“ Genre: Documentary / Broadcaster: BBC „
I grew up in that education vacuum between the middle and lower-class, plenty of ambition but little opportunity to go places, like university. I suspect at lot of you guys over 35 are in that bracket. Deep down you wanted to be around clever and educated people but dumped with the exact opposite, at school and in work. Education is everything in Britain and you're only as smart as your dad's salary, it seems, which is why I find documentaries on education and choice so rewarding. I'm not looking for someone to blame for my failures but to reaffirm the way the British education system so blatantly discriminates against its people that are burdened only by what their parents did.
The BBC is currently running an education season across its four TV and radio output, which includes documentaries, reality shows, dramas and factual broadcasts etc, again including the androgynous and boyish, 'is he or isn't he gay' Gareth Malone. He is doing the show about bringing back male teachers to primary schools but I want to talk about the one about school selection, which aired over the last two weeks.
It concentrated on the kids and parents of Europe's biggest education authority, that of metropolitan Birmingham, applying for secondary school places, the most important school placing of their educational careers. Birmingham is, of course, extremely ethnically diverse and has some of the highest, and indeed lowest, educational achievement levels in the country. The Asians kids do well in some boroughs but poorly in others with a similar story for the white kids, whereas the black kids tend to fall off in most areas after primary school as 'street culture' takes over their lives, creating some of the cities most violent so-called 'postcode' gang wars, education the key to the cities success and failures.
The first episode looked at the dreaded form filling that offers the kids and parents six choices of secondary and grammar schools to go to, the plan being that 80% get their first or second choice. But anyone with kids knows how divisive these lotteries are and the complex logarithms used by the education authorities seem to deliver the good schools to the middle-class kids and the bad schools to the under-class kids. Some would argue quite rightfully that the good schools are only good schools because the parents work hard to make their kids smart and so the good schools full of middle-class kids, and as those parents change their addresses to get in the catchments areas for these schools those schools get better and the others get worse, a universal problem across western democracies. Clearly we can't all have the school places we want for our kids and so the ones who want it most will get it. Parents that don't help with their kid's homework and let them play on the XBOX all night yet always moaning because their kids mess around at a school don't deserve a good place if you ask me.
The parents have four months to make their choices as we follow an ethnically diverse bunch of kids from all backgrounds and social classes from across the city as they ponder their choices. The kids, of course, couldn't be arced where they go on the whole and this programme not really about them, this very much a subtle look at one of the major fault-lines of multi-cultural Britain, the parents the driver. Little Thomas Vassell lives with his single mum Simone in a tower block in Handsworth, the cities most African-Caribbean area, she quite rightfully reticent to send her precocious and cheeky little son to the local school that's riddled with gang conflicts, metal detectors, and even has an onsite police station! Simone puts a good school at the top of her list, even though it's the furthest away one from their flat. Little Thomas just wants to go to 'big school' and have fun, enthralled by having the camera crew follow him around to see where he does end up.
Mohammed is an intelligent Asian boy and lives in a traditional Bangladeshi family, he won of five kids, dad knowing the power of education and wanting the best for his oldest, his parents targeting schools much higher than his ability, Handsworth Grammar their first pick. They have listed six grammars and no secondary schools, a risky strategy if Mo fails his 11 plus and so leaving him with no good school and at the mercy of the Birmingham Education authority to chose their school from the places left, he too heading for metal detectors and in-house policing if he fails the 11 Plus. All parents have the help of 'Choice Advisors' if they so choose, their job to point the parents the way if they get confused.
Little Harry from Sutton Coalfield lives in the city's most affluent borough and its only the best for him, his well healed parents going for king Edward Grammar, probably the best school in England outside of London, grammars like this the cheap private school option for Britain's upper middle-classes who know how to play the system. There are 600 requests for the 150 spots in King Edward and Harry has been specifically schooled to pass the 11 Plus for a whole year and every inch the swat posh kid.
David Cameron's so-called Free Schools are all about this, another route for Tory voters to get the best education for free, and a chance to send their kids to good schools without poor people in them for no charge, escaping immigrants and the under-class the only reason for them. But again you can't blame parents for wanting the best for their kids. Rather pleasingly only 31 groups applied to be a free school and parents quickly understood that money would be taken from other schools to the detriment of poorer children for their selfish needs.
This is Birmingham and so religion and culture comes into most people's choice of school, be it to find the right faith school or the exact opposite. Darren, as the name suggests, has an earring like his dad, and the same dad not wanting his boy to go to one of the schools because 'its full of Asians' (in a broad Brummie accent), claiming his son has been racially abused for 'being white' and he should go to a 'white school' to avoid that stuff'.
On the opposite flank we have Ethan, son to Buddhist mom Mary, who has been home tutored and she too aiming for grammar or the best grant maintained school for her thoughtful son. If she doesn't get what she wants she admits to the camera she will send him to an independent.
Single mum Shania has a different plan to get her Jamal into the right school, educating him in a Catholic School from day one to keep him away from those post code gang schools. Only child Moise is a surprisingly quite Caribbean boy and his big mamma has a plan to get Jamal into the right school ---- that being leaving it to her even bigger big grandmamma to make the decision.
In episode two we learn their fete and how exactly the choices are made by the education officers and advisors, one commentator admitting that although the system seems reasonably fair the computer will spit out appropriately places for the appropriate post codes, selection by house price, not talent. I firmly believe selection is the way Tories will go and so need for this charade any more.
Surreptitious selection destroyed the comprehensive ethos, of course, where kids of varying abilities where mixed in together to try and drive up exam results, one lot pulling off the other. What we have now is sink schools and good schools and little in-between. What we also know is there are few thick posh kids in the crap schools. The system allows for middle-class parents not to have thick kids. The posh kid's feet don't touch the ground from home to school as the 4x4 growls across the city to deliver their precious cargo, yummy- mummies picking out the remains of underclass kids in the bull-bars who dare step out from behind the ice cream van. When a middle-class parent secures the best local school for her children she forgets she is pushing a smarter kid down the ladder who would perhaps need the place more.
On the whole it was an enjoyable two hours although it didn't go too deep into the cities racial divide and how corrupt the system is that is designed to drive us apart. I think that's at the heart of the debate in our big cities and this backed off. Facts we don't hear are young Asian kids easily outperform white kids at the same age group and yet it's always white working-class moaning that they don't get a fare deal. Well this documentary may not put that to rest but it does show just how stacked the system is against kids who don't want to learn and their parents are usually the reason for that as they, too, underperformed at school.