Tag Archives: educational disadvantage

In which I compare the British Education system to “The Hunger Games”, because I can

I’ll readily confess that when I first heard tell of The Hunger Games (thanks twitter) I thought it was some kind of extreme pie eating competition. Imagine my disappointment when I found out it was a best selling trilogy with a rabid fanbase. Naturally, I ranted and moaned for a while about “popular literature”, lamenting the conspicuous lack of Austenmania in today’s youth, before actually reading the books and finishing the entire trilogy in about 6 hours. Turned out it was quite good. After all, anything’s better than Twilight. Anything.

The thing about The Hunger Games is that despite not being the most beautifully written triology of all time (I could rant for ages about the epilogue which almost equals The Deathly Hallows in its utter lack of closure and general sloppiness), it is the kind of story that gets into your head and won’t leave. Which is why, several re-reads later, I found myself walking home and all of a sudden thinking, “hey, our education system is kind of like a fight to the death in a world controlled by dictatorial social forces and constrained by poverty to the extent that it can be compared to a dystopian Roman Empire if a dystopian Roman Empire involved loads of puns about fire”.

Let me break it down a wee bit. For those of you who have been living on Mars, the premise of The Hunger Games is an annual televised competition, in which 24 children fight to the death in order to atone for the rebellion of their ancestors who instigating an uprising against the Capitol of Panem, the future America. One victor remains at the end of the Games as a reminder of the Capitol’s good will towards their citizens. The kids are chosen to go into the arena by a randomised ballot (supposedly randomised, anyway) – one girl and one boy, aged between 12 and 18 are selected from each of Panem’s twelve districts.

Here’s the catch: because of systematic oppression at the hands of the Capitol’s power elite, a lot of the districts are poor. Really poor – as in, don’t know where their next meal is coming from poor. Kids can get extra grain and oil for their family (“tesserae”) by putting their name in the ballot more times, which many of them do. So basically, the poorer you are, the more likely you are to get picked – and the more likely you are to die. Hold on to that thought for a sec.

Katniss, the protagonist and narrator, tells us that it’s usually pretty much a given that Districts 1, 2 and 4 will be the ones to have a victor at the end of the Games. The kids in 1 and 2 tend to train in an academy until they are 18 and then volunteer for a shot at the glory.  These kids are known as “Career” tributes. I don’t think it’s ever explained why 4 is on a similar level – but Districts 1 and 2 are closer to the Capitol, geographically and politically. The kids are clearly better fed and richer owing to the industries of their districts. This, along with their extensive formal training, gives them the upper hand in the arena.

By now it might be easier to see where I’m coming from with this comparison. But let’s put the education system into its social context for a brief second:

People living in the poorest neighbourhoods in England will die on average 7 years earlier than people living in the richest neighbourhoods [The Marmot Review / Department of Education 2010]

Remember what I said about poverty in The Hunger Games? It boils down to this: if you’re poor, you’re more likely to get into the arena, and you’re more likely to die than survive. The tagline of the trilogy, and of the Games, is “may the odds be ever in your favour”. In Katniss’ world, at least the authorities come clean about the fact that it is a game of chance. In the games, you may avoid murder at the hands of the other tributes only to die of dehydration.

In our world, in the education system, the odds are equally unstable. You may live close to an excellent school, but your catchment area may mean that you go to a much less good one. You may have superb teachers and support, you may not. You may get help with your homework, have parents who have been educated, live in an area with cultural opportunities and work experience options. But the odds are, if you live in a deprived area of England, you won’t have these things. The odds are not in your favour, because the single greatest indicator of how well a child will do at school in the UK is their parents’ income.

As inThe Hunger Games, this is not always a be-all end-all – after all, Katniss and Peeta are the eventual victors of the 74th Games, despite being from the poorest district, and some kids from deprived backgrounds will excel at school and break out of the cycle of poverty. But the odds of that aren’t great. Only 17% of kids on Free School Meals will go to University compared with 96% of their privately educated peers.

There’s more to be said about this comparison. In the arena, children between the ages of 12-18 fight to the death. Okay, maybe this doesn’t happen literally in schools – but think about it. Our education system as it currently stands is premised, ultimately, on how good one child is compared to the rest of their peers – in their classroom, school and nationally. In other words, kids are judged contextually rather than individually. This is not the same as acknowledging a child’s context in the sense of their background. Rather the system operates on a series of benchmarks which children either meet or fail – and in order for some kids to succeed, or excel at succeeding, other kids have to fail. Not everyone can be a winner. That’s why they are called winners. We talk about “healthy competition” – and maybe that’s okay, to a degree, when you want to motivate kids to do a task quickly, or strive to win points for their school house. But at the end of the day, what we’re actually asking them to do is not simply to be their best, but to be better than everyone else’s best if they want to really shine.

