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Educating the East End, episode three: Don't forget to speak up for the quiet achievers

Vic Goddard, principal of Passmores Academy – the setting of Educating Essex – writes:

It is a universal if unfortunate truth that eloquent and bright young people can sometimes be anonymous in busy schools. There are some students who, unless you teach them or are very active in seeking them out, go through their daily lives unknown by many staff. And in tonight’s episode of Educating the East End, head boy candidate Joshua was certainly portrayed as one of those students. This is not a criticism of the staff who haven’t yet had the pleasure of working with him; we expect staff to know the young people they teach so well they can be excused for not having the capacity to get to know the rest. There will also be plenty of young people that everyone knows – whether you teach them or not.

Tonight’s episode really made me think about those quietly compliant young people that turn up every day, do the right thing, fly under the radar and leave. How do we make sure that we recognise and reward those young people as well as those that demand our attention through the power of their personality or the circumstances of their life?

We should never underestimate how important the quiet achievers are to a classroom – let alone a school – but we should never forget that they are children, too, and like to be told they are doing well. A few years ago, Russell, one of the assistant principals at Passmores, described a method he used to keep track of these students. He took a minute at the end of each lesson and put a tick next to the names of those young people that had turned up, done the right thing and left. Once they had three ticks, he gave them a reward.

You might say that this is just rewarding them for doing the basics and they should all do that anyway – I know, and you are right, they should. But in our rush to try to get challenging young people onside, we can get caught up in giving them rewards for almost anything and end up forgetting those students who simply behave, the ones that give us the capacity we need to cope. And we can forget how it makes them feel to see us do that.

It is something that every school has to consider; if your school has a merit/house point system to reward students, have you ever looked at the top 10 students in each year group? If so, have you wondered how on earth certain young people, maybe some of those young people that everyone knows for the wrong reasons, manage to be at the top? We try to revisit this every year to see if we are getting it right – and I can assure you that there have been times when we haven't.

Anyway, back to tonight’s episode.

The timing of this particular theme really made me smile – Passmores has just started the process of head boy/girl selection this week. Tonight has given me a real insight into the pressures this can put on young people, but also the benefits of being an active participant in the democratic process.

I found myself pulling for Sheneil and Joshua almost instantly. Not because the front runners, Rashidah and Dike, were unlikeable, but because I am a sucker for the underdog. There was something about both Sheneil and Joshua that made me think they'd do a great job, as their motivation seemed to be more about service than profile.

I hadn't really thought before about how much pressure gets put on the young people who, with incredible bravery, put themselves forward. It is so incredibly hard to stop it becoming a popularity contest and to get young people to make a judgement based on what the candidates say, rather than what they look like or the type of student they represent.

Dike came across as a bright and self-confident young man – add the good looks and smile to the mix and I think he will probably be just fine. The fact that, as a Year 10, he managed to develop such an obviously close “friendship” with Malaika, a Year 11 and head girl, highlights this point. I think this is why I was rooting so hard for the less-likely winner: Joshua. Even if you weren't moved at his dad's reaction to him putting himself forward, surely, just like me, you found you had something in your eye when his dad managed to sneak a congratulatory cuddle (out of sight of any peers and the potential embarrassment that would follow, of course).

The battle between Rashidah and Sheneil was a little more cut and dried – in no small part due to Rashidah's ability to say “vote Rashidah” loudly and often, as well as the influential backing of Malaika.

The fact that Malaika managed to become head girl in the first place, despite not necessarily being squeaky clean, is a compliment to the school and the ethos being instilled by Ms Smith, but it is also a worry. I have been in the situation where I have had an internal debate about whether I needed to veto a candidate because they were not the role model I wanted the victorious person to be, or whether letting them stand could actually be the making of them. The truth is there is no right or wrong answer; it is about ethos and viewpoint. Do you veto a young person who is high-profile and seemingly popular (therefore likely to do well) because they have not always been the perfect student, or do you let them stand and use the responsibility being thrust upon them as a way of encouraging them to improve?

All in all, this episode made me really think – probably more than the previous two – about our "forgotten" students and just how brave the young people are that put themselves forward for such a public contest that could damage even the most robust character if handled badly.

PS Where was your fancy dress, Mr Palombo? Join the party please; if Mr Drew can bring himself to wear a pink pinny to serve our students fruit, it is the least you can do. Maybe next World Book Day you could come as Scrooge – bah humbug!

Find TES' full coverage of this series at the Educating the East End landing page

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