‘There must be better songs to sing than this…’

The importance of cultural capital for disadvantaged students

‘There must be better songs to sing than this…’

Rita’s Mum, ‘Educating Rita’ by Willy Russell

This has always been a moment in the play which brings me to tears. Rita and her mum, sitting in the pub (the usual activity for the extended group of friends and family) and a song starts up. Rita looks to her mum, sitting amongst the laughing faces, to see tears falling down her cheeks. When she asks her mum what is wrong, she gives the response above: ‘there must be better songs than this’.

This scene came to mind as I was reading the enlightening ‘Boys Don’t Try? by Matt Pinkett and Mark Roberts. In Chapter Two, which focuses on disadvantaged students, a thorny issue regardless of gender, Matt talks about his own experiences of University. He describes it as ‘probably the worst time of my life’ and quite simply ‘dreadful’. [1] What he describes seems to be about both feeling out of place and ill-equipped to join in with the ‘Great Conversation’ (which he attributes to history teacher and blogger Ben Newmark). This had a significant impact on his mental well-being.

Earlier he talks about how the desire for raise aspirations and expectations leads to a push towards university education but for some that can mean a complete ‘dismantling of identity’.[2] This is the ‘song’ which Willy Russell so emotively writes about in Rita, the culture which Rita, Matt, I, came from.

Rita was hugely influential on me as a child. I must have been about 14 when I first watched the wonderful Julie Waters stride into Frank’s office, all hair dye and pretend swagger, and she stuck with me. For many years I saw myself as Rita, trying to sing a different song by heading off to university and getting myself a career, something even my older brother who also went to university, rejected.

The first university I went to visit certainly made me feel like I was singing a different song to them. I talked in the interview about how I thrilled at exploring the social implications of some of the seminal works of English Literature. With a long suffering sigh, I was informed that options to take modules outside of English Literature in the other disciplines, more suited to my apparently left field interests, would be possible. I left scratching my head as to what exactly we would explore. Fearing that I might be entering a world where we just sat reciting Wordsworth, I opted for a less well renown institute which seemed more aligned to who I was or at least felt the world saw me as; a 21 year old with a three year in tow, living in a council flat.

I regret nothing about the decision I made there and I enjoyed my uni years, but my first encounter with the world of university, with the slight sneer and feeling of displacement, could have easily seen me running back to my cleaning job, begging for more hours. 

Matt quite rightly argues though, that university isn’t the only possible route and there are many reasons why some of the other career based options might be equally valid. Certainly we are wrong to suggest that success can only be measured in terms of if you went to university, or indeed which university. There is the significant push at the moment to ensure that working class youngsters can get into some of the more prestigious universities, with recent calls for the acceptance criteria for some being lowered. It very laudable but where does it leave those who don’t want to go or don’t meet certain criteria? Are these our failures if that is our limited measure of success?

However, what I really think is important here is choice. Rita’s mum didn’t have a choice; she only knew one song to sing. With the advent of the Open University, despite opposition, Rita gets to decide what she wants. Despite my less than perfect circumstances, I also had a choice and that’s what I want to be available to my students, allowing them access to that ‘Great Conversation’ and enable them to decide where they want to be without a stipulation to dismantle their identity.

When designing my curriculum, I consider what seminal works of Literature the young people I teach need to encounter. Works with the potential to broaden their experiences beyond their everyday and, as a result, broaden their thinking. Therefore, I include myths, with the narrative structures and archetypes, Romantic and Victorian poetry, Bronte, Of Mice and Men (coupled with To Kill a Mockingbird, extracts from The Grapes of Wrath and a range of modern poetry relating to cultural identity), Dickens, Orwell, Miller, a range of Gothic fiction, from Dracula to Ann Rice, via Poe, and Shakespeare, lots and lots of Shakespeare. And that’s all at Key Stage Three!

In the book, Mark Roberts also talks about his experiences of English at school as being quite different to my approach. By focusing on teaching him Kes (a wonderful book, with many linguistic and cultural benefits in itself) but no opportunities to encounter Shakespeare at all, he ended up feeling ill prepared for his first rendezvous with the Bard’s language at A Level.

Conversely, by the time my students reach Year 9 they have interacted with him via A Midsummer’s Night Dream, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, with references to Hamlet and Coriolanus thrown in for fun. Of course Shakespeare is only a tiny fraction of what we could possibly be using. I know recently there have been calls for Shakespeare to be taken out of the classroom and replaced with something more ‘hip and trendy’ (I assume). But why on earth should we remove the opportunity to explore one of our most enduring playwrights? Aren’t we back to the point about leaving people out of that ‘Great Conversation’?

All of the Shakespeare and other classic texts come alongside a healthy dose of non-fiction, creative writing and opportunities to expand their oracy. They all come alongside lots of exposure to varied and challenging vocabulary too. But I want to offer breadth as well as depth to our students.

We also aim to give them enriching opportunities, such as theatre trips and visits to places such as the British Library. However, I am mindful of this as a significant approach to broadening their experiences, as for some students these things can seem still too far out of reach. Students with caring responsibilities don’t want to be too far away from their ward and trips often finish after school. Even when you take out the financial issue (something which can be humiliating to even broach for them), the possibility for some students that the will need to get a different bus which could have a monetary implication, or simply arriving home late, trips can seem far from reach. That’s why it is so important to embed this cultural capital into their day to day curriculum. They can read some of the more accessible young fiction in their own time if they like. I want my lessons to offer them something more.

But now when they leave me they have a new words to sing. They have been given a new rhythm and notes to play with. I am hoping that for many of my students this means they now have a choice of song they can sing. They can sing the same song as their families. They can sing along to the songs of people who have been to others schools or have different backgrounds. They can even write their own new and exciting versions, which blend together their varied experiences into different harmonies. Ultimately they don’t ever have to sing any of the songs ever again. I just want to know that I have given them the chance to decide for themselves when the time comes.

[1] Boys Don’t Try? Matt Pinkett and Mark Roberts P.38

[2] Ibid. P.37

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