Following in their footsteps

16th May 2014 at 01:00
Many children seem chained to the script of failure that has been written for them. But as Tessa Matthews takes a walk through a deprived estate, she sees how education is transforming the life chances of her pupils

A bridge divides the school from the estate. I walk across it, precariously balancing a bag full of exercise books on one shoulder and a laptop case on the other. The bridge spans the ring road; cars whizz beneath me, whipping up a breeze and throwing my hair into my eyes. I stumble as I flick it back gracelessly and continue my march towards the other side of the road.

It has been another testing day. Jemma stormed out after calling me a name that I won't repeat here, Cam refused to do a single thing and Luke drew a penis on Tammy's cheek. I was trying to teach them at the time, but what happened in my classroom between the hours of 2pm and 3pm more closely resembled a chapter of Lord of the Flies than an English lesson. The savagery and brutality of the human spirit were on display for all to see and, once again, I felt powerless to stop it. Oh, and I was being observed, too.

The feedback was predictably depressing. After being told that my lesson was "inadequate" and that I am a "cause for (serious) concern", I couldn't wait to walk out of the school gates and back into the real world, where I can wander anonymously without that judgement following me around. Out here, the word "inadequate" does not condemn me as it does in school.

I am angry. I despair at the thought of going home to plan five lessons for tomorrow and mark the books that already feel like they are breaking my back. It all seems so futile. I work incredibly hard, yet I am still no good. The kids don't respect me, my superiors don't support me and there is no sign of things improving any time soon. Sometimes I wonder why I put myself through this.

I hope that the walk will ease my frustration. I drink in my surroundings, focusing on what I can see and hear and smell and feel right now, and attempt to leave the hellish day behind me.

A troubled path

I walk further and deeper into Marston, the sprawling estate on the edge of town. It is a forest of concrete; its roots are the streets that house the students who pass in and out of my school each day. My eyes scan the huddles of kids on the corners of the litter-strewn side roads. Cigarette butts pepper the pavement. Kids fly past, screaming and jeering, pedalling on their bikes as fast as they can. A broken street light flashes erratically. Dogs bark, muffling the voices of the men and women who stand in shop doorways. The streets are lined with row after row of box-shaped dwellings, decorated with pebble-dashed frontages, broken fences and rusty garage doors. A siren wails in the distance. A baby cries. A mother yells. Music blares from a bedroom window.

To the children I teach, this is home. This is where they sleep, where they eat, where they argue with their siblings, meet up with their mates and watch television with their parents. Marston is the place that will shape them. It is where they will spend the formative years of their lives, and the decisions they make here will determine their futures.

As I round the corner, I take a deep breath, filling my lungs with air that is thick with damp mist. On my left is the community centre, a small bungalow-esque building doused in good intentions, Slimming World posters and graffiti. Behind it stands a skip and a group of bored-looking boys, who stare out from beneath hoods, caps and coats. A cloud of sweet-smelling smoke hovers above them - they brazenly continue puffing as I trudge past.

I think one of them is Jordan, a boy I taught last term. He was very quiet and didn't seem to have many friends, and he always looked as though his mind was far, far away. At the time I thought he was bored; as a naive, optimistic newbie, I was sure that I could win him over with an exciting book about cars or an interactive lesson where he could collaborate with his peers. None of it worked. He eventually stopped coming to school and today is the first time I have seen him in more than six months.

Recently, I had a conversation with Mr Foster, an experienced teacher. He told me: "Lots of kids from Marston don't really see the point in coming to school. Many of them don't give it a chance. It's like a script they get handed: `You will hate school.' They can't seem to get out of that mindset."

These words echo in my head as I walk past Jordan. He avoids my gaze and pulls his hood over his eyes, exhaling smoke from his nostrils.

Breaking free

The way to the station is via a narrow stretch of pavement with a wall running alongside it. As I walk, I notice a boy, still in school uniform, swinging his legs about six feet above ground level.

"Alright, Miss. Whatchoo doin' 'ere?"

The voice belongs to Zak, a cheeky boy from my Year 8 class. His manners make him appear much older than his 13 years. He speaks like an old sage, a man of the world. He munches on a bag of crisps and chews with his mouth wide open. Zak comes from a large, troubled family. Two of his older brothers have been in prison and his older sister was expelled from school three months ago. His father doesn't appear to be around and his mother is distracted most of the time. When he arrived in Year 7, my colleagues said: "Oh, another Morris kid. He'll be a nightmare." Another prophecy to be fulfilled, another script to be followed.

Zak has been getting into a lot of trouble at school recently, but I still have hope that he won't follow the same path as his siblings, that he won't succumb to the tide of peer pressure that sweeps away so many of our pupils.

