Growing up in an industrial wasteland taught me that it’s not the industry that bothers you as much as the ineluctable decline. You quickly get used to having chimneys looming over you and you can ignore the daily release of invasive toxic fumes. More damaging is growing up in a declining area where there are few jobs, the buildings are falling down, the shops are becoming scabbier and no-one seems to be doing anything about it. The ugliness isn’t a problem, but you feel the decline; it creeps around in your stomach and under your skin. Not in a way that’s easy to explain; it’s certainly not quantifiable; but you can just feel the lack of care or attention. It’s a bit like being ignored, like you’ve been unjustly passed over in favour of a sibling or a classmate and you get an internal aching sense that the reason you aren’t being cared for is because you’re just not good enough.
Living in Widnes in the 80s/90s felt that way, and when I first arrived in Stratford in 2006 the area shared the feeling. Scarred by the Forest Gate raid in the aftermath of 7/7 the young people I turned up to teach were noticeably hostile to the world – remarking how much more difficult life had become now that everyone eyed up their backpacks suspiciously – and the whole town had a sense of being a scab on the landscape of London. In nearby Hackney things were picking up – Broadway market peddled ‘organic’ products, Shoreditch nobbers wore trendy glasses, and Hackney loft living became the new ‘it’ address of media types and chief executives alike. Here, on this side of the A12, Stratford barely managed to snag a Poundland and inviting guests to my digs involved raised eyebrows and serious concerns about safety.
As I first walked to the school near West Ham Park where I would later teach I remember grimacing at the number of houses with metal-plated windows and quickening my step on street corners, having been warned that the area was a hotbed for prostitution. The school building had been knocked up post-WWII and was in the most desperate need of renovation. Unemployment in the borough was the highest of any place in London; so was the long-term sickness bill. It all seemed bleak.
Fast forward six years and Stratford is a different place. I’ve watched the change from the windows of a flat I bought here after falling in love with our strange little town, and I’ve watched the impact the Olympics regeneration has had on the young people I’ve taught. It’s so easy to say that “it’s just a shopping centre”. Maybe it is. But in Widnes they built “just a shopping centre” 3 years ago – in fact, it’s only a BHS and a Marks & Spencers – but it’s the first thing everyone tells me about when I go home (“Have you seen the new shops? It’s not like Widnes!”) and it has become a point of pride and a reason – finally! – to live in the town. Shopping centres are a social space – a place we can eat together, drink together, shop together. Hang-out zones litter the tendrils of Westfield, alive with the chatter of Asian mothers rocking prams, teenage boys discussing video games, young couples looking wide-eyed in the windows of furniture shops and all ages, races, religions mingle together ‘being’ in the same place. It’s easy to be cynical (“Aren’t we encouraging debt? What about consumerism?”), but I see something different in this mingling: I see a place where we can realise that it doesn’t matter how different we look, most of us like doing the same things, we like frozen yoghurts, and bowling, and gawking at new phones – and no matter how different we are we can do these things together, peacefully. I love being able to talk to my students about Westfield; we make jokes about the trendiest places and discuss events (“Miissss…you didn’t go to see Biiieeeeber?!”). It may “only be a shopping centre” but it is also a cultural object that we locals can share in a way I couldn’t imagine six years ago when the majority of my students never ventured past Green Street and our only point of cultural commonality was Eastenders.
The transport links have also made a huge difference. If you do a job in business and you want to be within 6 minutes of Kings Cross, 11 minutes of Canary Wharf, 15 minutes of London Bridge and 10 minutes of Liverpool Street, here is the place to do it. Stratford offers access to almost anywhere in London within 40 minutes and that means people want to live here. And when those people live here, they spend their money here – in our local shops, our local restaurants, our (amazing) local pubs. It brings a buzz too; one of the most interesting changes for me has been seeing the growth in people walking to Stratford Station in a morning in a suit. Six years ago I barely saw any professional person in Stratford in a morning. Now our station is alive with people shouting on their phones and chugging down their Nero coffees, and though they sort of irritate me, I dig it. I dig it because I want everyone to feel at home in Stratford. I want the kids I teach to see and experience as many adults as possible. I want them to know that they too, if they want, can live in Newham and wear a suit to work and drink coffee on the way in. Or they can be an athlete – just like the people who will run around our stadiums in August. Or that they can be an artist, like the bohemian photographers and designers who are starting to buy the 2-bed terraces.
And however much I may wish it to be true that this could happen without the Olympics, the fact is, it wouldn’t have done. Some stuff might have happened anyway, maybe even Westfield, but given the economic situation projects would have been cancelled and pulled, and the metal plates would have been left on those windows along with the feeling that although we were less than 6 miles from the centre of London our chemically-infected soils may as well be at the end of the Earth. We would be missing the buzz, the PR, the feeling of opportunity – and there’s no way that 4,000 new homes, 10,000 new jobs, new schools, new health centres and new sporting facilities would be opening up for us.
