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.