Helping ‘left behind’ children to learn
The national curriculum for schools was introduced as statutory, under the guise of equality, but I am very aware that children are never born equal. An education that gives standardised curriculum and testing across the wide range of abilities means that - whilst the majority of children will manage to follow the curriculum - a significant minority will fall by the wayside.
"Typical remediation has focused on re-teaching specific curriculum content" - Alison Broady, Fellow
I qualified as a mainstream teacher, and then as a teacher of the Deaf, in the early 1980s, and experienced a great variety of schools and educational establishments, further extending my experience as a teacher of special needs across the age ranges. In 1990 took up a permanent post as a teacher of the Deaf and special needs - a year after the introduction of the national curriculum in primary schools in the UK, with the first run of key stage 1 testing being completed the following year in 1991.
As a peripatetic teacher, I was in a position to visit and work in many schools and with various age groups, from birth through to age 19. The problems that arose over the appropriateness of the national curriculum for a significant number of pupils became more and more apparent over the years.
Within the national curriculum, typical remediation has focused on re-teaching specific curriculum content, facts, rules and procedures, without regard to the student’s intellectual or perceptual competence as a learner. But this prescribed curriculum did not provide the tools required to do my job, to appropriately affect a child’s ability to learn.
I was not alone, there was much frustration in other teachers and the learners. The amazing opportunity of funding and support from the Churchill Fellowship allowed me to research and then visit areas within the USA to experience for myself what was clearly becoming an incredibly effective intervention, in the hope of recommending similar interventions in the UK.
The USA had already researched and addressed the problems that teachers were recognising in the UK. They had already documented the disadvantages of homogenised, group-orientated provision, having moved towards standardisation much earlier. As such, they had longer-term and focussed research into the effect of this movement on disadvantaged learners.
Clear patterns emerged, highlighting distinct problems. It was found that the percentage of proficient learners actually grew until third grade (eight- to nine-year-olds), but after this ‘ceiling’ there was a steady decline continuing right through high school. Third grade was the high point in educational achievement, with little difference between advantaged and disadvantaged children. At that point, if a school or district was showing an 85% pass rate it followed that this would drop to a level below 50% at school-leaving age. The drop and continual decline was significantly higher in disadvantaged areas - despite significant funding through the No Child Left Behind Act (2001), where schools had adopted the best reading and mathematics programmes available.
In those students without fundamental competencies of reading and maths - essential for accessing all other academic subjects - there were clear patterns of poor behaviour, disaffection in higher education and poorer life chances after school.
Here in the UK, money was being given into schools for many reasons and under many funding sources and government direction, but the fundamental problems of enabling every child to reach their full potential remained far from being realised.
A solution that worked
The Bridges SOI model was founded by Robert and Mary Meeker in the 1960s and offered a very different approach to learning, by offering a new way of measuring intelligence. I visited a variety of schools and training facilities that had adopted this system to develop the specific intellectual abilities of students, in order to help them learn more effectively across all content areas. Science had already proved that intelligence is not fixed at birth and can be developed and strengthened at any age. Educators were seeking to find how the structure of a student’s intellect influenced their ability to understand what’s taught in class and how, by strengthening a student’s brain, they could learn better in every subject. Educators Robert and Mary Meeker sought, found, and developed such a structure.
This system is about equanimity of provision. Rather than seeking to change the curriculum or the teachers, Bridges SOI works to improve learning by training the different parts of the brain to connect and function more effectively. Referred students are tested on 26 cognitive abilities and 11 perceptual skills that empower students’ mastery of reading, spelling, handwriting, mathematics and other basic and advanced curriculum content.
Each child’s test is fed into the computer using Bridges’ SOI software, which then produces a profile of their strengths, weaknesses and learning preferences. A customised programme is then put in place where students are invited to attend their learning lab two to four times per week over the course of one academic year.
The investment was large. A spare room for a lab was required; a member of staff available and prepared to take on the training; technology installed and workbooks provided. However, I can say that in the year following, the intervention children made more than two years’ progress, and in all the labs I visited, the children were really engaged and delighted to be there. The testimonies from teachers, parents and children were powerful and heartwarming, without exception.
On my return to the UK, I was able to find funding to support advertising, research and training to start up a small business, in order to try to bring about such pragmatic solutions. I wrote an article for a teacher’s magazine, gave talks within the teaching union and trialled groups of children in the assessments. There was interest among teachers, but not where the power lay. The set-up costs and large-scale operation, with support initially from the USA, was an investment way beyond my abilities. My skills were in teaching children and not running a business, and the demands of my job and as a single parent of three children, meant that Bridges SOI sadly sat on a shelf.
Much effort is put into the content and application of our national curriculum, yet we are constantly seeking to treat the symptoms of inequitable educational provision, alongside other agencies which attempt to repair when the damage is already done. The UK education system continues to fail to treat the cause of a significant number of disaffected pupils in our schools - and the cost to the quality of their lives and to society at large is immense.
There are solutions. I have the information and am more than happy, even though retired from teaching, to pass it on should someone wish to take up the baton.
The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.