Why do some children engage in school more than others?

Why do some children think it’s ok to graffiti bus stops when others don’t?

Opposite ends of the spectrum you might think but actually they could easily be the same child. The difference is not the individual, it is their cultural norms that underpins how they think. It is actually common sense when you think about it.

90 seconds of your life: Click below!

What is ‘normal’ for you is not exactly ‘normal’ for me even though they might be very closely overlapping. By and large the people I know, generally employed adults in the Tees Valley in education and business, have a similar outlook on the way the world works. We broadly share a cultural outlook on what we expect the world to be based on our previous experience of how it is. We all have different backgrounds but the world we all live in has similar norms that we can relate to.

I hated school but knew that I had to pass some exams so that I could get a job when I was older. I didn’t know what job, but I knew that that was how it worked. My parents worked, in fact everyone’s did so it was just the expected norm. But what if my household wasn’t like that? What if I was a child in an environment where hardly anyone worked or they had jobs they hated, maybe low paid and not in the best conditions? What would the impact be on my thinking? What would be the significance of seeing other ways of making money? Wearing a bit of bling and having people follow my lead? Psychologically which seems the best ‘gang to be in’?

Combine that with little or no awareness of what jobs there are, how they relate to your own skills and how you get to do them…. There are thousands of children in Teesside, more than pretty much anywhere else in the country, that live in that situation (see quote below as an example).

So what do we do?

Reported on
Teesside Live Jan 2020

‘Four employer interactions results in better earnings later in life.’

This line is quoted regularly and seems an easy win for schools (Percy and Mann 2013: Employer engagement in British secondary education: wage earning outcomes experienced by young adults – is a good starting point for the citations and further examples).

I have nothing against such an explicit statement, something is better than nothing, but there is so much more that could be done that would have a much wider reaching impact not just on earnings but on societal norms. The line comes from a range of research and is based on a really large data set. The gist of most studies is that the more interactions you have with employers whilst at school, the more you are likely to earn when you are older. An influential report by Kashefpakdel and Percy (2016) put a numerical figure on it. Their findings across a database of 17000 young people found 0.8% increased earning for every employer interaction. Three interactions therefore result in a 2.4% increase in earnings over a child with the same background and qualifications but having not had the employer engagement.

It adds to a number of studies in the last few years that reached the same conclusion, often with higher returns from the interactions (Percy and Mann (2013) again for a wide ranging review).

The growing evidence adds to this conclusion and much of the debate is now around what a meaningful employer experience actually is? 20 mins in an assembly where you are one of 500 pupils listening to a ‘talk’? An hour of hands on activity in a small group with an engineer explaining what they do all day and undertaking related tasks?

What is best but practically possible?

From the experience of working with around 50 000 pupils, primary and secondary over the last 5 years, running programmes and activities both employer led or employer linked, I have my own approach. If you look at the evidence through the lens of cultural capital it makes a whole lot of sense. Cultural capital, the way that you think and behave based on your social norms, is based on your experience. Some experiences may influence you more than others but all experience contributes to the way that you relate to the wider world. The more employer interactions you have, the more you see what the world can be in that respect. Each experience will influence some pupils more than others with its relevance but it all contributes. The more that you can immerse somebody in the culture of ‘work’, the more that it will influence their thinking.

Regular ‘immersion’ will contribute to it becoming a cultural norm but also increase the likelihood of the pupil experiencing things that are particularly meaningful to them. My work with pupils from the last few years has honed the way that I structure events and resources to make them as relevant as possible, as often as possible, to as wide a range of pupils as possible. I refer not just to the job opportunities themselves but also the skills needed and the sort of people who work in those roles. Most of my activities also take the children out of the classroom and into the place of the employed person. By doing so you offer insight but also an opportunity to experience the skills and attitudes required to be successful in particular careers. The more often you do it, the better this will be developed.

New resources that will be released into primary schools in the next few weeks allowing schools to immerse their pupils in weekly awareness of career opportunities across all sectors. The films will be localised to increase relevance, child focussed and create a strong positive perception of what the world of work is. They can be used in assemblies or lessons and will have supporting activities linked directly to the curriculum so that teachers can embed this approach in more than a one off screening once a week.

I am very grateful to all of the local companies who are helping me to develop this project and make a real difference long term to children in the Tees Valley.

And finally…

I was trialling some of my resources last year in a primary school in Redcar. In the feedback session I asked the class of nine year olds if there was actually any point in showing them what went on in a local company. They ALL said “Yes’.

One boy then qualified his answer:

‘If we know about this stuff then it makes going to school make sense, we all try a bit harder in lessons to get the job but didn’t know about before.’

If that isn’t a description of the effect of widening cultural capital in one sentence, I don’t know what is!