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Educating the East End, episode two: Teaching boys to dream – and not make dreams their master

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

Watching this latest episode of Educating the East End made me think of Rudyard Kipling’s If. Similar to the themes outlined in that poem, the making of men is a challenge in schools today. “Give me the child until he is seven and I’ll show you the man” is a phrase I have heard – it’s one I have wished were true. For those of you that either work with adolescent young men or have seen your son/nephew move from primary to secondary school, you will know the extreme influence that the battle for “playground respect”, as the once-again brilliant Ms Hillman stated, can have on them. Not always, or not often, for the best, it has to be said.

Tonight’s focus about two young men and the different stages they were both on gave a real insight into the challenges for the young people and the school in students’ journey from boys to men.

Halil, with the smile of an angel, the glint of the devil and the eloquence of a young man of huge potential, "bruv". I also have to mention, as much as I tried not to laugh, the mischievous peer with the “you got a pound cut” put-down about Halil’s rule breaking hairstyle. It was a belter that would put any “your mum” joke in the shade. No one, of course, would wish Halil to receive the comment so negatively and for it to lead to such a negative impact on his behaviour and learning. Seeing any young person having to be restrained is incredibly difficult, whether it is in the supermarket or a school corridor.

Halil is still trying to work out his place in the social pecking order and is desperate for the attention of those around him, whether that attention is positive or negative. His grandfather, a man whose quiet authority and presence was obvious even through the TV and was impossible not to admire, has definitely got his hands full. If his granddad, working with school, can get Halil to understand that his need to ‘belong’ can be met in ways that are positive, such as his police cadet opportunity, then Halil will be able to use that natural charm as a force for good for those around him. Kudos must go to the amazing skill of the storytellers behind the camera – I am desperate to know how Halil is doing now and how he might do in the future.

Lamar, and his battles with the king of the understatement Mr Palombo (who I am sure we will see plenty more of throughout the series), were typical of the scene played out with many young men that possess the cut and dried logic of the man/child. Of course the opinion that matters most to Lamar is his own – and quite understandably too – but he still hasn’t grasped that in a community, boundaries are in place for the greater good and sometimes individuals have to accept them regardless. It was a moment to smile when he turned up on “strike day”, despite being adamant that there was no way he was going to, because his “mum said he had to” – the child in him still lives on, thank goodness.

At every school, we need to find the ‘hook’ for every young person. For many, that is the fact that their friends are in school. For others, it is a certain subject or a certain teacher. For Lamar, it is his passion to be a footballer, as well as the fact that, whether Lamar knows it or not, he is a young man that is respectful and values the people trying to help him. Trying to give a young person some perspective on their dreams is such a difficult thing to do. I have been fortunate to be invited to speak at conferences, etc, and I talk very openly about the impact it can have on young people when you get this wrong. So seeing Mr Abberley, his PE teacher, handle the conversation with Lamar about what his “plan B” was if football didn’t work out for him so fantastically well was really heart-warming. To protect Lamar’s self-esteem and dreams while giving him a gentle push to realise his other opportunities was a tough ask, especially with a young person that is so focussed on that dream. Mr Abberley’s line, “what are you going to do if football doesn’t work out for you, as the world is going to keep spinning”, is something that I have pocketed ready for when I am next having that chat. Lamar, by being respected for what he is obviously good at, will be an excellent role model for the class he is helping Mr Abberley with and will help other young people aspire to stretch themselves – regardless of how difficult the journey may well be.

I have been very public when talking to groups of school leaders and teachers about my view that exclusions from school don’t work. We can see evidence of that from this episode; we see Halil having to be excluded more than once – if they worked, further exclusions wouldn’t be necessary. However, it doesn’t mean that schools shouldn’t use exclusions – some behaviour is completely unacceptable and we have to ensure that young people understand that. I know the words ‘compliance’ and ‘obedience’ are ones that many people struggle to accept, but we have to be realistic: we all have to comply and obey the boundaries of our chosen environments; at least for the vast majority of the time. We have a greater than wished for exclusion rate at Passmores because certain behaviour is unacceptable; the staff and other young people need that message broadcast to support them, as well as hopefully stopping other young people from making the same bad choices. I just wish there was a different way to have the same impact, but, currently, I can’t see it.

I started with a reference to If and I’ll finish (with apologies to Mr Kipling…) with a slightly doctored version of the last stanza:

If you can be polite when your mates are watching,

Or walk with older boys – and not lose your respectfulness,

If neither teachers nor loving friends can hurt you,

If all people count with you, regardless of their background,

If you can fill both break and lunch

With sixty minutes of energetic but ‘appropriate’ play,

Yours will be the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And – which is more – you’ll be a man, my son! 

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