5 square miles live over a million people. That’s 60% of the population of Nairobi living on 5% of the land. Half the population of the Kibera are children and young people under the age of 18. Although the Kenyan government own the land they have deemed Kibera an illegal settlement. This allows them to refuse to recognise the slum and abandon all responsibility for the area and the people in it. Just a short drive away are the homes of the wealthy, with Range Rovers and other luxury cars turning up at the Westernised shopping malls.  The slum butts up close to the French Embassy.

Open sewers run through the streets. Many of the people there live on a $1US a day. Their first priorities are food and shelter. The rubbish piles up against their houses and fences, or clogs the trickling river that runs through the district and is fed by the open sewers.  Refuse collection trucks could not get through the streets, and anyway the people cannot afford to pay for their refuse to be collected and taken away by the private refuse collection companies. Instead it piles up to become the rotting home of rats and mice; the children play amongst it and the goats nibble at the corn husks and whatever other tasty morsels they can find. When the rains come there is flooding and then cholera and typhus claim their dues from among the population. There are few toilets and no private washrooms. Fifty houses might share one latrine – with an average of eight people living in a house that’s one latrine to 400 people. Flying toilets fill in the gaps (sh*t on a leaf or old plastic bag, wrap it up and throw it over the fence). Where public latrines exist, set up by private enterprises that charge for their use, the effluence joins the rubbish in running in rivulets down the streets. With standing and slow moving water, breeding grounds for mosquitoes, malaria is a very real risk. Malaria prevention is undertaken through the use of mosquito nets but there are no clinics or hospitals in Kibera and the only treatment available is for those who can pay to visit the doctors beyond the boundaries. Some die. TB and other chest infections, urban dengue and yellow fever cause more health problems. Cars, let alone ambulances and fire trucks cannot get through many of the narrow streets, and probably wouldn’t bother to come here anyway.  The sick have to be taken out in a wheelbarrow or carried by their family on a home-made stretcher.  The good news is that HIV/AIDS is receding as a problem through the successes of health education programmes.  Few people own bicycles or motorcycles.  Most people walk.  For longer journeys out of the Kibera there is the bus.  An unguarded train track passes through Kibera, running from Mobassa in the south right through to Uganda.  People walk along the track all the time.

Unlike recent refugee camps Kibera is a mature community and doesn’t make the news.  Despite the problems it is a thriving community. The streets are crowded with small businesses, tiny little shops selling household goods, furniture, meat, vegetables, clothing, toiletries, and charcoal. Street vendors cook corn or other local foods and sell to passers by. In between are internet cafés, hairdressers or barbers, and cafés. All the normal shops and business you might expect to find in any shopping centre or town centre High Street.  Except their buildings are built from mud or corrugated iron or old shipping containers.  Around 20% of the people have electricity.  Even though there is no waste removal and treatment service some homes receive fresh water supplies, which they sell to others for 5 Kenyan schilling for 20 litres (about £0.04 or $0.06).  Earlier settlers here now own the homes that others rent.  During the day the streets are mainly walked by children and goats.  Early in the morning and by night the streets are crowded as the workers who travel out of the Kibera for work every day return home.

These are the condition your students live in.  The children are your future and the girls from the Kibera Girls’ Soccer Academy will have the opportunity to use the education your are offering as a means to escape the slum. Some may choose to return to help others escape, just like you and many of your teaching colleagues have chosen to do.

Counter-productive reform in helping disadvantaged young people get good jobs

A “major reform” in education, one that will specifically “help hundreds of thousands of young people get good jobs” has been announced in a government press release on Monday 2 September.

The “major reform” is that all children who leave school without a grade C in Maths or English must continue to study these subjects “in post-16 education until they get these qualifications”.

“The reform was proposed in 2011 by Professor Alison Wolf in her ground-breaking review of vocational education and backed by Education Secretary Michael Gove.”

And there are some very sound reasons behind the reform, in particular the press release outlines that:

  • many employers are not satisfied with the literacy and numeracy levels of young people leaving education, despite considering these skills essential in the workplace, and
  • many young people do not continue to study once they have left full-time compulsory education or go on to improve their literacy and numeracy skills.

