Hunt for Heroes

10th July 2009 at 01:00
Pupils are more likely to idolise Beckham than the Bard. But is this a bad thing?

Who do young people look up to today? The bonus-happy bankers, the expenses-fiddling politicians or the models who display behaviour that is anything but?

A surplus of unsuitable role models is having far-reaching consequences, warns Sir Alan Steer, the ex-headteacher turned behaviour tsar. Speaking at the publication of Learning Behaviour, a government-commissioned report on school discipline released in April, he said a celebrity-saturated culture is endorsing undesirable behaviour.

"The sexual life of celebrities is all over the press and yet we wonder why youngsters are sexually active," he said earlier this year. "If footballers are violent and abusive, is it a surprise children are copying them? I'd like to see referees send (players) off by the cartload."

Didier Drogba, the Chelsea footballer, is a case in point. The Ivory Coast striker, who earns approximately pound;90,000 a week, remonstrated with the referee after his team went crashing out of the Champions League in May. In front of a global television audience, he repeatedly called the referee a "fucking disgrace" to his face. He now faces a four-match ban in Europe.

"Footballers, politicians, pop stars and celebrities are constantly behaving badly in very visible ways," says Professor Susan Hallam, a leading authority on behaviour at the Institute of Education in London.

"But they keep on getting away with it and rewarded in the shape of fame, fortune, power or popularity. Children learn that they can behave badly and still receive these rewards, so they think it must be OK."

Most pupils aspire to be sports men and women, according to teachers surveyed by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers last year, followed closely by pop stars (see table). Almost 40 per cent of teachers said their pupils wanted to be famous for fame's sake.

"Too many pupils believe that academic success is unnecessary because they will be able to access fame and fortune through a reality TV show," says Elizabeth Farrar, a primary school teacher in Scunthorpe.

"They believe that they are much more likely to achieve financial wellbeing through celebrity than through progression to higher education and a `proper' career."

Pointing pupils towards more positive role models is crucial in shifting mindsets, says Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhoods and 21st Century Boys. "Young people model their behaviour on people they see in society who don't always set good examples," she says. "You can see it when they pick up catch phrases like: `Am I bovvered?' Grown-ups need to start acting more responsibly if we're to bring up a balanced generation."

Ms Palmer's role models as a child were Elizabeth I and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the Victorian poet. She doubts many children would choose royalty or writers as their inspiration today. But that's not to say impressive public figures have entirely faded away.

When the US first lady Michelle Obama sprung an (almost) surprise visit on the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Language College in Islington, north London, earlier this year, she galvanised the girls to reach their potential.

In her first speech as first lady on a foreign trip, she told the girls how education was central to her own success. "I never cut class," she told the rapt audience. "I liked being smart. I loved being on time. I loved getting my work done. I thought being smart was cooler than anything in the world."

The message resonated with the school's own ethos that hard work will eventually pay off, says Jo Dibb, the headteacher. It also confirmed that money doesn't buy success.

The President's wife emphasised that she was raised without "wealth or resources" - something the vast majority of pupils at Elizabeth Garrett can relate to. Ninety two per cent of its girls are from a black or minority background, 20 per cent come from refugee or asylum-seeking families and half are on free school meals.

"She had a profound effect on everyone in the school," says Ms Dibb, who was moved and impressed. "She made success feel attainable. It reiterated the point that achievement is far more useful than a new handbag, but it doesn't have to be at the expense of values."

It will be hard to match the "Obamarama" effect, admits Ms Dibb, but she maintains that a good mix of guests is the most effective approach. Alexandra Burke, winner of last year's talent reality show X Factor, is an old girl of Elizabeth Garrett. But although they were proud of her success, Ms Dibb refused ITV's request to film her at the school.

"They wanted frenzied excitement," she says, "whereas we wanted to portray a calm learning environment; one that emphasises the importance of hard work as opposed to overnight success."

Ex-pupils who have gone to good universities, started their own businesses or given something to their communities are frequent visitors. "Girls leave here with top grades. We remind them that they can't do any better than that, no matter where they come from or what school they go to."

That no-excuses culture is used again and again by Ray Lewis, founder of the Eastside Young Leaders Academy (Eyla) in Edmonton, east London, which works with schools and parents to help keep black boys on the straight and narrow.

"The fact that a black man is now president of the United States is of huge relevance to boys over here, because wherever the US leads, the UK will follow," he says. "It gives our boys a way through the glass ceiling that isn't through the back door."

On a scale of zero to 10, he gives role models a 15 in terms of importance. Although men hover around the edges of these boys' lives, they may not be a positive influence. Charismatic, successful black men - like the businessman Damon Buffini who heads a private equity firm and works with Eyla as a role model and sponsor - offer a different way.

"They give permission for our young men to be great," says Mr Lewis. "It reinforces the message that hard work and delayed gratification can be rewarding, as opposed to being a drug dealer and getting money and status straight away."

