I spent a year observing pupils at an Ilford comprehensive and met the new generation of upwardly mobile Britons. Family values, hard work and religion are all back—but not politicsby Fran Abrams / October 21, 2006 / Leave a comment
One day, sitting in their neat flat in Ilford, 11-year-old Ruhy and her mum are musing on what she will do when she grows up. Maybe she’ll be a designer, she thinks, but probably she’ll go to university. Which one should she choose?
Her mum has one question for me: “Which is the best university in England?”
“Oxford or Cambridge.”
“So,” she says, definite now. “There are two universities you could go to. Oxford or Cambridge.”
It is no idle dream. Ruhy, who spoke no English when she came here from Iran at the age of four, achieved some of the best SAT results her primary school had ever seen. Her secondary school, Seven Kings high school in Ilford, picked her out on arrival for inclusion in its “gifted and talented” programme.
Nor is Ruhy’s ambition that unusual among the youngsters at this urban comprehensive. It is shared by Perin, the son of a Ugandan Asian refugee who, with 11 A-grade GCSEs and four A-grade AS-levels, is heading for an elite university. Or Kessie, a postman’s daughter who came here aged ten from Ghana and who plans to become a pharmacist.
I spent the 2004-05 academic year at Seven Kings, following seven pupils both at home and at school. The aim was to capture a slice of their lives and perhaps, through them, to catch a glimpse of our next generation—a glimpse, in effect, of the country Britain, or at least its southeast corner, might become.
In many ways this is an ordinary school, with ordinary pupils, in an ordinary part of outer London. It is a comprehensive and—exceptions such as Ruhy aside—its pupils’ attainment at primary school are close to average. It is not in a smart area. Outside the school gates there are drugs and gangs.
The local population has been on the move for generations. The area’s generous, pebble-dash terraces and semis, built in the early 20th century, have been home to generations of migrant families—Jewish, Irish, Polish. Nowadays the majority of pupils have their ethnic origins in India or Pakistan, but every continent is represented in the ancestry of children here. And many of them share this one piece of knowledge—that there is no time in their day for vagueness or uncertainty, no time to stand and stare. They have this strong sense of purpose: to keep on moving on, moving up and moving out.
This is what makes Seven Kings—the area as well as the school—special. Most of these young people will become middle class. If there is social mobility in Britain today, it is here on the streets of Seven Kings and in similar suburban areas. In 30 years’ time the middle class will look more like Ruhy, or like Perin. Their faces, if you like, are the faces of the future.
Take Shivanie. She is a sparky 12 year old whose dad works at the sorting office. Both her parents were born in Kenya, though their origins are Indian; both had to leave school before they were ready because of family circumstances.
Shivanie likes to flick through her mum’s Argos catalogue, and in it she sees women in suits, carrying smart briefcases.
“I’d like to be like that. I’d like to go to work in a suit,” she says when I ask her what she wants to be. Her mum laughs affectionately. Her older daughters, Dipti and Sheena, are the same, she says. “I don’t know where it comes from. Sheena has decided she will have a suit and briefcase and is going to be a lawyer. And Dipti is going to be an accountant.”
This sense of upward movement, of the inevitability of progress, is something which the British working class—if such a thing still exists—is commonly believed to have found and then lost again in the past half-century. After the second world war, growing prosperity, free education and a dwindling industrial base brought major social change. Three quarters of children born in 1946 had fathers in manual occupations; by 1970 that figure had dropped to less than half. In the 1950s the proportion of school-leavers expected to go to university was around 6 per cent. Today about 42 per cent of 18-30 year olds have been or are at university. Yet those left behind by this great advance find themselves growing up into a world without traditional apprenticeship schemes, or sometimes without jobs at all. Dispatches from the heartland of Britain’s white working class have often told dispiriting tales of communities lacking direction and confidence.
Some of these young people can be found in Seven Kings. Anthony, whose dad is a carpenter and whose mum works as an assistant at a school, has little idea what he wants to do with his life. He is bright, but doesn’t work hard—and his parents, who left school at 15 without many qualifications, haven’t felt able to push him. After all, they say, they were much the same themselves. In the course of a five-minute conversation about his future, Anthony says he might go to university, or work in Sainsbury’s, or go to America and become a rapper. When a teacher asks him if his GCSE coursework was up to date, he isn’t sure. He hasn’t focused on it. (In the end, Anthony won an electrical apprenticeship—but only because his mother spent months writing down addresses she saw on company vans and posting letters to them on his behalf.)
There are girls who lack direction too. Lindsay, for instance, an amiable girl with blue eye-shadow and a huge array of badges on her blazer; she drifts into school at midday after stopping for an egg McMuffin. Lindsay has a novel attitude to education. Take geography—why, she asks, does she need to know about that? “Like rivers. I didn’t take geography to learn about rivers,” she says. “In life, are you going to go up to someone on the street and say, ‘I know how rivers and lakes are formed?’ I can’t see the point.”
But most of the stragglers at Seven Kings are boys. And quite a lot of them are white working-class or black boys. Why? Boys mature later than girls—but that has always been the case. Black boys, in particular, at this school seem attached to a peer group culture that says you can be cool or you can be clever—not both.
Another reason for this gender gap relates directly to the modern job market. When Lindsay talks about maybe working with children, or in a travel agent, these types of job seem far removed from the old backstop of manual work available to these boys’ fathers. Thirty years ago, those who left school without qualifications found work on the docks or on building sites. Nowadays the options seem to be shop work, services, caring or McDonald’s. There is no reason at all, of course, why Anthony cannot aspire to work with old people or children, but it simply does not occur to him. The girls in his class have not had to change their view of the world so much in order to see attractive career possibilities.
