Essex is not the only way

‘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.

Phoenix High School featured on the documentary Unequal Opportunities

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4 responses to “Essex is not the only way

  1. Good grief. Perhaps I should be grateful my parents moved away from Wickford (maybe that bit of Essex was more aspirational).

    I’d like to point out that 90% truth and 10% drama would get you an A* grade at A level.

    Great post.

    Simon (A level failure)

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    • Cheers Simon. That means a lot coming from a journo and real writer.

      And now I know 3 great things that have come from Wickford…..Adrians records, Alvin Stardust…….and you!

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  2. Brilliant article John, I love it, I had very similar experience at secondary school in a disadvantaged area of Wolverhampton in the 80s, with very similar thoughts.The right leadership is vital to supporting people to be the very best they can be, to work out how to find their potential, believe in them and help them to identify their own personal journey! No one at my school ever even suggested there might even be a journey. It was down to your own sheer determination whether you succeeded or not, and most did not! This article really rings true to me and hits some of those old nerves and thoughts of what might have been. ‘Coach Carter’ is another great film that shows this can be done with the right leadership, he uses sport to motivate some really disadvantaged students in America and he makes a massive difference. As leaders we must aspire to make that difference for our people and truly believe in people so that they can believe in themselves. I feel privileged to be a leader in Bromford, where this is what we do every day, but there is always room for improvement and this article reminds me how important this is. Thanks John

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    • Thanks Jo. I suspect many of us will have experienced the “bog standard comprehensive” version of education. There was a schhol in Stoke named after the inventor of the Spitfire. Only 5% of pupils got 5 GCSEs. They must have been pretty special kids. But what about the 95% that school failed?

      The read across for me is what are we doing to make sure we don’t fail our customers and service users or indeed our colleagues? We can’t afford to be “no worse than any other housing provider” we have to keep challenging and stretching ourselves…….learning from the best………in any field.

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