In this blog I consider the importance of listening deeply and engaging practically with the concerns of participants in school communities. This involves ethical work both to understand differing values and priorities for schooling, and to develop positive ways of working with those needs and priorities.
During my last stint as a primary school teacher, I had a discussion with a parent about their child and the forthcoming assessments. We were both concerned that we were pushing the child too hard to do well. I had misgivings about the tests and the model of literacy that they implied. However, the parent was concerned about the risks of their child ‘falling behind,’ on the path to the qualifications needed for the family to live in better circumstances. Discussions such as these can reveal spaces between ideals for literacy education and the lived experiences of children and families.
In recent years, many families in England have found themselves with ever more precarious incomes and housing. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation show how many UK households entered the coronavirus pandemic already at risk of poverty. Policymakers have insisted that work is the best route out of poverty, making social mobility increasingly dependent on school success. All of this means that, for many families, living well in one of the most developed economies in the world is dependent, not on long term ideals of creating a more equal society, but on being able to move upwards through an unequal one.
Literacy attainment in school has become central to this upward trajectory. This means that socioeconomic pressures are as much a part of children’s experiences of literacy as books and digital technologies. My research into literacy practices in a London primary classroom found that the children helped each other out with schooled tasks and often practised literacy collectively. However, the same children became competitive in activities that they knew would be formally assessed. They compared spelling test scores and reading levels; and their decisions about whether to share expertise with peers often depended on their (usually accurate) judgements about whether that expertise might help them get ahead in school assessments. Those five-year-olds understood that ‘getting on’ does not just mean doing well, it means doing better than others.
Experiences like these demonstrate that everyday terms such as ‘literacy’ and ‘school’ can have many and complicated meanings that affect people’s engagement with education. Researchers such as Rosie Flewitt, Eve Gregory and Mahera Ruby emphasise the importance of dialogic research practices that allow researchers to explore such complexities with school communities. So, when planning research projects an initial question might be: ‘How can we enter into dialogue with our research participants, whoever they are?’ The challenge of such dialogues is not ‘hearing’ the voices of our participants but engaging practically with what we have heard, so further questions are needed, for example: ‘What work might researchers do in the spaces between educational ideals and the lived experiences of school communities?’ and ‘How can such dialogues build positive action?’
- Lucy Henning is a lecturer in English language and Applied linguistics at the Open University. Over a long career in West London primary education, she has been a class teacher, ‘literacy consultant’ and teacher trainer. Her research interests are young children’s in-school literacy practices and the social interactions that these involve.