The recent BBC 2 programme, Generation Gifted, aims to follow a number of able young people from Year 9 to their GCSE’s in a series of 2-hour programmes. At my school our recent experiences with a BBC documentary film crew and our very real experience with able and disadvantaged students made this compulsive viewing.
Predictably, in true Gogglebox fashion, I found myself talking to the TV and the characters within the programme. I am wary of passing comment since I know both I and my school will be the subject very soon but it deserves comment nevertheless.
I would however, like to address the use of the terms “disadvantaged” and “gifted”. Neither is suitable and its time to challenge their use. One thing that came across to me very strongly was that these young people didn’t see themselves as disadvantaged. Indeed I think they might be rather offended by the label. They came from loving and caring homes and they demonstrated this through their attitudes to their families and friends, particularly those with disabled siblings. This is not a disadvantage. In many respects it makes them more mature, respectful and thoughtful. They are of course affected by poverty, which presents genuine practical obstacles. I was struck by the girl who had to share a room with her younger sister and was struggling to work. It recalled for me sharing a small room with my two older brothers in the same position. It can be overcome though so I don’t believe that it’s the real disadvantage.
The real disadvantage was the lack of aspiration. The girls who wanted to be a tattoo artist and criminologist reflected the poor examples and role models they have been provided. There is nothing wrong with either occupation but any school leader or careers guidance worth the title would be concerned by how narrow a focus they had. When I was a little older than them I wanted to follow my siblings into a trade too. I knew nobody who had gone to university or followed a profession. I am sure there are those around them trying to broaden their horizons but I saw no evidence of it in the programme.
What I did see was the one girl who had high aspirations being told by her Head of Year 9 that she wouldn’t fit in at the local Grammar school. Sadly this prejudicial bias is all too common in schools. Shouldn’t she have been encouraged? At the very least it was her ambition and at best she may have access to a wider range of opportunities. Is this why social mobility isn’t working? The rug is being pulled out from beneath by well meaning but misguided individuals. So in reality young, able children, from poorer backgrounds are largely disadvantaged by the adults around them and the expectations that are set, which end up marginalising them.
News articles have already begun to hijack these young people’s lives to peddle their political or social views rather than actually listening to them. If you want to recognise a disadvantage it is adults labelling and categorising young people and making decisions for them. Yes it would certainly help these children to have a fully funded university education in the form of a maintenance type grant. It would have been very unlikely that I would have gone to university without one and the world would have gained a well read but rather bored painter and decorator.
We need a meritocracy where the privileges that some enjoy by virtue of their birth are cancelled out by the talent and efforts of others from different backgrounds. The system we have has been built not to give the wealthy an advantage but to prevent them from failing. So that if you are wealthy but not very bright or hard working you do not end up homeless and in poverty. It has never been a barrier to advancement for those who have valued education, hard work and enterprise.
That is why I also object to the word Genius. Whatever that means it does not reflect the young people in the documentary. They are certainly able, inquisitive, thoughtful and reflective but also they work hard. They are not progressing by virtue of any innate intellectual talent that gives them an advantage. On the contrary their intelligence drives them to want to achieve more, to go further and to do their very best; in other words to work harder than their peers. My classmates thought school must be easy for me but they couldn’t have been more wrong. This is where the setting of a progressive grammar school such as mine is so important, where working hard and being able is not the exception but the rule. I get to witness able children from diverse backgrounds sharing ambitions and I get to listen to them.
It’s worth remembering that the word ambition comes from the Greek root, ambit, which means wingspan. If we want young people like those in the programme to flourish we must enable them to spread their wings, not clip them.