Many years ago, one of my inner-city, street-wise girls asked me, ‘Miss, why do you want us to become doctors and lawyers when footballers have so much more money?’
I told her it was because there are hundreds of thousands of lawyers and doctors whereas there are about 150 professional footballers.*
If I had a pound for every child who has told me that he or she doesn’t have to work because they are going to be the next big rap star, footballer, youtuber, winner of the X Factor, video gamer, I would be the one tweeting about my two Range Rovers instead of Jeremy Clarkson.
But I don’t want to own a Range Rover. I can’t drive. What’s important to me is giving kids, and in particular the kind of kids the system has forgotten, as many chances as possible either to become another Jeremy Clarkson, or indeed anything at all. As I say at assembly, “Work hard so you can have ALL the doors open to you, and you can pursue any path you want.” That might include university or not. Of course it isn’t the end of the world if a child doesn’t make it to university. But it is the end of the world if they don’t fulfil their potential through working hard.
When the media and the public insist that exam results don’t matter, that you can own two Range Rovers while failing out of school, it makes a teacher’s job impossible. This is particularly the case for teachers who work with kids who believe street life is glamorous and you-tubing is their dream.
Let’s ignore (as did Jeremy) that learning to love Shakespeare’s sonnets is not meant to be a route to owning Range Rovers but instead is meant take our souls to depths we never knew existed. Telling one child privately who has failed his exams that it is ok, that there will be other opportunities, that exams do not define you, that ‘we will find another way because where there is a will…’ is entirely appropriate and decent.
But telling the world through an irresponsible tweet, as Jeremy did, “Don’t worry if your A level grades aren’t any good. I got a C and 2 Us. And I’m sitting here deciding which of my Range Rovers to use today,” does not just speak to the kids who got poor A level results. It speaks to ALL kids. It helps to set the general expectations of society. The media picks up on it and everyone gets behind that type of thinking. When you have 7 million followers on Twitter alone, you have a responsibility to at least be aware of the kind of damage your tweeting might do.
One of the biggest challenges we teachers have is overcoming the ‘Vlogger dazzle’ which eats away at motivation and commitment in kids.
We teachers aren’t resentful of Clarkson. True his family got him his first job. He also went to private school. He is a tall white guy who doesn’t sound anything like the kids I teach. I wish him luck. Good for him and his Range Rovers! I’m sure he worked hard for them.
But I just wish he wouldn’t pull the ladder up. Not everyone has the advantages he had. And he was doing this a very long time ago! The world has changed since then.
All we teachers can do is beg the celebrities like Jeremy Clarkson or Richard Branson who endorse the idea that school isn’t important, to stop. You aren’t helping. You may think you are, but we know better. We are on the ground, living in a world that you don’t know. I would invite them to come and visit our school Michaela and see the wonderful work we do combatting the kind of nonsense they endorse, as do many other schools.
Tweets like Clarkson’s might make the authors feel good but their impact destroys children’s lives. I am not exaggerating. Hard work is the main way out for our kids. Why are there too few black and working class kids at Oxbridge? One of the reasons is because of this culture that says ‘exams don’t matter’. More black kids than any other ethnicity miss their A level Oxbridge offers and then don’t get in.
Is this something we want to celebrate?
There is a reason why so many teachers went mad reading Clarkson’s words. That’s because they know something that people who are not in teaching don’t know. Just because you went to school doesn’t mean you know what kids need, especially kids in the inner-city or in schools in challenging circumstances. Today, a friend of mine in his 60s, white, public school, reminded me that he used to say the same thing, “Hey look at me, I did XYZ with my life, and I failed my A levels.” Then he heard what I had to say about it and he stopped doing it.
Teachers see firsthand the damage done by this ‘anti-exam’ culture and while we do everything we can to fight it, it would be so great if the rest of the country could support us in trying to give kids who normally don’t have a chance, exactly that.
*If you take issue with my numbers that aren’t exact, then you really have missed the point.