It’s the end of a long day and I am exhausted. I walk through Marston, a sprawling estate on the edge of town, on the way to the station. A forest of concrete, its roots formed by the streets and houses frequented by the youngsters that pass in and out of the school doors each day. My eyes glance over the huddles of kids on corners and strewn litter on pavements. Cigarette butts pepper the pavement like snowflakes. Kids race past, screaming and jeering, peddling their BMXs as fast as they can. A broken streetlight flashes moronically. Dogs bark in the background, muffling the mumbles of the men and women who stand in shop doorways and discuss their days. Row after row of box shaped dwellings decorated with pebble dashed frontages, broken fences and rusty garage doors line the streets. A siren wails in the distance. A baby cries out. Music blares from a teenager’s bedroom window. A mother yells.
To the kids I teach, this is home. This is where they spend their free time. This is where they sleep, where they eat, where they argue with their siblings, meet up with their mates, and watch TV with their parents. Marston is the place that has helped to shape them; it’s where they will spend the most formative years of their lives, and many of the decisions they make whilst here will determine their futures.
On my left is the community centre, a small building doused in good intentions, Slimming World posters, and graffiti. Behind it stands a stinking skip, and a group of bored looking boys, whose bleak stares peep out from under hoods, caps and coats. Clouds of sweet smelling smoke hover above them: they brazenly continue puffing and passing as I trudge past. I think I recognise one of them. It looks a bit like a kid called Jordan, who I taught last term. He was always very quiet, and didn’t seem to have many friends. He was despondent and always looked as if his mind was far, far away. At the time I thought he was painfully bored; as a naïve, optimistic newbie, I thought that I could win him over. Nothing I tried worked. He eventually stopped coming to school, and today is the first time I have seen him in over six months.
I think back to a conversation I had recently with Mr Foster, a very wise and experienced member of staff. He told me that, for some reason “lots of kids from Marston don’t really see the point in coming to school. Many of them don’t give it much of a chance, and make their minds up that they will hate it before they even start.
“It’s like a script they get handed: ‘you will hate school’. They can’t seem to get out of that mindset.”
Mr Foster’s words echo in my head as I pass by. Scripts. Many our pupils are given such scripts to follow, and get stuck in a vicious, unrelenting cycle of underachievement and low aspiration. I think about this as I glance once more at the group of boys. Jordan avoids my gaze and pulls his hood over his eyes as he breathes out a ring of smoke from his nostrils.
Further up the road, I pass Frydays, the local chippie. I notice a small girl struggling over the threshold with a buggy, and watch as a lanky boy in a tracksuit helps her squeeze the cumbersome item carefully into the building. They both look exhausted. The girl is called Shelley. I didn’t know her that well when she was at school full time, but she gained celebrity status across the campus when she became pregnant last year. She had always previously been known to the teachers as ‘one of those kids’- the naughty ones, the ones who get into fights and confrontations on a regular basis, the ones who snarl and sneer when given instructions. Many teachers were not surprised when she revealed her predicament to the world and came in clutching a scan of her future offspring. Kids made comments that revealed both their immaturity and their insensitivity.
“Well yeah, obviously Shelley got up the duff!”
“Blatently! That was always gonna happen!”
Shelley’s notorious classroom behaviour had gradually built her a certain reputation across the school. Her starring role in school, the script she had been handed, was that of a truculent, aggressive failure that would not amount to much. The prophecy bestowed on her informed the majority of her actions throughout her time in school. It was a reputation she seemed to feel obliged to live up to. It seemed that teenage motherhood was a part of her script, too; those who stood on the side lines and watched her tumble through life were certainly expecting it. I wonder if she was.
Like many areas across the country, the levels of deprivation in Marston are severe. I can cite all the relevant statistics about unemployment and GCSE pass rates, but I realise that I don’t really need to. The poverty hangs around in the air like a disease; it’s a foggy haze that envelops and entraps people in a prison of narrow horizons. The place has its own script, one that is performed over and over again by the kids who pass through the gates of Galaxy High.
But I cannot change the social circumstances these children find themselves in.
I cannot change the decisions or the mistakes they make. I could try to blame those mistakes on their backgrounds, or the places they come from. But I don’t want Marston to condemn them. I don’t want to keep using the location of their upbringing as an excuse for their underachievement. I don’t want to keep recycling the same old scripts, over and over, whilst the place crumbles further and further into decay.
Understanding where they come from and the challenges they face is vital. We spend our days worrying about observation grades and dealing with data and the whims of senior leaders, but in doing so, we can forget about the challenges that dwell in the places our pupils call home, and that it is our job to help them overcome them. Poverty and cultural deprivation can explain underachievement and low aspiration, but they don’t have to excuse or justify it.
We cannot change the social circumstances these children find themselves in, of course not. As teachers, such things lie far outside of our locus of control. What we can control is the experience they have whilst they are in school. We can make sure that they arrive on time, that they behave, that they work hard in lessons and that they achieve their very best. We need to realise that places like Marston need education to help lift them out of poverty, and that is something entirely within our power to give.
We have the power to rip up the scripts our most deprived kids are given, and work with them to write new ones. Being born and raised on a council estate does not have to mean that you will fail in life. With the right support, the dedication of a committed army of teachers, and a collective conviction that all can achieve- no matter what- we can start to change the shape of these children’s futures.