"Hi, Zak. I'm on my way home. How are."

Suddenly, an older boy who looks a bit like Zak interrupts my pleasantries. He brushes past me, dislodging the carefully balanced bags from my shoulders. "Zak, come on - we gotta go!" he shouts.

Zak jumps down from the wall and runs after the older boy. "Bye, Miss," he yells as he goes.

Dusk is falling over the rooftops. I wonder where he has to be so urgently at this hour.

As the sun sets further, I pass the local chip shop and see a young girl struggling over the threshold with a buggy. A lanky boy in a tracksuit helps her to squeeze the cumbersome item into the building. They both look exhausted.

The girl is called Shelley. I didn't know her that well when she was at school full-time, but she gained celebrity status across the campus when she became pregnant last year. She had always been known to teachers as one of "those kids" - the naughty ones who get into fights and confrontations, who snarl and sneer when given instructions. Many teachers were not surprised when she came in clutching a scan of her future offspring. Fellow students made comments that revealed their immaturity and their insensitivity.

"Well, yeah, obviously Shelley got up the duff! Blatantly! That was always gonna happen."

"Yeah, I heard she wanted to get preggers so she could move out of her mum's and shack up with that Chris fella."

"It's well rave, man! She gets loads of time off school now."

Shelley's notorious classroom behaviour had earned her a reputation. Her role, the script she had been handed, was that of a truculent, aggressive failure who would never amount to much. This prophecy informed the majority of her actions during her time in school.

But the birth of her son changed that. Since Braiden came into the world, a glow has come over her. She's on a reduced timetable now, so we only see her a couple of times a week, but when she is in school she works harder than anyone I have ever known. She spends lunchtimes catching up on English and maths, takes work home with her and brings in extra assignments to be marked. My colleague and I take it in turns to tutor Shelley. I have grown to have a deep respect for her.

"I know I was really bad before," she said recently. "But I want to do better now. I want to set a good example for my son and get some good qualifications and that."

Shelley's determination is inspiring. She ignores those who expect her to fail and works hard to make up for lost time. I see her now, a mother who is still a child herself, ordering her dinner from the takeaway and I am heartened. It isn't over for Shelley because she doesn't want it to be. She has made the choice to ignore the script she was given and write herself a new one.

Caught between two futures

Eventually, I arrive at the station, exhausted from what feels like a cross-country hike at the end of a long and arduous day at the whiteboard. I riffle through my pocket in search of my ticket and slump into the nearest seat, letting my bags fall to the floor. Leaning back, I close my eyes.

I had almost forgotten about the observation feedback and the mountain of work that awaits me at home. I often take this route and it's not unusual for me to spot kids I know. But today was different, somehow.

I go over the walk in my head and wonder what it is that strikes me so much about Marston. Like so many areas across the country, the levels of deprivation are severe. I can cite all the relevant statistics about unemployment and exam pass rates, but I don't really need to. The poverty hangs in the air like a disease. It's a haze that envelops people in a prison of narrow horizons.

For Jordan, things are not looking good. The course of his life is seemingly mapped out. It appears that everyone, Jordan included, is resigned to that, so we walk on by and say nothing, just as I did.

Zak is on the cusp of two very different futures. At such a young age, nothing should be set in stone. We may expect him to follow the route of his siblings, but we should not allow the mistakes of others to condemn him. Unlike Jordan, he is still coming to school and getting on. We need to make sure we steer him down the right path, instead of standing by and watching as he is swept into the vast ocean of disillusionment that has taken so many others before him.

Shelley shows that it's never over for any child, no matter how tough their situation may be. She refused to allow her background, her lack of qualifications, her repeated suspensions or her child to prevent her from having a future. She made the brave choice to challenge the statistics and make her life better.

She arrived at that decision herself: love for her child helped her to get there. But what about the others? How can we make all children see that their lives are not paths they are obliged to follow? How can we help Zak and Jordan and the thousands of other children out there whose futures seem so bleak?

We are teachers. What we offer is the currency these kids need to change things: education. Education has the power to transform lives. We can teach them about the world and encourage them to make it a better place. We can show them how to behave and how to be kind, respectful people. We can refuse to accept defeat. We can show them possibilities they never knew existed and we can help them to believe that they have just as much right to a good life as anyone else.

We can teach them that having a bright future is not reserved for the wealthier classes. We can tell them that the estate they were born on does not have to define them. We can make them yearn for the vast opportunities and unlimited beauty that life can offer. We can educate them and unleash the potential within.

Tessa Matthews is a pseudonym. She is a secondary teacher in the Midlands

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