Book Review:Changing Life Chances by Robin Richardson.

Peter D`Sena

Peter D`Sena

Peter D`Sena Discipline Lead History,Higher Education Academy

According to the Department for Education (DfE), almost 1.2 million children in England live in a lower-income household (as defined by eligibility for free school meals); and from that group only 27% of the 16-year olds achieve five A* to C grades at GCSE, compared with 54% of others.

No wonder the DfE in their Equality Impact Statement (2011) came to the enormously miserable and powerful conclusion that ‘we are clearly, as a nation, still wasting talent on a scandalous scale.  It is a moral failure and an affront to social justice’.  Using government documentation such as this Robin Richardson quickly and convincingly launches into this short book, showing us that we are living in a period when, paradoxical as it may seem because things are both getting better and worse at the same time, the achievement gap is growing wider between children.

The recent Equalities Act (2010) then comes under Richardson’s microscope and the result is a succinct, yet robust rationale for practitioners working in the field.  His effective argument is that to the Act’s nine protected characteristics of disability, ethnicity and race, gender, religion and so on, we should also add socio-economic inequality, brought through poverty, low income and social class.  And, just as a core principle of the Act is that ‘due regard’ is a necessity in order to carry its objectives into practice, so too should schools and individuals develop, demonstrate and practice ‘due regard’ in all they do in order to narrow the gap.

Currently, schools receive a pupil premium of £600 pa for each child eligible for free school meals.  (This sum could rise to £900 in 2014, though it could, of course, disappear entirely.)  Put simply, Richardson showcases a number of practical projects, suggesting ways to make best use of that financial resource, with due regard to narrowing the gap and increasing life chances.  Much of the project work was carried out in Derbyshire, but (because the book is actually far from simple) these are based on educational theory rooted in a number of critical pedagogies and principles and pilots developed as far away as New Zealand and the USA and, obviously, as near as Derbyshire!  Indeed, what will become evident to any first-time reader of Richardson’s work is the wealth of academic, professional and cultural resources brought into the discussion as exemplars, vignettes and real points of reference, rather than as mere window dressing.  The case studies or practical projects and endeavours that take up the last two-thirds of the book are multi-faceted. They can be defined and described by activity: for example, media and communications work, using film, poetry, graffiti and animation; by literary engagement and vocabulary building, communicating with authentic audiences; by addressing controversial issues; through documentary making.  However, the significant dimensions of so-called soft skills, such as teamwork, co-operation, negotiation, empathy and consequent self-esteem and the ‘hard’, often measured skills of literacy, performance and exhibition are also ever present, their relevance to educational outcomes conveniently described.  Thus, these case studies are therefore designed to both inform and act as templates for readers’ personal, bespoke projects.

Richardson emphasises that a key strength of each project is, in fact, that they advance opportunities for pupils to develop extended literacy – they go beyond the prescribed curriculum, vital as we exist in a society in where it is as important to not only understand the importance of text, but also moving and other images.  In this vein, the Cine Hubs project, in partnership with the British Film Institute, particularly caught my attention because of the ways in which it engaged pupils with so many big issues of concern in my discipline area, history.  Pupils conducted interviews to unlock personal and community histories, and better understand their own and others’ cultural heritage and identities.  They then went on to use film-making to disseminate core findings, ideas and perspectives.  If the whispers that the next incarnation of the National Curriculum for History will prioritise the ‘Island Story’ and a top-down version of the past are true, then projects such as these, which bring multiperspectivity, agency and engagement, will be more important than ever before.  The irony is that we want to do similar things as the government (promote a sense and appreciation of identity), but with different outcomes in mind.

Throughout the book, Richardson gives a series of health warnings.  He acknowledges that schools and teachers do not have a magic wand, that there are difficult out-of-school factors, but there is advice and practical tasks on how schools can identify them and work to mitigate their effects.  Neither is this project work assumed to be plain sailing: developing partnerships with local companies, if that is what is needed to support pupils, involves hard work, complex negotiations and the usual difficulties with timetabling.  The rewards, however, are worth the challenges.  In the short-term, projects have demonstrated a capacity to increase engagement of pupils in ‘hard to reach’ and underachieving groups, and there have been strong indications of improvements to the pupils’ chances of gaining qualifications and, hence, obtaining a good job.  There are other spin-offs, such as changing relationships with teachers and improved attendance.  Clearly, it would be of major interest, in a few years time, to have a longitudinal study on whether and how life chances had been changed and enhanced.  But let’s stick to the here and now: the book’s tasks for teachers are designed to encourage self-reflection and school-related activity to support the creation and implementation of policy and practice and in general help to support good classroom teaching, whether associated with a project or not.

This is an excellent book, carefully crafted, fluent, with accessible language and with concepts and principles exemplified in the right measure.  It should be on every school manager’s and practitioner’s desk, opened regularly and put to use.  In my opinion, there is only one part of the book I would alter and that is one of its very shortest sections towards the end about implications for the everyday classroom.  Its brevity, to me, might lead the reader to think that the contents apply mainly to the exceptional events in the school calendar and completely underestimate its importance for their day-to-day practice.  Readers of this blog (with its left-wing perspective) might not like to hear this, but that kind of lesson has not been lost on practitioners in the independent school system: they sell their wares on enhancing life chances; and projects, productions, focused extra-curricular activities understanding identity, and building scholarly capacity and self-esteem are both very regular and de rigour and so are unexceptional and integrated.  Of course, there is poor practice in every educational sector and phase; but I can say, after well over twenty years of visiting schools of all kinds, the opposite is also true.  (The trick is to ensure that best practice doesn’t only cross systems in one, namely the wrong, direction.)  Poignantly, a character in one of Richardson’s vignettes reminds us that ‘No one has all the answers’.  That, of course, is true, but this is a book that reminds us, whatever the answers might be, what the questions should be and it provides guiding principles and examples to take all teachers and teaching-related staff forward in their practice, whether working with the pupil premium or not.

Peter D’Sena is Discipline Lead for History at the Higher Education Academy, the UK’s leading institution for supporting teaching and learning in universities and colleges.

He has taught history for over thirty years.  In that time, his research and scholarly activity has embraced work on crime on London’s waterfront, diversity, inclusion and citizenship in history education, and the global dimension in initial teacher education.  His career has included sixteen years as a schoolteacher, ten of which were in inner London in Tower Hamlets and Haringey; and another sixteen years as a teacher educator at St. Mary’s College, Strawberry Hill, Leeds Metropolitan University, the University of Worcester and London South Bank.  His most recent research is about ethnicity, diversity and community in eighteenth-century London.

Changing Life Chance: practical projects and endeavours in Schools, by Robin Richardson, published by Derbyshire County Council and Trentham Books, 2012


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