The Big School Lottery

This year I’ve been working on keeping a work-life balance so haven’t been working this weekend, instead I’ve been blogging, tweeting, cooking and generally chilling out. Part of that chill out has involved catching up on television that I recorded months ago, including The Big School Lottery, a BBC documentary in three parts about Birmingham Education Authority – the largest in Europe – following a number of families as 30,000 Birmingham secondary school places are allocated.

I found this programme equally fascinating and depressing, while also reminding me of some of my own experiences of school. The most striking thing is sort of obvious – it was how much the children were influenced by their parent’s. Saffiyah, had been tutored by her father for the year running up to her sitting her 11+, she was keen to go to a grammar school but very balanced about the whole situation:

Any of the schools I would have got in to would have offered me something but I think Camp Hill offered me that little bit extra.

Mohsin’s parents had moved to the UK from India seven years before and he had a lot of hopes and expectation riding on him. In the second episode he found out that he had been accepted into his fourth choice of school. His parents struggled to hide their disappointment, despite the fact that he had gained a place at a grammar school, his dad was immediately pointing out that there’s room for improvement. On the first day of his secondary education a teacher tells them if they try their best no-one will complain, at a grammar school I somehow doubt things are that simple. That said his Dad’s ethos was one that I’m sure will see his child go far – he was quick to point out that success doesn’t grow on trees and it can’t be bought in the supermarket, it needs to be worked at, slowly and surely. Mohsin’s father, at the end of his first day points out that hard work always pays out in abundance, while I admire the work ethic, I’m not sure life is that simple. Mohsin offers the following reflection:

The pressure is a good and a bad thing; its good in a way because it will help me in life, and its bad in a way because it’ll be tiring and I’ll be stressed out a lot.

A tiny bit of me dies inside when I hear eleven year olds talking about being stressed out.

Miles, struggled to fit in at primary school and things don’t get off to the best start at secondary school either. Placed in a secondary school three miles from his home, he leaves late on the first day and arrives after assembly had already started, not the best impression. When asked how he was feeling Miles replies:

The three things i’m most worried about are getting lost, getting lost and getting lost.

I can’t help but feel this is a metaphor for life for Miles. He is the most gorgeously enigmatic individual, he wants to be a fashion designer, but he doesn’t really understand why he struggles to make friends. His mum is great, very stoic, “some people are kind, some people aren’t, that’s just life”. She’s right of course but its heart wrenching to watch someone try to deal with that.

Harry attended the Blue Coat Prep School and his parents were clear if he didn’t get into one of his top two choices of grammar school that they’d educate him at an Independent School. Fresh back from his first day at said grammar school he is asked by the film maker what he imagines and hopes his life will be like. His answer:

Counting money, a huge amount (?), and sitting in a pool, that’s what everybody hopes their life would be. I don’t know, I’d probably settle for something like this, maybe….middle class, family with a few children, a dog and a nice house really.

Harry is obviously a bright child and a fabulously laid back one at that. He has the confidence of a child who has never had to go without, I’m not sure whether the very notion of ‘settling’ for a middle class lifestyle belies his ambition or just speaks to his experience to date and his family view of success. In contrast, across town, Jamiah’s mother asks him how his first day went and recounts:

Somebody got detention, somebody got in trouble three times and somebody got sent home…on the first day?

Jamiah’s mum had left school without qualifications and works in Tesco, whereas her brother and sister had both gone on to university, which had left her intent on Jamiah getting a better education than her. She realises that Jamiah needs pushing and makes him commit to keeping out of trouble. Hopefully Jamiah will achieve academically but himself and Harry certainly aren’t playing on a level playing field.

Me (a few years ago)

All of this got me thinking about my own life, the choices that myself and my parents have made and my experience of them. After a fantastic primary school education with very mixed ability classes and a Partial Hearing Unit (where I spent a lot of time hanging out with the kids with hearing problems) I chose to sit the 11+, mostly because my Gran, my Mum and my Auntie had all gone to the local grammar school and I guess I fancied a chance to carry on the tradition! There was certainly no pressure to do so, at the time everyone at our primary school sat the exam as a routine way of grading academic ability and deciding on a secondary school place. I remember being equally excited and nervous about my first day at grammar school and I’ve never forgotten the first assembly. The school hall was massive compared to my primary school, it was full of girls – an odd sight if you’ve never been in single sex education, and we were sat at the front; my head mistress walked onto the stage wearing a gown and mortar board (this was the first time I’d seen one) and after wishing us a good morning proceeded to the following statement:

Morning ladies and welcome….<lots of words that I don’t remember, followed by…> now remember girls you’re the crème de la crème, the top five per cent.

To this day that expression makes me shudder. I genuinely believe that it was well meaning, I think it was meant to instil a sense of pride and confidence. However, for me, it just drove home how elitist and separatist the school was; it wasn’t just the suggestion but the headteacher’s somewhat smug delivery of it. I felt so uncomfortable with the notion that passing an exam meant we were somehow superior to others. It did, and still does, fundamentally contradict my own personal values of appreciating someone for who they are, not for their academic performance. I returned home that day indignant and demanding to leave and go to a different school, my very level headed parents were having none of it – they certainly weren’t exactly comfortable with the sentiment but neither would they let me throw away the opportunity of a grammar school education. Eventually I persuaded them to let me leave school just before my sixteenth birthday to go to college to study for my A-Levels and I never looked back, a whistle stop tour of what I’ve done since then is here. The values of the grammar school system (and my particular experience of it) was what I struggled with and to this day I’m not sure given my time again I’d chose to go to that school.

So what of this life lottery and what can parents do within this inequitable system. I guess for me the most important ingredients to success have always been a belief in self, a strong set of personal values and the support of a loving and accepting family, accompanied by a strong work ethic. Without doubt I received a good education, but I also believe I have achieved a lot in spite of the system. Since leaving school, studying education and psychology has led me to become acutely aware of the impact of self-fulfilling prophecy and the role of (teacher/parent) expectation on achievement, you can read more in Rosenthal’s classic work on this. In a nutshell, children are inclined to achieve what is expected of them, so as a parent or a teacher our expectations carry more weight than we might appreciate; if you expect a child to fail then they are likely to fail, the plus side to this however is that if a teacher or parent has expectations that a child will achieve then they are more likely to do so. My parents always asked us to just do our best, the downside of this might be not knowing when to stop or accept good enough, but the plus side was an acceptance that has allowed us all to take risks and push boundaries. For that I am very grateful.

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3 thoughts on “The Big School Lottery

  1. HI i have been fascinated to read your comments on this programme. The emotional journeys for those families must have been was incredible. I would like to watch it and dont know where to get a free copy.Is it still available?

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