Becky seeks an ad break

2nd December 2005 at 00:00
This week's entry for my Education Hall of Fame is Becky Bates of Norwich, age 15. Step forward, young Becky, remove that chewing-gum, take a bow.

This is the girl who was told by her teachers that she was a borderline D or E candidate for her GCSEs next academic year having, by her own admission, "messed about" during her school career so far.

She describes herself as "not that academically great but very creative".

Admittedly one shudders on her poor teachers' behalf at the thought of all those years of creative messing-about in their classes.

But what is life about, if not the possibility of redemption and improvement? So read on. Becky, it seems, reflected on this dour prediction for a while and connected it with the grim fact that to be an air hostess, her life's ambition, you need good GCSEs. Having thought about it all for a while, she took firm and rather startling action. She advertised in the Norwich Evening News.

"Will someone take me on?" she inquired. "Perhaps a patient retired teacher or someone bright who has a lot of patience? Can someone give me the time in return for me walking their dog or tidying their house? Or just take me on as a challenge?"

Even better, she added with Oliver-Twist hopefulness and a tenuous grasp of reality, they could "pay for me to go to a boarding school where there is only 10 in a class and I won't be bullied".

According to the rather startled newsdesk at the Norwich Evening News, Becky did not tell her mother she was making this plea, still less her school. It is in special measures, with a shirty sort of Ofsted report on its back and a long way to climb.

Naturally, on hearing of his non-star pupil's appeal, her headteacher rather huffily said he was surprised, because the school has a Student Achievement Centre for people falling behind and 43 per cent of candidates got their five A-C grades at GCSE last year, so there. Again, sympathy veers towards the school. Life is not easy, not with so many Beckies wandering about.

The eventual outcome of the story is uncertain. The latest I heard from the newspaper is that they have indeed had several offers of coaching, all sounding pretty genuine and teacherly, and are proceeding to arrange contacts with the family - albeit with all the caution appropriate in these suspicious days where sweet young 15-year-old girls are concerned. So it could be that Miss Bates will get her coaching, and her grades.

Cheeky little madam, or heroine of our times? I incline towards the latter view. Think how many lessons young Becky has taken in and acted upon, despite her history of messing about.

She has grasped what many do not - that you need exam grades to get ahead in life. She sees there is no future in turning into Vicky Pollard. She has understood the urgency of the situation, even though summer 2007 must seem aeons away. She has concluded that good teaching is the key and admits that it requires patience to deal with the likes of her. She sees that in a hard-pressed school in special measures, it is not that easy to provide the sort of personal concentration that she needs.

She has even, God bless her, grasped that teaching is a job with a value to it, and that her tutoring will have to be paid for with dog-walking or housework.

More importantly even than all that, the child has realised that glum predictions need not come true. I am well aware that prediction skills are now an unnervingly large part of teaching, what with value-added tables and universities doling out offers on the basis of nothing more than staffroom guesswork.

But I have never been comfortable with this form of soothsaying. One friend's son was told by staff at age 13 that he was a CD candidate for GCSE at best. He subsequently changed schools and at 18 rattled off to a top medical school garlanded with As.

Most children, confronted with confident adult predictions, tend to go along with them as meekly as if they had the words "not academic" tattooed between their shoulderblades. Becky Bates of Norwich, lairy though she may be, somehow maintained the ability to look into the future and resolve to shape it in her own way, by her own efforts, irrespective of the views of the adults.

Good on her, I say. She fulfils the magnificently stroppy county motto of her native Norfolk: "Do different."

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