I didn’t need to go to the Guardian online to know that many teachers will be sitting, like me, with their heads in their hands groaning in woe at this latest madcap idea.  None of us disagree with the importance of literacy and numeracy skills, but collectively a number of concerns are being raised:

  • Funding is of course an issue.  As this is still only a press release little information is available as to how the reforms will be funded, although there is reference to colleges being able to offer “other qualifications – including functional skills and free-standing mathematics qualifications accredited by Ofqual – as a stepping stone to GCSE study” and this being “a condition of funding for colleges from 2014”.  And, “a new 16 to 19 funding formula ending the link between funding and qualification success rates”, as well as “reformed performance tables”.
  • Apart from the acknowledgement of ‘stepping stone’ qualifications little has been said about children with special educational needs or those for whom English is a second language.  As one teacher comments, for some children with additional needs, a grade D or E is a major achievement?
  • The third key concern coming from comments by teachers is around availability of additional teaching staff in the midst of a crisis in teacher training as well as the strains the additional workloads will produce and the climate of changing relationships between schools and local authorities.

But I have some other questions and concerns about this “major reform”.

  • My greatest concern is the impact this reform will have on vocational education.  As one of the Guardian comments points out, literacy and numeracy skills are an essential part of much of vocational post-16 learning, which inevitably includes a number of students with additional learning needs.  If these colleges have then to focus on students passing one particular exam it will undoubtedly be at the expense of them studying a wider range of skill sets.  THIS WILL BE HIGHLY COUNTERPRODUCTIVE.  Especially for students with additional learning needs.
  • No reference is made to life-long learning.  Even without having taken part in formal post-16 learning most people continue to learn new things as they get older and come against new experiences.  Skills that remain unpractised fade away.  I remember little of some subjects I supposedly have an ‘O’ Level in while in others my knowledge has continued to grow over the years due to exposure to reading, television and sources internet as sources of information.  We know that if we learn a foreign language but don’t practice it we soon forget it – sure, it comes back again but not as quickly as in ‘riding a bike’.  The emphasis on passing an exam and not in encouraging a real appreciation of using the skills learned is not necessarily going to have the desired result of producing young people ‘fit for work’.

My other concerns are a little more pedantic.

  • When does it end?  The phrase in the press release which says young people leaving school without a Grade C in Maths or English will continue to study “until they get these qualifications” has been ill thought-out.  What if they never get the qualification?  Is there an upper age limit?  Will adults still have to go to college when they are in their 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, until they get the required Grade C in these subjects.  The press report’s references to funding only refer to the 16-19 age range.
  • No acknowledgement is being made of the fact that Grade C was always meant to be an ‘average’ grade.  For Grade C to be the benchmark for average there has to be As, Bs, Ds and Es.  Call me old-fashioned if you like.
  • But most of all I hate the lie that is in the title of the press release: “Major reform will help hundreds of thousands of young people get good jobs”.  It won’t.  Cramming for an exam, being pushed through the mill to write the correct (or correct enough) answers to questions on a piece of paper in an exam room, probably at the expense of learning other skills, is not the route to young people getting good jobs.  Literacy and numeracy are vitally important, but when these skills don’t come naturally there are other (better) ways of learning them, as pointed out by the vocational teachers in the Guardian comments.

Instead of wasting time with reforms to put right what’s missing as young people are leaving school, research time should be spent on how literacy and numeracy skills can be better learned in the eleven years between 5 and 16.  What are the pressures that encourage or deter developing these skills in those years?  What are the existing policies that make it either harder or easier for teachers in promoting these skills?  And then let the vocational teachers do what they do best – develop literacy and numeracy skills alongside vocational skills.

Why should I be interested in educational reforms as a social worker?  Well, education IS relevant to social work.  It’s relevant to the people, the families, we work with.  It affects families with children especially, but the long term consequences of good or bad education policy affect every age group.

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