In one of my Teach First Leading Self Workshops (yes I know, gouda with a side order of gruyere), we read an article about what kids bring to school in their metaphorical schoolbag – a love of reading, musical ability, parental support and so on. We went on to have a discussion about policy and whether or not current policy is working. Someone in the group made a really excellent point about how the education system is basically geared towards a certain “type” of kid, and they are the ones who are, from the moment they enter primary school, going to succeed. These are the kids who are read to in English – and have been encouraged to read in English themselves. These are also, generally speaking, the kids whose parents have been educated to a Higher level. The kids who are less likely to succeed may still have a lot in their schoolbag – the example in the article was a kid who spoke three languages (including English, but that wasn’t his first language), loved music and hearing about the history of his parent’s home countries. Yet he is more likely to fail because these are not the schoolbag items that are valued in the educational system, to the same degree as formal abilities sustained by cultural capital.

Going back to The Hunger Games, a narrative of survival, Katniss manages to endure precisely because she has unprecedented access to a skill set that is not usual for a District 12 tribute; her ability to shoot and hunt puts her on a level with the formally trained Career Tributes – although arguably it is her sheer grit which sees her claim the ultimate victory. If we put this model in the education system, surely we would see the same results – kids of all backgrounds have the potential and determination to succeed, but only some of them have the tools to be able to do so.

Despite the fact I’ve spent this time comparing The Hunger Games to the educational system, there are obvious points of diversion. The trilogy is finite, it concludes with the overthrow of the oppressive system and the destruction of the Games. This overthrow comes at a huge price (I won’t spoil it for you, read the damn books) but it still happens. And it happens because the Capitol’s regime has a figurehead, a power source; President Snow. The centralisation of power makes it relatively easy to pull the plug on it, in the end. Same with Voldemort and the One Ring; drain the sources of life, and you kill the centre of darkness.

For us, it’s not so simple. The education system that we currently have is so deeply embedded into our social structures that there is no simple crux, no turning or tipping point, no regulating factor – no horcruxes, no ring, no President. Sure, there are few things I’d like to see more than Michael Gove being trampled to death by an angry crowd, in the same way as Snow meets his demise, but apart from a fleeting sense of relief on my part it wouldn’t do much good for the education system. The means of control exerted by the Capitol is simple; not so for us.

So what do we do? Well, the good news is that we can all do something. One of the things I’m slowly getting used to is that Teach First is only part of a wider solution to this problem of educational disadvantage. It focuses on excellent teaching, as it should – but it is not an overtly political organisation, which is sometimes difficult for me, being the highly opiniated person that you all know and love. Yet we can have influence at a systemic level. Teach First’s Ultimate Goal in 10 years time is to not exist – it is the hope that by then we will have achieved enough as a collective organisation to become unnecessary. By setting the standard for teaching and learning, by driving our kids to raise their aspirations, improve their achievement, and gain access to life options, we may slowly see the system reinvent itself.

I’m pretty terrified of the challenges that lie ahead – and I guess my comparing the education system to a fantasy trilogy is just my way of coping, of mapping my thoughts. I’ve always done that; literature is my lens through which I can look at the world – that’s why I want to be an English teacher, to give other kids that perspective. I think that’s going to be my role in this narrative. It’s Katniss’ father that teaches her how to use her bow and arrow – even if she is the one who eventually leads the revolution. We all need someone to teach us how to shoot straight, after all.


“the whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows” – Sydney J. Harris

This week I started my training with Teach First, a charity that aims to address educational disadvantage by transforming exceptional graduates into effective, inspirational teachers and leaders in all fields. In the UK, the factor that is most crucial in determining a child’s educational success is their parental income. The Teach First cohort (totalling 997 participants in 7 different regions this year) undergoes 6 intensive weeks of training before being placed in challenging schools for two years in order to start tackling this systematic inequality and give deprived kids the same chances as privileged ones.

No pressure, then.

I’m in total awe at Teach First’s mission, values, statements of intended impact and the quality and depth of the Leadership Development Programme which every participant is a part of. One week in, and we’ve already researched learning theories, talked about legislation, values and principles and vision. Acronyms such as B4L, SEN, EAL, HAPs and AFL fall from our lips easily as fruit. We’ve learned how to plan lessons and what the role of a teacher is, why our subject is important. We’ve started working on the three strands of the Leadership Development Programme. We know about Bloom’s taxonomy and Kolb’s learning cycle. We’ve planned, taught and reflected on microteaching sessions, and so much more. In short, we are well on the way to becoming teachers. We’re all scared, but we’re all confident and excited. We know what we need to work on and what to expect.

