I spent nearly all of my teaching career seeking out and working in schools in economically deprived communities – what used to be euphemistically referred to as ‘schools facing challenging circumstances’. These are my favourite types of schools and favourite types of communities.
A couple of decades ago, I taught in a school in a small, working-class town where the main employer was the local food processing factory. Rumour had it that the most soul-destroying job in the giant metal building was to continually pack sausages for eight hours every day.
Recently, I visited the school and spent a couple of happy hours afterwards in the pub with a very dear, old friend who is now the headteacher there.
We recalled how we used to ask our pupils in our classes about their lives and what their parents did for a living. Many pupils would tell us that their mother or father packed sausages at the factory. We would ask them, ‘what about when you are older, will you pack sausages too?’ And their reply was always, ‘hell, no!’
At parents’ evenings, we would chat with their young parents about how their son or daughter was progressing at school and their factory worker parents would beam with pride and joy to hear tales of hard work and drive. And, without exception, those parents who knew the mundane days of packing thousands of sausages into boxes would urge their child, ‘you must do well at school. Always try your hardest. You must not end up like me.’
These parents understood what has been understood by good parents since time immemorial; their ‘job’ as a parent was to ensure that their child lived an adult life with better conditions than their own. The direction of travel was upwards. They found meaning in their life by creating the narrative for their child of progress. Be better than me, they urged. That’s what I want for you.
And so many of our pupils accepted the challenge. There were many who became the first in their family to head off to university and break out of their own class and into the professional classes. Many of these pupils faced the common unease of becoming alien in their own community, but their parents delighted in their leaving and continuing the journey of progress. Many of our pupils stayed in the town, but rather than ending up in the sausage factory, they became receptionists or clerks or estate agents or shopkeepers or entrepreneurs or a whole host of other lives away from the meat packing plant. To some, these jobs might appear to be modest leaps up the social mobility ladder, but to those pupils and to their parents, they represented something profound, life changing and the source of great pride. The parent was able to feel accomplished – they had ensured their child would not face a future of sunless days acting like a machine.
My friend and I remembered together how driven those pupils and their parents were and how determined they were to weave into existence a better life. Social mobility was at the heart of why we sought out and chose to work in such schools. We had zero interest in patronising and zero interest in creating conditions where the pupils in our schools should have to be dependent. We wanted them to push upwards, to live lives of meaning, purpose and with autonomy. That’s what their parents wanted too.
As we spoke some more about this reason for teaching, my friend told me the saddest thing I have heard in years.
Today, when a teacher asks the pupil if their parent works in the sausage factory and whether they will too when they are older, rather than the defiant ambitious response of, “hell, no!”, teachers are now met with the response, “you have no right to criticise my dad” or “there’s nothing wrong with working at the sausage factory.”
Worse still, at parents’ evenings, the parent who once was so determined that their child should not live a life of servitude, now protests, “it’s done me no harm” and “if it’s good enough for me, it’s good enough for her.”
This is heart-breaking.
How did this happen? And why did this start to become the prevailing attitude around five or six years ago?
My friend, a good headteacher still driven by a desire to make social mobility a real possibility in these days when social mobility in the UK has long since ceased, tells me that he started to notice a very strange shift in attitude some years back when pupils started to celebrate being thick. This had always been a taboo for our pupils – to be considered thick by anyone, but especially their peers, was one of the most awful insults they could receive. Yet, suddenly and seemingly from nowhere, pupils in the school started to actively seek the status of being completely clueless.
I asked my friend if he had any idea where this had come from. He told me, at first, they couldn’t work it out, but then kids started to refer to each other as characters from the television show, The Only Way is Essex. One character, in particular, Joey, was held up as a hero by the pupils. Of course, it was not just this one show, but rather a full-blown attack was underway to keep the working classes in their place.
Very wealthy, very mobile, very autonomous people have created a narrative that competence, knowledge, merit, hard work and wit are irrelevant qualities for success, but instead what children should be aiming for is shiny teeth and a complete lack of nous.
In the UK in the 1980s, the two most popular responses amongst working class teenagers when asked what job they would like to have as an adult were ‘teacher’ and ‘doctor’. Today, it is ‘footballer’ and ‘celebrity’.
Today the teacher who tells the pupil that it is not ok to work in the sausage factory is chastised for not promoting the pupil’s self-esteem. This argument is made by those who will never have to work in the sausage factory – they claim that saying such things is tantamount to insulting the pupil’s parents and their background.
This is a deliberate lie. It is a verbal trick to stop teachers telling their pupils the truth. It is a sanctimonious sleight of hand to keep the poor in their place. It is a deliberate conflation; pretending that to set ambitions for a pupil to be able to choose to do any job they desire, is the same as to demean a particular job or those who do it. This is mendacious and seeks to silence those who wish to open a world opportunity to working class pupils.
There is nothing about working in the meat processing factory that helps to promote an individual’s self-esteem. There is nothing about living an adult life drained of autonomy that boosts one’s happiness. There is nothing about knowing one’s parents were able to live in better conditions than oneself that makes one feel super. There is nothing in knowing that one has made no progress that makes life chipper. These are lies told to the working class by people who want them to accept their lot.
Teachers should tell their pupils the truth.
And the truth is this: It is not fucking ok for the well off to tell working class kids that they need to accept their lot and work in the sausage factory.
To those pupils at my old school today, I say, recapture that defiant ambition of those who came before you. Rise up. Be more. Don’t let anyone keep you trapped.