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I could have been a ballet dancer

One of my favourite films is “Billy Elliott”. I had tears when Julie Walters reads Billy’s letter and when his grandma, says “...I could have been a ballet dancer!” As a teacher, gran’s lack of opportunity played heavily on me. I asked myself; “Will any of my pupils ever have such sad regrets in their later lives?” 

Rolling forward almost twenty years, I attended an event organised by the poet Lemn Sissay, with readings by Bradford poet and teacher Kirsty Taylor. I was struck by the emotional power of their work because they described scenes and people that we all recognise. Kirsty’s brilliant poem “Sausage roll baby”, can be watched here:  

The poem (and I really urge you to access the YouTube clip) describes the life of one of our children. It is, sadly, instantly recognisable; a child in a buggy, fed from Greggs, clothed in Nike but dreadfully neglected. What range of vocabulary would she hear? Would she be encouraged to learn her numbers? Go to Rainbows? Take dance lessons? Would she learn that she was precious and what would she be like at school?  

Would she thrive in all our schools with all our teachers, actively welcomed as the most valued member of her school with a curriculum designed for her needs, recognising and helping her overcome the barriers that she already has? 

My answer came days later when I heard a young friend talking about his work as a teacher. He described how some children just spoil the life chances of the others. “Some come to school and want to learn, others come to school to disrupt”. Though shocked, I sympathise with him, after all, he has 29 other children, demanding parents, performance management targets and Ofsted! But, I expect more from our school system. 

With this start and this teacher what are her chances of thriving in school and, becoming a successful doctor, business leader, lawyer, firefighter, carer, engineer, teacher, scientist, politician, athlete, writer, musician, or indeed ballet dancer?  

Is this because she and her mum don't want the best for her or will her ambitions be thwarted by my young friend? 

I know how hard-working and dedicated our colleagues in the region’s schools and academies are and I am especially aware of the challenges that are faced by them, notably; a severe shortage of funding, recruitment and retention issues, and the deep impact of chronic disadvantage.  

Through hard work, commitment, creativity, determination, knowledge , experience and skill our colleagues have created many schools in this region that have consistently improved year on year and many where progress measures are particularly high. The vast majority of our region’s schools are superb examples of inclusive, caring, learning communities, dedicated to developing and nurturing the whole and every child.  

However, a look at our most recent data indicates that we cannot say that this applies to all children… yet. Despite the best efforts of teachers, support staff, leaders and governors a group of children - like the ‘sausage roll baby’ - do not yet achieve in schools what we, their families and their communities, would most wish. 

What can we do?  

In January this year, the Education Endowment (EEF) created a really helpful guide entitled “The Attainment Gap”. It provides a list of 13 key lessons learnt from the past six years. Earlier this year I was privileged to visit London, Essex and Suffolk with a group of schools leaders as part of an “Achievement Unlocked” project. What we learnt about successfully narrowing the gap was quite clear, there are some cultural preconditions: 

Firstly, we must recognise that we as teachers and schools make the most difference to disadvantaged children’s lives and there is strong evidence that this is so. Schools where the leadership is clear improve the life chances of disadvantaged children. 

Secondly, we should not blame the child. It is not the child’s choice to have low motivation, poor vocabulary, poor social and communication skills and under-developed automotive skills. 

Thirdly, we should not blame ‘failing families or communities’, that have “such low aspirations”. ‘Sausage roll baby’ and her mum would love to see her being a doctor or lawyer but they believe that this simply never happens to anyone like them. 

So ‘Sausage roll baby’ really could achieve anything but she and her mum need us, our belief, our expectations and our drive to ensure that she could be a ballet dancer! They actually need us more than the other 29 if sausage roll baby is not going to turn into Billy’s grandma.


Paul Brennan