The influx of reality television programmes has, I believe, created unreal expectations on today’s young people and their schools. I regularly watch with fascinated despair as invited performers are patronised by billionaire experts. ‘That was amazing, I did not expect that’ can often be translated into ‘you’re ugly but you can sing’ or ‘you’re old and can still dance’. That this could be a money making opportunity is the underlying message.
My eldest daughter often recalls her experience of trialling for ‘The X-Factor’. A day spent queuing at Aston Villa, thankfully my wife was on duty, to realise that by 12.00pm, half way through the day, the required ‘good singers’ had been selected and the only acts that would be taken through would be novelty acts. Her thirty second audition to a ‘bored’ apprentice made her realise that this was not necessarily the business to ‘pin’ your hopes on, reinforced when her amazing singing teacher, the blonde one from Europe’s biggest ABBA tribute act, did not get put through whilst a man with a duck on his head went to the live show. This was a salutary experience, one as parents we chalked up as a good learning experience in life’s often unfair journey.
However, I have been reminded of this event, by the worrying request for time off school from Gemma’s mum. Gemma is in year 11 and has been invited to perform at the live event of ‘Britain’s Got Talent’. Gemma is also on the additional needs register, is a vulnerable level 1 student who is managed closely by our amazing SENCo and her team. To my and the head of music’s knowledge, her performance portfolio extends no further than ‘singing in her bedroom’. However, she has some endearing mannerisms, part of her spectrum, something for the judges to smile at and indulge!
My concern, apart from the obvious ridicule that could befall Gemma and how we will manage that inevitable social media commentary, is that these programmes seem to have given unrealistic ‘hope’ to our students. It is akin to getting the golden ticket or performing outrageous, dangerous stunts on ‘YouTube’ to gain notoriety and celebrity status. The danger, damage this supposed ‘dream ticket’ allows is a false hope and replacement of the work ethic so required for GCSE. Gemma is distracted and in a way this is okay, level 1s lead to level 1s in year 12. For those who are non-academic, hope is in short supply and for Gemma we need to find the right course, the right challenge and not simply get her off the books and unemployment figures.
My son is also in year 11 and it is instructional to see how demanding his GCSE programme is; a two year marathon with excessive demands, some of which are unrealistic from his new subjects. History, his talent, requires 90% to get an A*. GCSE PE is more akin to GCSE biology with four sports tested and evaluated at county standard for A* and RE requires a knowledge of Islam that would shame most politicians. No wonder some year 11s cannot see the value of all this effort when their exam timetable falls in the middle of Ramadan, is often clearly ill thought out and appears to be arranged only for the benefit of busy examiners not year 11 students who have early humanities heavy exams, often two on the same day, and stories of little success abounding. He underwent, philosophically, the pressure of his first two exams, RE and global perspectives which were on at the same time; over ten papers of writing with a ten minute silent quarantined break. Not really a test of his skills but of his endurance.
My annual entreaty to work hard, get qualifications to open doors is met with knowing looks and the stark statistics of no apprenticeships, no nearby vocational courses, cancelled courses and high costs for further education.
The clear message for my working class students and all students is that further education is now only for the middle/upper middle classes and that they need to find another way of making a living. That is the reality of our three tier system that is giving little hope and the ridiculous message that academic qualifications are the only currency of success. There is a deep suspicion that this is a flawed system. My son believes markers of 2000 scripts do not read answers but weigh them. Look at the annual quantity of remarks for talented students.
Perhaps it is understandable to ‘dream’, even if it is at the expense of your dignity and for the entertainment of some rich mogul! Who am I to criticise? We are all dancing to the rhythm and entertainment of the Conservative, out of touch 50 somethings. It is just that as teachers our dreams have become nightmares of inequality and an unfair system that we are desperately seeking to be successful for Gemma and all our students, examined in a planned, reasonable way. This is, I believe, something that could and should occur if we do not want to label, ridicule and stigmatise the vulnerable in our society.