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.