This post was mainly inspired by three things: a recent thought-provoking article in the Times Educational Supplement about teaching in urban versus rural schools (https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/toughest-schools-work-arent-inner-cities-theyre-rural-communtiies) ; a conversation with a friend about whether moving to a rural location could be limiting for one’s children; and a wonderful, uplifting radio programme about ‘How to Turn Your Life Around’ with Byron Vincent and Dr Anna Woodhouse (http://bbc.in/1UqR6Ke)
The gist of the TES article is that, whilst pupils in inner city schools face a range of issues and difficulties that are related to deprivation and poverty, those in rural settings often face deprivation and poverty but without the financial support made available in cities to mitigate against them. The anonymous writer states: “behind the schools applauded for breaking the cycle, lies an enormous amount of money” and “Inner city schools aren’t tough. There is enough help to ensure most problems can be overcome. Rural schools, that’s where the toughest teaching really is.”
Like the writer of the TES article, I have taught in both rural and urban schools, though the vast majority of my experience is rural. I grew up in Dorset and have worked in rural Cambridgeshire, Cumbria, the Outer Hebrides and most recently Argyll. However, I also taught for 5 years in a comprehensive school on the outskirts of London that drew children from one of the most deprived estates that existed and also from leafy suburbia. I was newly qualified and I struggled to start off. But with time, I got to love the school, the dynamics and the pupils. My life experience was far removed from that of many of the pupils I taught but I learnt that providing supportive boundaries, authenticity and belief in their potential were essential to helping them thrive. Spending a morning with one of my 14 year old tutor group after she had spent a night in a police station was an eye-opener for me and so far beyond anything I’d experienced that it made me wonder how I could be of any help. But in retrospect, I think just being with her and not judging her was the help she needed at that point.
I remember reading Sartre at university and learning how he hated the countryside and stuck to Paris in order to avoid the feelings of nausea brought on by green landscapes. For me, city life was too much and I missed green open spaces so moved out of London and back to Cambridgeshire after my urban stint.
I do not remember urban education being flushed with money in the early nineties and maybe things have changed since I was there. Reading other TES articles recently about austerity measures, cuts and academisation makes me wonder, however, whether the urban budgets to which the TES writer refers may be time-limited.
I certainly agree that education and services for children need to be funded adequately wherever children live; I wrote about that here: http://staffrm.io/@lenabellina/oqwybVmNl8
But I do feel that the issue is more than a purely financial one.
One friend who read the TES article said that she felt lack of aspiration was a big issue in rural communities where prospects are limited and I would agree, to some degree. But many of the pupils whom I taught in London showed concerning levels of apathy and a real lack of motivation.
In rural areas, money is not the only solution to problems. Sometimes money will be available but staff with expertise and experience are not. Cities and particularly university towns and cities attract expertise in a way that rural areas don’t. And there are clearly economies of scale and efficiency issues involved; a funder is less likely to pay for a project and worker on an island where there are three children who need support than in an urban setting where the numbers who could be supported might be tenfold more. And another related issue for families and children with additional support needs is that it may be harder to find peer support and others with similar experiences and issues in rural settings. Being the only child with severe and complex needs in a school brings challenges that have to be addressed with sensitivity and creativity. But technology today, if we use it to its best potential, offers opportunities like never before to access online support and networks. You may not have an autism / Down’s syndrome/ mental health expert in your village but you can probably access one online. (https://lenabellina.wordpress.com/2016/03/20/generation-leisure/)
In terms of the conversation with my friend about whether rural life might disadvantaged our own children, that is a tricky one.
Just as Sartre did not like the countryside and I could not live without it, we are all different. Children are all different. Some children will love and thrive in cities and stay their whole lives. Others will do the same in the country. But some children will be desperate to leave the country and make a fortune where the bright lights of the city shine, just a Dick Whittington did before them. And there will be city children, perhaps those who reach the age of ten without ever having seen a farm animal, who dream of a Pollyanna-style future in a country cottage and cannot wait to leave urban life.
Town Mouse. Country Mouse.
Living in a rural setting, my children have limited access to theatres, McDonalds, choice of school and choice of leisure activities. But they do live in a spacious house that we could not afford if we lived elsewhere, landscapes and archaeology to die for and a school and community where they are well known and safe.
Of course, there is a caveat to the safe issue. The only young person that I have personally known to have been tragically murdered did not live in London but on a Hebridean Island. I am not sure that I will ever learn to live or reconcile myself with the idea of his premature death.
And whilst domestic abuse issues are the constant fodder of Eastenders scriptwriters, the recent Radio 4 ‘Archers’ storyline shows that children in supposedly nice, safe, rural settings can be subjected to terrible domestic situations.
Amy Winehouse came from a comfortable urban background and had a huge range of opportunities but ended up with more money than she know what to do with. It was not money that could save her.
Children and young people are at risk wherever they but our job as parents, carers and educators is to teach them about knowing the risks and making sensible choices.
Deprivation is deprivation, wherever it occurs and we need to ensure that it does not allow the potential of our children and young people to be limited.
Sometimes children aspire and perform way beyond the expectations we may have. Why did the children that I taught for a week in Borneo and walked (unaccompanied by adults) through the rainforest for days on end to get to school have aspiration and motivation? Why do the pupils in the Dunkirk Jungle refugee camp working with Natalie Scott (https://nataliehscott.wordpress.com/2016/01/23/educating-dunkirk-a-school-day/) have motivation and aspiration?
Labels, statistics and knowledge of a child’s background can help us to mitigate against deficits and make reasonable adjustments. But they are only useful where they are used with care and do not encourage us to make judgements that may lead to negative outcomes. I will never forgive the health practitioner who wrote off a fourteen year old pupil with mental health issues saying “she’s got no hope. I knew her mother and her grandmother and they were just the same.”
Once again I return to the theme of relationships and love which I have written about many times before: http://staffrm.io/@lenabellina/97NiDqrFhF, https://lenabellina.wordpress.com/2016/01/02/relationship-matters-relationships-matter/
In every classroom where we work, we can nurture, encourage and help children and young people to thrive. And this, I believe, is where politicians and decision makers do need to make investment. So that all teachers have a chance to think and learn about nurture, relationships and aspiration on an ongoing basis. So that their workload allows time for reflection, supervision and discussion around these issues. So that they are able to nurture themselves and fit their own oxygen masks before they fit the masks of the children on the plane…..because that is how everyone can fly high together and avoid crashing to the ground.
The Radio 4 programme ‘How to turn your life around’ made me cry, punch the air and dance around the kitchen with joy. Because Byron Vincent and Dr Anna Woodhouse (both from relatively ‘deprived’ starting points in life) talked about the crucial role of key adults in their lives who believed in them and helped them develop a sense of worth and aspiration. The programme ended with a clear message: “Are we really saying that love is the answer?…I think we are”.