Amid warnings of declining social mobility, a BBC documentary is following the experiences of talented children from low-income families
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Shakira is a 14-year-old schoolgirl from one of the most deprived estates in Tamworth, Staffordshire. She has a singing voice to rival her namesake’s, but is racked by self-doubt. She is a wildly talented artist, but at a loss as to what to do with her gifts, and does not know a soul who has gone on to college or university.
Her stepfather sums up her perceived horizons when he is asked if her burgeoning creativity should see her go to art school. “Yeah, she should,” he says, “but what many jobs is there really for an artist, except for tattoo?”
Liam from Newcastle is a gifted biology student, yet his dream is to become a chef while hoping to “apply the science to cooking”. It depresses the hell out of his teacher, Mr Boyce, who persists in trying to get his “incredibly bright” pupil to consider medicine, lamenting: “I keep thinking of him working in a kitchen in a Wetherspoons.”
The teenagers are just two of the stars of Generation Gifted, a new landmark BBC2 documentary series following six talented children from low-income families, with two episodes airing every year until they finish their GCSEs in 2020.
They are the faces of Britain’s social mobility crisis, the children at the sharp end of the chief “burning injustice” on which Theresa May staked her premiership when she arrived at Downing Street as Prime Minister in July 2016.
Children in poverty in Britain today are almost half as likely to achieve the top GCSE grades as their better-off classmates, according to the Social Mobility Commission – whose members resigned en masse in December, complaining that the Brexit-preoccupied Government “does not seem to have the necessary bandwidth to ensure that the rhetoric of healing social division is matched with the reality”.
The body had previously reported that disadvantaged young people are almost twice as likely as better-off peers to be not in education, employment or training a year after GCSEs, and only one in eight children from low-income families is likely to become a high-income earner as an adult.
“We’re living in a society in which social mobility is going in reverse,” says series executive producer Edmund Coulthard. “So one of the things that we wanted to do is try to see what exactly are the barriers that children face. Why is it that Britain has become a place where, if you’ve got talent and aptitude, it’s dependent on where you’re born and who your parents are if you want to succeed?”
The youngsters featured are painfully aware of how much the odds are stacked against them. But financial woes are far from their only concern. Their families are struggling to cope with family breakdown (the parents of five out of six of the children have split up), disability (maths whizz Kian’s dad is a full-time carer for his mum, while Shakira says she will never leave Tamworth because she needs to support her single mother in caring for her severely disabled brother). Musically gifted Jamarley from north-west London is one of the few with a close relationship to his father… until his dad is deported to Jamaica.
What is most striking about the films is that, above and beyond all these hurdles, the highest barrier to these kids’ future prosperity appears to be their own grinding lack of aspiration, constantly reinforced by society.
“Expectations for us is that we go to McDonald’s and clean the toilets, do not get very far and don’t do very well,” says Jada, from Handsworth, Birmingham, who has shared a double bed, top and tail, with her sister at her grandmother’s home since her family was made homeless five years ago. The aspiring paediatrician proclaims: “I’m not a nerd. I just call myself an intelligent young lady.”
She is actually the only one of the pupils who is at the other end of the self-confidence spectrum. In fact, if anything, her teacher fears she is slightly naive in thinking that once she realises her dream of getting into a posh grammar school sixth form, her problems will be over.
“If it’s naivety, as they call it, that’s a naivety from us,” Jada’s mum, Charmaine, proudly tells i. The 47-year-old administrator, who agreed to take part because “inner cities are always shown in a negative light”, is as unremittingly positive as her daughter. “We believe that if you reach for the stars, you land on the moon,” she insists. “So why not go for it?” When I say that Jada, in growing up in the Midlands, lives in the worst region of the country for social mobility, Charmaine responds: “That may be so. You know what, there will always be statistics. However, it doesn’t mean that it should stop you. Otherwise, you wouldn’t try to do anything.
“Children are forged in fire. It’s not a nice thing to say, but children are raised in some pretty dire situations across the world. And this is England. We have an education system, and with all the faults that are there, there are still positives that can be used.
“Even if you’re in an environment which may not be classed as upwardly mobile, it doesn’t mean that you have to become a product of your environment. You don’t have to. So I instil that in my daughter – aim high! I try to create the best environment that I can, and let my children know: it won’t always be like this.”
With Jada’s innocent optimism (“It doesn’t matter what class you come from; because there’s a ladder and you can climb it”), she is surely one of the lucky ones. The other teachers are battling a sense of hopelessness that, in the words of Mr Boyce, “runs in the family and runs in the area”.
Ms Ovens, assistant headteacher of Kian’s school, High Tunstall College of Science in Hartlepool, says: “Free-school-meals children know they’re free-school-meals children. There are certain things like confidence – they’ll know that they are free-school-meals. There’s been a lot of research that’s indicated: they always in life will feel that they never truly belong.”
The most heart-rending moment of this year’s films comes when would-be criminal psychologist Anne-Marie from Port Talbot in Wales returns home after an open day at Cardiff university. Her mother, Robyn, warns her the cost of a degree could be “anything over £500”. “You think it’s going to be £500 for university?” responds an incredulous Anne-Marie, who counters: “It’s going to be over, like, £1,000.”
They are both stunned into silence when a Google search reveals fees to be £9,250. “Per year!” adds a slackjawed Anne-Marie.
“Just in that one scene you can realise how difficult it is for kids like that to ever aspire to go on to higher education,” says Coulthard. “The money that they would have to borrow seems so stupendously large.” “I don’t think you need to be a genius or much of a social historian to see that social mobility is in decline,” he adds. “The country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division,” cautions the Social Mobility Commission. This series must surely be compulsory viewing for anyone in charge of changing that.
- ‘Generation Gifted’ is on BBC2 at 9pm on 14 and 15 February