To be honest, I could outline all the values and so on here and talk about them, but I actually wanted to talk about the things that stand above that, the things I’ve learned this week that are fast becoming my personal driving force. We’ve been told from day one that the next two years are going to be phenomenally difficult. We’re going into very challenging classrooms with very little teaching and often huge amounts of pressure from Ofsted to improve. Most of us will be moving to a brand new place. We are going from 0 to 100 in a very short space of time. Scared? I’m absolutely terrified. So I need to remember why I’m here, so that when all my energy has been sapped and I’m miserable and tired and alone, I’ll still be able to get up in the morning and teach my kids.

Why do I want to be a teacher?

In 2008, I saw a programme called “Can’t Read, Can’t Write”. It followed a group of adults who were illiterate – as in, they didn’t even know their alphabet. As far as I remember they were all white working class people of different ages and genders. Phil Beadle, an excellent if somewhat obnoxious teacher, was tasked with getting these adults to learn basic literacy in a very short space of time. One adult stuck out particularly to me; her name was Linda and she really struggled with learning the alphabet, moreso than the other participants. Eventually Phil took a different tack: he got her to mould the letters out of plastecine. After literally two or three goes, Linda suddenly knew her alphabet by heart. I thought she would be happy. Instead she was furious. Furious at the education system that had told her that she was thick, stupid, dumb, good for nothing. Furious because it turned out she was pretty damn smart – within a few weeks she was reading Shakespeare. Furious because she had been cast aside at a young age because her mind worked differently.

My one certain joy has always been reading, and so when I saw how upset and angry Linda was, I knew I wanted to do my best to ensure that no one I taught would ever leave school unable to read and write. From then I was pretty much set on being a teacher one day.

What keeps me going?

A girl called Rosie, who I met when she was about 8 or 9 on an outreach programme. Unbelievably smart and cheeky, with a passion for performing arts. Her mother told her she would never get further than working the checkout at Sainsbury’s. That was in 2007. I have every hope that Rosie is now preparing to take her GCSEs, and then go on to A levels and college or University. But I don’t know this for sure. This uncertainty, paradoxically, keeps me going. Rosie is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to smart, brave kids who are knocked down by systematic inequality, hopelessness and a lack of social opportunity.

That, and poetry, above all.

What’s shocked me this week?

– Hearing from a Teach First member of staff and ambassador, who, when he was teaching, encountered a family with two boys at the same school. The boys had a terrible attendance record – they would come into school on alternate days. Eventually the parents were called in to tell the school what was going on. It turned out they were so poor that they could only afford one uniform. The boys had to take turns to come in to school.
– Learning that a lot of the schools that Teach First work with don’t have a library, and that more often than not, core texts that are studied at GCSE can’t be taken out of the school because there are simply not enough to go around. This means that kids will often go into their GCSE exams having never read a core text – or indeed any text – all the way through.
– The levels of differentiation, even in sets that are formed according to ability. Even in set one you get kids who are much, much less able than their peers. It’s worse in lower sets.
– The extent of poverty and deprivation in one of the world’s richest countries.

What have I learned?
– That education as it stands actually perpetuates inequality. I mean, I knew the education system was unequal but for some reason I didn’t make the connection. We watched a really excellent video that isn’t perfect, but it is very slick and goes some way to explaining why this is. It’s worrying that we are going into a system which actually reproduces inequality at the same time as working to give equal chances to all kids. It’s reassuring that Teach First also produces research, policy and recommendations that aim, step by step, to address this problem.
– That I can’t change the world in a day and I shouldn’t try to.
– That I’m going to fail not once, but many, many times over the next two years. This is scary as I’ve never properly crashed and burned at anything, coming from the background that I do.
– That my two degrees (1st class honours BA English & American Lit, and MA English Lit) have absolutely no relevance in the classroom.
– That not everyone cares about or even knows about Educational Disadvantage, and even amongst the people that do (within the TF cohort) there is a lot of disagreement and debate about what it looks like and how it could/should be tackled.
– That loving English and wanting kids to love English is just as good a reason to teach English as any.
– That clinging to the idea of education as important because it gives kids “a stake in society” is utterly pointless given that the kids I’ll be teaching have absolutely no clue what it is like to have a stake in society.
– That I am really, really bad at English grammar.
– That kids are amazing, capable, brilliant, and come out with the most hilarious stuff that will literally have you spilling over with laughter.
– That one-on-one work with kids, even for 20 minutes, has a massive effect.
– That wine and/or gin are going to become my very close friends. Luckily we are already well acquainted.
– That it’s okay to be angry and frustrated and hold onto this “WHAT THE FUCK” mentality when thinking about how horribly unfair the education system is and how much work needs to be done to change it.
– That it was stupid to think I could take a designer handbag into a deprived school and not feel like a total hypocrite.
– That I am absolutely, completely, 100%, without a doubt in the right place, at the right time, doing the right training, for a career that despite making me cry, scream and despair on a regular basis, is absolutely what I was meant to do.