Research consistently suggests that where people live matters, especially in relation to housing quality, provision of neighbourhood services and outcomes, including educational attainment. 

Someone tweeted me yesterday “Be Essex and proud, Karen!”. This confirmed something I had thought myself – my Twitter profile needed re-wording. For my location, I had written “Essex (don’t judge me)”. What could be construed as an apologetic plea. It was actually meant as a command. It now says “DON’T judge me”, which I hope gets the point across more clearly.

Don’t judge me!

As a blonde, female, Essex girl, these words are quite laughable. As humans, we naturally judge people – by their looks, their attitudes, their behaviour. Anyone who claims not to is being disingenuous, I fear. Our instincts tell us to check out what this stranger standing before us presents – a danger? A potential friend? Of course, most of our judgements are based on our experiences and learnt attitudes towards others from a very early age. So, really when I say “Don’t judge me” I need to extend this sentence: “Don’t judge WHO I am by WHERE I come from.”

TOWIE

Essex – The Only Way

Yes, TOWIE presents one side of Essex – one small, tiny, depressing state of a county which, in many ways is no different from anywhere else. It’s frustrating to us Essex dwellers because our beautiful county has so much more to offer. I won’t bang on about the amazing attributes of Essex (my husband could talk for hours on this subject) but, instead, consider how dangerous it actually is to judge someone by the “state” of their neighbourhood.

You’re from BASILDON???

I get this a lot. “You don’t SOUND like you’re from Basildon.”, “You’re the LEAST Basildon person I know.” No idea what this means. Basildon, like anywhere else, has a regional accent (which is actually mainly estuary English due to the influx of Londoners to the new town, including my parents, in the 1970s). But, nowhere else would be considered an offence to sound like you’re from, other than Essex. Does this change how people perceive me, once they discover my horrific secret? Maybe. Certainly some of my friends have told me that they have felt sidelined by how they sound, even though we all speak relatively well and are intelligent professionals in our own right (social workers, teachers, editors etc.) We generally don’t punctuate our sentences with “Shaaart Arrrrp”, so I have no idea how they know we’re from Essex anyway. Ahem.

Scary stuff

A true story: as a Basildon teacher, I was participating in a training course, I can’t remember what about – something probably totally irrelevant to the classroom, learning to suck eggs, usually. The course tutor (Essex County Council employee) suddenly throws into the conversation (about academic achievement): “We even have children from Basildon achieving really high levels now.” You shit me not. Are you really telling me, that in a town with a population of around 170,000 people, SOME of them are actually intelligent? Get outta tahhn!

We're a poor lot in Basildon

We’re a poor lot in Basildon

But, in all seriousness, this comment terrified and startled me. EVEN children in Basildon. Those poor, insignificant peasant children in Basildon who simply can’t be expected to achieve anything other than “satisfactory” are actually doing well? Yes, damn right they are. And there’s a reason for that – decent parents & good schools. Now, in no way am I stating that ALL parents in Basildon are decent, nor ALL schools. But, funnily enough, in that population of 170k, there are some! I knew that because I was lucky enough to work at one of those good schools, surrounded by excellent teachers and supported by interested and caring families of pleasant, well-behaved pupils.

After leaving the Basildon school to move to a Chelmsford school, I was met with the reverse. People’s reactions were then, “Well, I bet that was an easier job,”. Not really. Still teaching lovely children, who worked their backsides off because, unfortunately, the teaching at the school wasn’t so good. But, I was faced with more socially disadvantaged and emotionally challenged children than in Basildon and worked in a completely different environment where expectations were so low you had to practically scrape them off the floor. And this was the key. Expectations. If you don’t expect; you don’t get. If you don’t challenge; children won’t rise to it.

Who cares?

After doing some quick research about this topic, I was met with a lot of vague, non-committal musings. But a couple of interesting papers popped up and I found these comments interesting:

This research has shown two major areas where policy might help to reduce educational inequalities.

Parents and the family home:

  1. Improving the home learning environment in poorer families (e.g. books and reading pre-school, computers in teen years).
  2. Helping parents from poorer families to believe that their own actions and efforts can lead to higher education.
  3. Raising families’ aspirations and desire for advanced education, from primary school onwards.

The child’s own attitudes and behaviours:

  1. Reducing children’s behavioural problems, and engagement in risky behaviours.
  2. Helping children from poorer families to believe that their own actions and efforts can lead to higher education.
  3. Raising children’s aspirations and expectations for advanced education, from primary school onwards.

POORER CHILDREN’S EDUCATIONAL ATTAINMENT: HOW IMPORTANT ARE ATTITUDES AND BEHAVIOUR? Joseph Rowntree Foundation 

So, the factors which affect a child’s educational attainment are linked closely to family situations which determine where they live and their housing conditions. Quelle surprise. But now, it seems, we can’t conceive the fact that if someone lives in council accommodation, they can be decent families. If they don’t own their own home or have a low income, they can’t possibly be bringing their children up properly.

What was interesting, however, was the emphasis on attitude. The attitudes we convey towards our children, our pupils, the children around us, has a significant impact on how they perceive themselves, their peers and their futures. If you are constantly treated as though you aren’t expected to achieve much, why would you? Children aren’t born with positive perceptions of themselves or high self-esteem, it has to be cultivated and reinforced constantly by the people they look up to: adults.

I could end this post with a quote I recently heard from a very high up person in education but I fear the consequences may be detrimental so I will keep that for a more appropriate channel. Let’s just say, it summed up the very tone of that course leader that day – let’s just pat these children on the head and tell them “It’s OK, dear, you’re ONLY from Basildon, what do you expect?”

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