Whether there is a ‘real’ legacy or not I cannot guarantee, though I think with the infrastructure that has been built it will be hard not to have better outcomes for our community. What is most definitely here now though is a feeling of hope and opportunity, and that matters so much. Hope is the antidote to that feeling that no-one out there cares. It makes you think that maybe, just maybe, you are good enough to go on and do things, it gives the confidence to say where you are from with pride (I hate the fact that some of my pupils practically apologise when they say their hometown), and most of all it gives the local community more ways to interact and be together. This is what brings integration, this is what brings true opportunity, and it is for this reason that I love the Olympics. Let the Games begin.
*If you are looking for basic info on the EBacc (e.g. subjects included, how it affects certification) this post about ‘what is the ebacc’ might be more appropriate). If you want to know the reasons for the subjects included, read on!*
Schools must now publish on their websites the % of pupils passing the ‘English Baccalaureate’ – a set of 5 GCSEs that must include English, Maths, Science, a Modern Foreign Language and either History or Geography. While I agree with Eng, Maths & Sci, I remain sceptical on MFL and entirely bemused by the inclusion of ‘History or Geography’. I’ve never fully understood why this group of subjects was chosen and below are some of the reasons I have heard for the choice and why, so far, I have found them entirely unconvincing.
1. The Russell Group universities say they are facilitating subjects: Which means you need to do two of them at A-Level in order that you are in the best position to get onto an RG course. Two of them. Not five of them. And only if you want to go to an RG uni. And only at A-Level. The booklet is quite clear that GCSE subject choices rarely come into it. Furthermore, why do the Russell Group name these EBacc subjects as being the ‘facilitating’ A-Level subjects? Given that the people sitting in these universities are highly able academics one might presume that their view is based on research showing that doing these subjects gives an extra edge while studying for a degree. But does that research exist? Not as far as I know and I have asked about it a lot.
2. The reason the RG say they like them is because these are the core subjects needed for admittance onto degree courses. The argument goes like this: If you want to study Maths at degree, you need Maths A-Level (and ergo GCSE maths), but to do Media Studies you don’t need Media A-Level. Okay, how about this: To do Geography AT OXFORD you do not need Geography A-Level. If you can cope at Oxford without it, I am pretty certain you can cope anywhere without it. To read Music at Oxford what do you need…. That’s correct, music. But is Music a facilitating subject? No. Is it in the EBacc? No. So we are keeping Geography and not Music in the EBacc on the basis of…..?
3. These are the subjects done at 16 by high-performing countries. No they’re not. I’ve covered this in more detail here, but trust me on it, they’re not.
4. The EBacc subjects are more rigorous. Nonsense. The research by Coe at the CEM Centre on which GCSEs are hardest (often mentioned by the sorts of people who like to argue that there are ‘rigorous’ and ‘non-rigorous’ subjects) show that ‘IT’ and ‘Business Studies’ are tougher than Geography, Citizenship is harder than Double Science and almost anything is more difficult than English GCSE.
5. The EBacc subjects are naturally ‘academic’ and develop important critical thinking and writing skills not found in other subjects. Incorrect again, any subject can be critical and involve writing. My Film Studies A-Level essays are here. Download one, read it and see if you still have the nerve to say they didn’t require critical thinking and strong writing. On the other hand I have seen some exam board’s Science GCSE coursework completed in a manner befitting a cook following a recipe rather than a child learning. ‘Academicness’ is not inherent to a subject, it is the content covered in the course that counts and there’s no evidence at all to suggest EBacc subjects are the ones pitching above the others on that front.
5. It’s what the private school kids do. Well, they also snort cocaine at higher levels and suffer more eating disorders. On its own, this isn’t an argument.
6. It’s what the private school kids do *and* it is the reason they get into top unis at a higher rate and therefore all state school kids should study these subjects too. Two things are wrong here. One, anyone who thinks the types of subjects private school students study is the the reason why they get more top uni places is either being wilfully ignorant or massively naive. Private school kids bag top uni places for lots of reasons, including but not limited to: Them getting better grades, applying at higher rates, being better prepared for interviews, having more help with personal statements and a tendency for being more articulate. If subjects studied plays *any* part in their success rates it is very, very far down the list.
Secondly, even if I do assume the ridiculous and agree that private school students get in “because of their chosen subjects”, it is still not necessary that every state school student should do them too. At one time the reason why many private school students got into top unis was because their parents were friends of the Master (or Bursar, or some other archaically-named figure). Was the necessary follow-up to this that everyone was encouraged to use personal connections as the best way of elbowing their child into university? No. Society instead decided that such prejudice was not in the best interests of the wider public and discouraged bestowing advantage in such ways. In the case of subjects might it be equally pertinent to suggest the universities change their outlook rather than accepting the idea that EBacc subjects are somehow inherently better, when – in fact – there is still no evidence at all that shows this is true.
That’s the end of the points. This blog remains open for any other challenges. I am willing to have my mind changed on this, I genuinely want to understand where these EBacc subjects come from and I hope that they are not as arbitrary as they seem, but so far all reasons used to justify their inclusion have failed to do that.