Apologies in advance. The post that I’m writing is close to my heart and too much emotion might creep in but I think that this is a post worth writing…
“Girls, I’ve got the end of year photo to give to you all. If your parents have paid for a copy, please raise your hand and I’ll give you your copy.”
I raise my hand. I’m excited to get my first ever class photo. I’m nearly 13 and I remember brushing my hair and putting on a coat of Heather Shimmer Rimmel lipstick before they took the photo.
My tutor begins handing out the photos: she arrives at me.
“Look at you! Look how different you look to everyone. The blonde bombshell. You look like you belong to a comprehensive school.”
I could’ve died that day; I was mortified. When my tutor said that, other girls in my class laughed.
I was a scholarship girl.
My mum is Catholic and she wanted me to go to a Catholic school. I didn’t really know much about it; I turned up, answered some questions, and I passed.
It only became apparent as I became older that I was different. First of all, my family didn’t have any money for me to go on any trips. Most of the time, I hid from my mum and dad that there was a trip. I didn’t want them to know because I knew they didn’t have the money to send me on a trip to France or a skiing trip to Switzerland.
So I didn’t go. I made up some excuse that I was already going away: but I wasn’t.
I went through school in a permanent state of alert. Every week I was in trouble. I had after school detentions, Saturday detentions, holiday detentions… Looking back, I feel so gutted for my mum who was on the receiving end of these notifications. She wanted the best for me but I was messing it up… Nearly every detention I received was for defiance. The problem was, I didn’t know I was being defiant – I was just being me…
“Deborah Light! Where are you going? I’ve been at this stall for three hours and you haven’t come to see me.”
These words seem pretty innocuous but they changed my life. My English teacher, Ms Long (now Dr Harper) stopped a stroppy, boisterous 16 year old down a corridor and had a go at her for not coming to the A level English stall to find out about the course.
“Sorry Ms Long – I didn’t come because English is the only subject I want to take. I don’t need to come because I already want to take it.”
“Ah, well, that’s alright then. See you in September.”
That was the first time someone had ever took a chance on me: stroppy Debbie, you can’t rely on her, she’s too unpredictable, you never know what she’ll do.
My mum thought she was doing the right thing by getting me into a private school. But it was the worst thing she ever did (I’ll never tell her this). I spent my whole time at school feeling like an outsider. I remember my head walking round the playground with me after she’d moved me into another tutor group saying “This is your last chance, Debbie. If this doesn’t work out, I don’t know what we can do.”
Thank God for Ms Long. Thank God for English. No one in my family has ever been to university so I didn’t really think about applying…
“Where is your personal statement?” demanded Ms Long.
“Er, I don’t really know what I’m doing.”
“Do you love English?”
“Yeah, of course I do!”
“Then that is what you will read at university.”
If it wasn’t for Ms Long, I would never have gone to university. I had a job in Next and I was earning £5 an hour. I was also a really good tennis player and could earn extra money as a tennis coach’s assistant.
So why am I writing about this?
Well, I work at a school where if you are Pupil Premium, you might not do very well. In fact, your friends who are non-Pupil Premium might achieve considerably better than you.
And that makes me angry.
Every day, I come across kids like me who don’t know what opportunities are available to them. They aren’t embarrassed that they haven’t done their homework. They are happy to get a 5c when they could get a 5a because “that’s what my best mate got”. They end up in the bottom sets because they’re gobby and push the boundaries and seem (to those who don’t care to find out) a bit slow.
Two examples recently have stayed with me and made me realise the difference school can make to students’ life chances.
First, there’s Laura*. She is a Pupil Premium student – she’s spent nearly every Friday this year in senior leadership detention for truancy, failure to attend a previous detention or refusal to follow a senior member of staff’s instruction. But this is the same girl who comes to class having read the extract from Much Ado About Nothing and will argue to the death that Hero is a product of a misogynistic society. This is the girl who I texted her mother to tell her that her daughter had made fantastic progress in English this year. Her mum never told her. This is the girl who cried when she found out she would have a new teacher in year 10. “But it’s you, Miss, that makes me good.” No, Laura, you make yourself good.
And then there’s Abdul*, who works so hard but isn’t quite there yet… Who is so upset to get a 5a when he’s promised his mum he’ll get a level 6. His mum, who phones me up to tell me her son hasn’t read a book since year 6 because he’d rather play basketball. So I take Abdul* to the library at lunchtime to find a book he might like and we settle on ‘Pigeon English’. And he tells me three weeks later ‘Miss, don’t worry, I’m not gonna end up like Harri.”
These are my kids and I love them. I know that’s not what I’m supposed to say – not very professional – but I do. They are the ones that make me come to work. But I’m also sad that they’re statistically doomed. I want them to rise above their backgrounds and become successes.
During the summer term, I fought really hard to take responsibility for Pupil Premium at my school. When I spoke with friends in other schools, most responses were something like ‘Are you crazy? You’re going to be inspected again next year and it’ll be your head on the block.” But I don’t care. I want to make a difference to those students who might not have anyone fighting their corner, who don’t yet believe they are capable of great things.
Growing up, I had one teacher who saw past my bolshiness and took a chance on me. That’s a lovely story but there are too many in my school to just keep our fingers crossed and hope one teacher takes a chance on them.
We’ve got to get it right. I asked for this responsibility. I will be judged by the successes and failures of our Pupil Premium students. But I will not stop working until I teach in a school where everyone can succeed, regardless of their starting point.