Creating this blog, moving to London and starting at UCL, I’ve been asked much more frequently about my choices; ‘why education?’ ‘why Hartlepool?’ ‘why educational disadvantage?’ I’ve thought about it far more too. This is my paradigm… all future decisions, blog posts come as a result of this ‘why.’ So here’s my first blog…
Life has not always been easy but I have been lucky. I have been educated, supported and informed. I have, for the most part, felt empowered. When I have not, I have been surrounded by friends, family and colleagues who have fought for me. Until I met Lucy, I did not appreciate how lucky that made me.
I met Lucy* within days of arriving at Dyke House. Lucy was in Year 11, with excellent KS2 entry data which suggested that she would be a high attaining GCSE pupil. She was polite, engaging and worked hard with me as she sat sharing my desk, revising for her exams. Lucy also had a three month old baby, born in February of Year 11. She gained 3 A*-C at GCSE. She became another statistic, another child in the Sutton Trust ‘Missing Talent.’ Except, in the short time I had known Lucy, I knew that three GCSEs and teenage motherhood did not define her. I also knew she had a challenging home life, was moving into a house alone with her daughter and was surviving entirely off benefits. At 16, she was not empowered, nor was she fortunate enough to be surrounded by people who were so. Lucy was no less deserving than I was at her age, nor the countless other Year 11 girls who have faced many and varied challenges. However, her outcome in life was about to be defined by her economic status and her social network.
In the first year of our brand new Sixth Form, Lucy enrolled to study for her A Levels. She was placed in my Learning Guide (our version of a tutor group) and we discussed her timetable, our expectations of her and the reasons why she wanted to continue to study. Lucy was clear – as she had been from the moment I met her – that she wanted to be a nurse. She was compassionate, empathetic and academically able… she had the potential to make an outstanding professional.
She was late every day for the first term. Some days she didn’t turn up at all. The house she had moved into was on a street known in the town as being somewhere to avoid, the previous tenants owed money to enough people to have the bailiffs arriving on multiple occasions. When she did appear, she was often in tears, unkempt and exhausted. I was incessant, phoning every morning, making house calls and constantly collecting work from staff. Lucy was in no fit state to study; no matter what I did, life outside of school crushed her ability to achieve. We referred her for further support in order to help her to stay in education, to avoid becoming NEET… as a sixteen year old living alone with a young baby, I felt sure she would be prioritised as soon as she was in the system. In fact, I was incredulous she wasn’t already flagged. Just weeks later, she told us that the Key Worker assigned to her had closed her case. Apparently she was doing fine. Fine?
The house was so cold that Lucy’s daughter arrived at nursery one day with purple feet. Lucy had chilblains, a hacking cough and unwashed hair. When I asked her, she sobbed and said she’d phoned her landlord repeatedly to resolve the problem with the (broken) boiler and been told it would be sorted… soon. A sixteen year old girl, in a unheated house alone with a baby in November. Our school Health Worker phoned the council and that day Lucy was given heaters, money to help with the accompanying electricity bill and, a few days later a new boiler was installed. It will forever remain with me as the epitome of disempowerment in our modern day welfare state… Lucy is not unintelligent, nor was she apathetic. But she was sixteen years old, cold, tired and unable to battle bureaucracy articulately enough to keep her and her daughter warm. She did not know what to do. I question who would have done.
Throughout the last two years, Lucy has struggled daily to manage to study and bring up her daughter. She has moved house – three times. She has received letters, threatening her with legal action if she does not pay her council tax, despite the fact she is a registered full time student and I wrote multiple letters to confirm this. She has grappled with paper pushing exercises of monumental proportions, in order to receive benefits that she has always been entitled to. On multiple occasions she has been forced to attend unchangeable ‘back to work’ interviews at the Job Centre, despite the fact she is – and always has been – a full time student. Upon arrival at said appointment (a half hour walk from school), she has been told it is an administrative error and she can leave. An hour and a half of missed classes to tick more boxes.
The irony? Lucy has huge potential and the aspiration to achieve professional qualifications in order to contribute to society. At this stage in her life she is immensely vulnerable and she needs support, but this need not always be so. What is true, is that the support Lucy receives now will define what she becomes. The reality is, it will also define the future of her daughter. Children in workless households are less likely to achieve benchmark academic grades, progress to university or professional careers and are more likely to suffer from poor health. By investing in Lucy as a society, we are investing in her now three year old daughter.
Spending two and a half years with Lucy has demonstrated to me in a way that nothing else could, the holistic problems faced by those that society defines as most vulnerable. Lucy is not yet nineteen… even if worthiness is to be considered purely on a utilitarian basis, investment in her now will not only enable her to contribute to our economy as a graduate nurse, but save hundreds of thousands in benefits, healthcare and the associated costs of low income households. Support in today’s society manifests itself instead in tens of hours on automated phone lines, myriad paperwork I myself did not fully understand and treatment scaling from somewhere between indifferent to rude from those paid to offer help and advice.
As Lucy tries so very hard to play an ever changing game in which the rules are never fully explained; where the consequence of any refusal equate to an inability to feed her daughter, I am constantly in awe of her commitment to her future. My nineteen year old self would not have won those battles. I was not that resilient… I did not have to be. I do not believe that Lucy should either.
The things Lucy taught me; that grit is measured in phone queues to government helplines and revision classes whilst bailiffs bang at your door. That knowledge of literature is only as important as that of the intricacies of a Care to Learn form, and time management is only truly realised when juggling your A Level exams with demands of attendance at Job Centre ‘work focused’ interviews. Educational disadvantage manifests itself in so many ugly ways.
Lucy’s battle is not over but she is not alone. She may not be empowered and she may not have been born into a network of people who can support her, but I will continue to fight for Lucy, until she too can enjoy the privilege of being able to fight for herself and for her daughter. Before I met Lucy, educational disadvantage and social mobility were faceless phrases. She has defined them for me and she continues to inspire me to work towards a different future for the Lucy’s of tomorrow.
And when she graduates, I will be so very proud.