Sir William Atkinson, the black headteacher of Phoenix High School in Shepherds Bush, west London, agrees that it is particularly important that disadvantaged pupils have positive role models. His school corridors are awash with pictures of successful ex-pupils who have achieved regardless of their circumstances.

"It shows the pupils that they can be authors of their own destiny rather than passive repositories of it," says Sir William. Female teachers and those from ethnic minorities are in positions of authority at the school. It helps pupils - who represent 50 different nationalities - see that success is obtainable.

"The people we celebrate here, look, smell and taste just like the pupils," explains Sir William. "Role models are relevant and immediate, but they don't replace the need for first-class practitioners. Pupils need to benefit from learning first and foremost. Only then are they open to the idea of learning wider values from their teachers."

But with so many influences, pupils can be susceptible to the wrong ones, argues Hank Roberts, the teachers' union activist. He believes that the cult of celebrity is "perverting children's aspirations and expectations".

Pupils are looking to Britney Spears or Paris Hilton for guidance, he suggests. They also absorb ideas from reality TV shows, such as MTV's I Want a Famous Face, which follows young people who try to "become" their favourite celebrity through cosmetic surgery. It's all part of a newly recognised obsessive-addictive disorder: Celebrity Worship Syndrome (CWS).

Children have always needed role models, Mr Roberts says, it's just that commercialism has pushed "bling" lifestyles at the expense of hard-working public sector jobs.

"In theory a person becomes a celebrity as the result of achievement," he says. "Now celebrity is the achievement.

"In some respects, the recession is forcing society to re-evaluate its priorities. Already we're seeing a shift away from the `greed is good' creed, and towards new role models who promote noble values that benefit the whole community."

There are already signs of this subtle development, argues Jill Berry, head of the independent Dame Alice Harpur School in Bedford and president of the Girls' Schools Association (GSA). Her girls say they look up to members of their own family, alongside sportswomen such as Kelly Holmes, Rebecca Adlington and Venus Williams, plus feminists such as Germaine Greer.

"We talk to the class about whether fame can be a useful platform to fight for a charity or good cause," she says.

"The girls are quite discriminating. They can enjoy reading about WAGs, but don't want to be them. They'd rather be doctors and mothers - they want it all and we help them find that balance."

Anna Raeburn, the broadcaster and agony aunt, says young people are best served when they draw inspiration from personal relationships, not intangible public figures. "Parents, aunties or even shop owners used to be able to send you in another direction or draw something out of you," she says.

"But now that we're in a disposable society with fragmented families, these people are changing all the time. Children need to look elsewhere for their guidance. They're lost and they find their answers in popular culture."

Genuinely responsible role models at home will always triumph over remote celebrities, believes Ms Palmer. The problem is that children are spending more time with their screen heroes - such as the aggressive, misogynist characters in (computer game) Grand Theft Auto - than they are with real loving adults.

"Parents are busy at work and teachers are too swamped with paperwork to fulfil a truly pastoral role," she says. "This leaves increasingly young children with a whole load of shouting footballers, exploiting politicians and angry soap stars to look up to."

But the heroes are out there, insists Ms Raeburn, you just need to find them. Individual subject departments are embracing role models. Men are invited into schools to promote boys' reading, while female engineers or chemists can raise girls' interest in science.

Simply gathering messages from positive role models in a school setting can inspire pupils. Arthur Mellows Village College in Peterborough contacted 300 celebrities this year, requesting signed photographs with encouraging notes for their Year 11 GCSE students.

Nearly 50 figures from the world of sport, politics and television complied, including Sir Alan Sugar, Gordon Brown, Bruce Forsyth and even controversial comedian Russell Brand. Their messages have been posted on the "Wall of Inspiration" near the exam hall.

"I thought we might get a few C or D-list celebs, but these are people I, as a headteacher, can look up to - and my pupils can, too," Mike Sandeman, headteacher, told The TES. "By replying, it feels that these people and their achievements are closer to the pupils."

Get family, teachers, ex-pupils and inspirational people from the community into school and they will all be able to share their ideas and suggestions with pupils, says Anna Raeburn.

As Mr Sandeman says, Russell Brand may not be his cup of tea, but his message has had a "profound effect" on certain pupils. Even if Mr Brand inspires just one pupil to succeed, it will have been worthwhile.

Who pupils model themselves on

  • David Beckham: 52.5%
  • Victoria Beckham: 29.7%
  • Frank Lampard: 26.3%
  • Keira Knightly: 25.1%
  • David Tennant: 23.2%
  • Paris Hilton: 22.8%
  • Lewis Hamilton: 20.8%
  • The Sugababes: 20.5%
  • Leona Lewis: 20.1%
  • Nadine Coyle: 16.6%
  • Lily Allen: 15.8%
  • Johnny Depp: 15.4%
  • Kelly Holmes: 13.5%
  • Daniel Radcliffe: 13.5%
  • Mischa Barton: 12.4%
    • Source: Survey of 304 primary and secondar teachers by the ATL union, March 2008.

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