So you're one of the most deprived boroughs in London, with one of the worst sets of educational outcomes, and the consequent blight on life chances. (Remember the Hackney teacher who had to put up with being called a Racist C***? I heard from her recently - she's moved to a 'nicer' area. Another talented teacher gives up trying to cope with this borough's educational 'leadership').
What do you (you being the local education authority) do about it? Do you get teachers to focus on the important basics of arithmetic and so on - you know, like we did at primary school? Seven sevens are forty-nine, seven eights are fifty-six...
No, that wouldn't be sexy enough in 2010. Instead you (the education authority) buy into a commercial company's astonishing love of its product - a games console - and hand that out to your borough's pupils. Because 'brain training' with a games console is a great way to increase SAT scores, apparently. As Tyssen head teacher Sue Windross explains to the Hackney Gazette:
Well and who could argue with that? Ms Windross is to be congratulated, I suppose, on fastening onto any method to improve the results of the children at her school - Tyssen comes 3928th out of 53 Hackney Primary schools in the aggregate ranking measure, with 75% of her pupils attaining at least Level 4 in the Maths SATs. (Full data on Hackney's schools are here). I'm not having a go at this woman's determination to reach for any method to make things better. (4pm Update: My grotesque apologies to Ms Windross. I inadvertently linked originally to the 2003 results for Hackney's schools. The link has been updated to the 2009 results: Tyssen school has clearly improved since then. However, there are still six primary schools in Hackney with Level 4 Maths SAT score of 56% or less).
But, but, but. There are two things I find loathsome about this. First of all, it's a gimmick. If we dared to ask parents how they would like their children educated, I am willing to bet most would elect to have their children taught arithmetic rigorously, until they 'got' it. This is the parents' money, ultimately, remember. Spend it on teachers, not on games consoles. Hey, that's an idea, isn't it? We could let parents set up schools to teach their children in the manner they want them to be taught, rather than forcing them to put up with what the education authority provides. Thank you Mr Gove, the best reason for voting Tory in the election.
Secondly, there's a sting in the tail of this tale. The consoles aren't being made available to all pupils. This is from the same article in the Gazette:
Mike Vance, Caribbean achievement consultant for the trust, said: "This scheme is about helping black Caribbean pupils to practice their mathematical skills when they're not in school, but it's also about changing perceptions - we want all our pupils to say 'I love maths - it's a cool subject!'"
Mr Vance. I want all my borough's pupils to say 'I love maths' too. All of them. Not some of them; and definitely not just a subgroup defined on the basis of their skin colour. I can't think of a more divisive measure to introduce to primary school children: if you're black, you get a games console. If you're not black, you don't. There's a word for that, you know, and it's the opposite of 'cool'.
I could live with this if there were some evidence to support the (implicit) assertion that at primary age, black pupils need more assistance to reach minimum acceptable standards than other pupils. However. This is from the 'Indicators' page of the London's Poverty Profile group:
At age 11, the proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals who do not reach Level 4 at KS2 is about double the proportion for other pupils. In general, the proportions at age 11 are only slightly affected by whether they are White British or BME.
In other words, if you use 'free school meals' as a surrogate for poverty, black and white pupils do not differ in their ability to reach Level 4 at key stage two. It is poverty which seems predictive of age 11 achievement, not skin colour (of course).
This borough. Do you know how much I love it? And how much those who run it can drive me to despair? I'm sick of this parcelling up of the people I live with on the basis of their race or other cultural signifier. We must set our schools free of all this influence, and let them be run by people who care only about one thing: rigorous teaching of important concepts (like arithmetic) without the distraction of games consoles or Caribbean achievement consultants or whatever other drivel the education authority decides to spend money on.
Who knows? If we set Hackney's schools free - as Michael Gove has promised - our most famous resident of Caribbean origin might decide to school her son in the borough again, rather than paying ten grand a year to have him educated at one of the poshest private schools in the country.