There is something else, though, that separates boys like Perin from boys like Anthony. And that something comes from their homes and families. Ask Perin’s parents why they think he has done so well and, like Shivanie’s mum, they will say they don’t know. He’s always been a bright, hard-working boy, they might say. On the face of it, most parents’ desires for their children are quite similar: “As long as he does his best,” they say, “that’s OK.” But on closer examination, a picture emerges from the upwardly mobile homes of a quiet structure to the day, and a belief that hard work will pay. One of Perin’s earliest memories is of checking share prices with his dad, who came here in his teens and went on to study pharmacy. One of his cousins is studying medicine, another law and another accountancy.
The discourse of race in Britain often focuses on underachievement and discrimination. Yet there is little sense of grievance or thwarted ambition among Perin’s classmates. Statistics point to much greater success among this generation than is usually assumed. Young people from ethnic minority backgrounds account for 16 per cent of undergraduates in English universities—almost twice the proportion in the general population. They win 35 per cent of places in medicine and dentistry, 38 per cent in computer science and 31 per cent in law. That success story starts in homes like Perin’s.
So Seven Kings high school is not such an ordinary school after all, because it has this force buried deep in its fabric. A significant proportion of its pupils come from homes with a culture of aspiration, a belief that the next generation will be more successful than the last. Perin’s father went to secondary school in inner city Newham, started his working life in Ilford and now lives in Essex, in a big house with a swimming pool. When I ask Perin where he would like to be in ten years, he talks about having a large country estate with a Bentley in the garage.
Academics say this “critical mass” of aspiration can set the tone for a school. So it has proved at Seven Kings. In 15 years, its GCSE results have risen from below the national average to way above it, putting it in the top ten schools in the land for “value added.”
So how will it be, this country where Ruhy and Shivanie, Perin and Kessie will rule, and where their parents’ generation will grow old? How will they shape it in their image? Will they set it alight with the sound of hip hop and with bling? There is plenty of evidence that today’s teenagers are more prone to antisocial behaviour, more likely to drink excessively and to take drugs, more likely to get into debt in pursuit of their consumerist dreams, less likely to stay married than their forebears.
Yet this picture of disaffected youth does not fit the aspiring young people of Seven Kings high school. Theirs is a conservative world, where family values dominate. When Perin talks about his country house, he populates it with a wife and children. What you need most is a good background, family values and a will to succeed, he says. That, he thinks, is what helped his family to climb in a single generation to where they are now.
This regiment of future doctors, lawyers and accountants bears little resemblance to that earlier, Ken Barlow generation of working-class youngsters who seemed to use their university education to escape from their parents’ lives. Swept on by the social change and prosperity of the 1960s, they became more liberal, more political, less religious. But the aspirant youth of Seven Kings show little sign of rebellion. Lacking the grants that funded student independence in the past, they plan to cling to their parental homes and thus to their parents’ values.
They do not take their success for granted. They expect it, but also know they will have to apply themselves in order to achieve it. And this acceptance of hard work shapes many other aspects of their lives. While loud music pounds through the ceiling of the sixth-form common room, Kessie and her friend Grace can be found at lunchtimes in the study area overhead, hunched over their books in adjoining booths. They will not leave anything to chance.
There is little time for political passions. Unlike the politicised graduates of the 1960s and 1970s, this generation will not change the world by embarking on crusades, but simply by being themselves. Of the seven pupils I spent time with, none had any strong interest in party politics and only one or two ever spoke of wanting to right wrongs. Sometimes they talked about charity. But mostly they were busy working, focusing on the future.
Religion will play a greater role in their lives than politics. Four of these seven describe themselves as devout—Perin and Shivanie were Hindus, Kessie and 16-year-old Jemma were Christians. Jemma, a Baptist whose father was raised Hindu, thinks she is becoming more religious. She loves the big, close, extended family of her church and is sure that when she goes away to university she will re-create it afresh. Kessie likes to spend her evenings singing in the youth choir of the Elim Pentecostal church. Ruhy is Muslim but her relationship with her religion is complicated. Her family are secular and non-practising, but she does feel loosely connected to Islam. When students in her class had to learn about a religion of their choice in an RE lesson, she decided to find out about the life of Muhammad—”because it’s my religion but I don’t know anything about it.”
Will there be tension between different religious groups? Not judging by the reaction to the 7th July attacks last year. I was at the school that day and saw no sign of trouble. The reaction was a human one—are our parents safe, is anyone we know hurt?
Overall, these young people’s lives are governed by traditional values and interests. Yet most of them have not grown up in a strict, constrained world. Few of their parents have pushed them hard. One father said he wanted to have a warmer, less authoritarian relationship with his son than he had experienced with his own father. And at school, too, there is not much sign of emotional reserve in the relationships between pupils—or between pupils and teachers.
Here is Perin’s head of year, Carol Jones, bidding farewell to her sixth-form charges as they depart to take their A-levels. The sixth-form block is packed, and there have already been tears.
“I’m not going to make a long speech,” Miss Jones says. “But every time I say goodbye to one of you individually, the tears start to come. If I don’t talk to you all soon, I won’t get through it… You lot have been such a special group of people to me… We know you’re going to go on to achieve greatness. I’m confident in years to come, some of the people in this room today will be in high positions in government, in medicine. I hope you will remember us fondly.”
The tears were flowing now all around the room. “I just love you all so much,” she says.
And amid the cheering and whistling, someone shouts back: “We love you too, Miss.”
With such a sense of companionship, of shared endeavour, how can they fail?