‘Oh golly, oh gosh come and lie on the couch
With a nice bit of posh from Burnham-on-Crouch’
Ian Dury, Billericay Dickie
I went to school in Burnham-on-Crouch. This is a 1982 photo of the 6th form at St Peters High – the only secondary school in the town. (I’m the one third from the right in the back row.) It was taken just before we sat our ‘A’ Level exams……32 students sitting 96 ‘A’ levels in ‘posh’ Burnham-on-Crouch. So how come we managed to pass just 5 ‘A’ levels between the lot of us?
Well you’d be amazed what weak leadership, mediocre staff, low expectations and having to endure a daily culture that screamed “we aren’t bothered so you shouldn’t bother either”, does to your confidence and self belief.
Coincidentally, also in 1982, at Garfield High – a school in a deprived Hispanic community in East Los Angeles – a class of 18 students sat their Advanced Placement calculus exam and all 18 passed (with one of the two highest grades possible). Their teacher, Jamie Escalante, always impressed on his students the importance of “ganas” — desire. “I’ll make a deal with you,” he once told his class. “I’ll teach you maths…..that’ll be your language. You’re going to go to college and sit in the first row, not in the back, because you’re going to know more than anybody else.”
“He was working with a group of students who did not have much in life,” said Erika T Camocho, who took algebra with Escalante and now teaches mathematics at Arizona State University. “They were told that they were not good enough and would not amount to much. He told them that with desire and discipline, they could do anything.”
Escalante’s story was turned into the 1988 film Stand and Deliver. OK. So a two hour film about a maths teacher may not sound like the most exciting way to spend an evening but please trust me…..if you ever get a chance to see it then do.
Whilst the film does take a few liberties with real events (Escalante himself described it as 90% truth and 10% drama) it nevertheless gets the important things right. It tells the story of what we are capable of, whatever our starting point, when someone believes in us, has high expectations of what we can achieve and gives us hope.
But you don’t have to look to the States or the 1980s to find stories like that of Escalante. There are amazing things going on in some UK schools today. In 1995 when Sir William Atkinson took over as headteacher at Hammersmith Comprehensive, pupils were throwing furniture out of windows, there was graffiti on every surface, staff were threatened with rape and he was the 6th headteacher in 2 years. It was labelled ‘the worst school in the country’. Renamed Phoenix High, by 2009 it was described by Ofsted as “a remarkable school”, which “continues to transform the life chances of both students and their families”.
Atkinson has high expectations of his pupils and his staff. “Here, good isn’t good enough. We have to be outstanding, because only the outstanding will make enough of a difference to transform the life chances of these young people.” A decade ago no one from Phoenix High thought about higher education……..now, as each pupil starts the school, they are asked which university they want to go to when they leave.