As teachers, we are placed in a position of authority. We teach, we impart, we inspire, we hoist children up from humble origins, we take children from low to high. This movement of children in an upwards direction is reinforced by the ubiqtuitous rhetoric of social mobility. We like to subscribe to the idea that effective education and employment policy gives opportunities for students to improve their lot as part of a meritocracy. This is a noble and vital aim of society, but one that can clearly be problematic (I loved @ieshasmall on this here).

An issue takes hold when we start homing in on the lowly origins of our students. When we start to accentuate, even glamorise, the perceived failures of the children we work with and see their origins as deficiencies. We’ve all done this: I know I certainly have. We’ve had a hard week, we need to feel virtuous and make our job seem meaningful. We start by talking disparagingly of the children we teach. We consider the difficulty of their home lives and the importance of education to take them away from it. We beat our chests over what we see as the lack of books/parental support/dinner time conversations/money/understanding of the world/decent food. We start homogenising whole groups of society into one blob of social disadvantage and failure. We see ourselves as saviours, social super heroes, swooping in to save these families from themselves.

That some children, mainly working-class children, are seen as deficient has been an area of contestation since the writing of Basil Bernstein. Bernstein identifies the power structures at play in social groups, explaining that power “creates boundaries, legitimises boundaries, reproduces boundaries between different categories of groups, gender, class, race, different categories of discourse” (Bernstein 2000: 5). He developed strategies of teaching vocabulary which splits words into ‘elaborated’ and ‘restricted’ codes which, he hoped, would help pupils overcome the linguistic limitations of their classes.

In his critique of Bernstein’s work, Harold Rosen challenged disparaging views of working-class children, arguing that the terminology of “culturally deprived”, “underprivileged” and “disadvantaged” is its itself unhelpful and unfair (Rosen 1972: 1). He then argues that Bernstein’s ‘elaborated’ and ‘restricted’ codes indicate there is something intrinsically limited in patterns of speech, rather than acknowledging the social values at work in how speech is interpreted. As William Laobov writes, “the myth of verbal deprivation is particularly dangerous, because it diverts attention from real defects of our education system to imaginary defects of the child” (Labov, 1972:179). For Labov and Rosen, the belief that some children are more lacking than others is damaging both because it fails to appreciate the varied social backgrounds of children, and also because it fails to acknowledge the inequalities of schooling which values some cultures more than others.

Although deficiency narratives of children are compelling, and contagious, the vast majority of teachers I know are resistant to them. For every story of disadvantage, I hear teachers sharing stories of amazement at the children in their classrooms. A colleague recently told me that his lesson took an unexpected turn when a boy enthusiastically shared his knowledge of ploughing (his father owns a farm). We all get a bit dewy-eyed when unsuspecting children took to the stage to perform at the end of term concert. I always feel a bit humbled (even occasionally unworthy) when I watch children work really hard in an assessment or exam. Teachers who work closely with children have daily reminders of how incredible the students in our care are, and how much they have to offer.

It’s easy for that catastrophising, disembodied voice to demonise entire communities of children as deficient. Happily, it’s equally easy to see that kids are pretty amazing.

Considering education, schools and books. Elisabeth Bowling, Assistant Principal and Head of English. I tweet at @elucymay.

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