I was discussing behaviour with another teacher recently and they used the phrase: "They’re just typical Blackpool kids". As a "Blackpool kid" myself, the statement really stuck with me and I’ve spent a while thinking about why it bothered me so much.
I have no doubt everyone has their opinion on my hometown of sunny Blackpool – you will have all seen the newspaper headlines and the statistics. Here are a few of the most recent ones:
- Blackpool struggle to kick heroin amid seaside deprivation
- How Blackpool became a 'dumping ground' for the socially excluded
- Blackpool schools' funding cuts put scores of jobs at risk
- Blackpool's health: life is short near the Golden Mile
- More than 2,500 children in Blackpool get inadequate education
No matter where they are from, every single child deserves the same opportunity to have a full and enriched life. It isn’t fair that our children are written off because of where they live and it isn’t fair that they get a lesser quality of life. It certainly shouldn’t be the case that these stereotypes and figures, that loom over our town, affect the education our children receive. These figures should not lower our expectations of these children, because that does them no favours either.
Their postcode should not determine their life chances and I am a strong believer that every child in my hometown should be given a chance to become successful, in spite of the challenges that face us. These children deserve to be championed, to be told they are worth something and that every opportunity in the world is available to them. They do not deserve to be written off because of where they were born.
Stereotypes run deep
Blackpool is in the top 20 per cent of the most deprived districts in England and about 32 per cent (8,400) of our children live in low-income families. Men in Blackpool have the lowest life expectancy from birth in England and the figures for females are not much better.
In Blackpool, there are around 31,000 young people aged under 20, approximately 51 per cent under 10 years old. An estimated 1,920 of Blackpool’s 5-16-year-olds have mental health disorders. Blackpool is "an area of high deprivation" with a "significant proportion of children" coming from backgrounds that suffer from "one or more types of deprivation". In addition to this, the statistics show that the proportion of pupils in Blackpool schools who may be regarded as disadvantaged is increasing. Blackpool is also not alone – there are many places up and down the UK that suffer similar problems.
None of the above makes for fun reading. I am from Blackpool, born here and educated at a high school just down the road from the one where I teach. When I moved to Liverpool for university, I always found it amusing watching people’s awkward expressions when they asked where I was from and I replied: "I’m from Blackpool." I remember sitting in our eight-bedroom houseshare watching 999 What’s Your Emergency?, a documentary following the emergency service teams in Blackpool. I remember saying to my friends: "You’re all laughing, but that’s actually where I come from."
The stereotypes run deep. I have been to national teaching conferences and had discussions with other professionals, and more often than not their faces are full of pity when I say I teach in Blackpool. If they’re not full of pity, they’re full of curiosity: "What’s it actually like to teach in a place like that?".
Many of the children who live here see the negative headlines day in and day out. They see articles online saying that they go to "one of the worst schools in Britain"; they see statements that label their families as "deprived" and comments that describe their home as a "dumping ground". They begin to believe the narrative that they are doomed to failure, that there are fewer opportunities for them, that the people of Blackpool are not destined to succeed.
I trained as a teacher for half of my PGCE in Liverpool. My plan wasn’t to move back to Blackpool. But the more my training went on, the more I realised how important my job was and the more I was drawn to teaching in my hometown. It means a lot to me that the children I teach see that I was educated here, I live here amongst them and that their opportunities are not capped because they are from this town.
For "typical Blackpool kids", my friends and I have done very well for ourselves. I have friends who work for The Guardian, who are managers of flagship stores in London, who work for British Aerospace and for the NHS. I want them to see that we lived here, went to school here and have gone on to be successful. I share my stories about university and school with them because I want them to look at me and maybe see an opportunity, a bit of hope or some motivation – that they too can do these things with their lives, that these opportunities to go to university or work for national companies are not beyond them.
Teaching in Blackpool makes my job beyond special. Despite what Ofsted publish, I don’t believe that more than 2,500 children’ receive "inadequate education" here. Every teacher I know that works in Blackpool gives their absolute heart and soul to these children because we are desperate for them to succeed and break this cycle of negativity and low aspirations. Great teachers should have the highest expectations for their children regardless of context. It is not the children’s fault and they shouldn’t be punished for political agendas or social policies which are beyond their control. As teachers, we should constantly be seeking ways to improve the life chances of our students, not just settling for mediocre standards because they face other challenges.
When someone told me that my students are "just typical Blackpool kids" it made me angry, and I fear this stereotype has wormed its way deep into the profession and the bodies that govern us. I refuse to accept the excuses made for the children I teach. I don’t have lower expectations of them because they are "Blackpool kids". They are just starting out in their lives and I don’t think it’s right that they are defined and restricted before they’re even out of the gates, especially by the people who are here to help them. It doesn’t matter that they’re from Blackpool, it’s our job to make them realise their potential, because of, and in spite of, every challenge they may face – so bring it on, I’m just getting started.
Jessica Walmsley is a science teacher in Blackpool