The Mighty Redcar and the brick wall of reality

Safy from The Mighty Redar — picture from The Radio Times

Thursday nights have been the highlight of the week in our house since BBC2 brought us the wonderfully heart-warming, and in equal measure heart-breaking, The Mighty Redcar. Dan Dewsbury’s brilliantly made series is billed as a “real-life soap opera, filmed over a year in the North Yorkshire town” with a “focus on the relationships between two generations — one struggling to fulfil their hopes and dreams, the other trying to give them a leg up, show them the way and convince them that they, and the town, have a future”. If you’re not watching you’re missing out on the best programme (and best soundtrack) on TV currently. For me and my team at Children’s University it’s providing endless inspiration and motivation.

While Thursday nights are a highlight of the week, Friday mornings are a different story. Since I started watching the series, every Friday I’ve been awake before 5.30am, brain fizzing to the point of what feels like near explosion with ideas. Inspired by the story of Jess, the teenage female mechanic on last night’s episode, this morning my husband woke up to a lecture from me about how the scaffolding training company he works for needs to do more to address apprenticeships for girls and how they need to provide courses for women getting into employment, or returning to work. There are apparently only 6 female scaffolders in the country at present!

Jess’s story really highlighted issues around apprenticeships, the provision of follow-on jobs and how difficult it can be for some employers to afford to keep these young people on. For me it also made me think it’s time that my husband, who constantly challenges our 7 year-old daughter over the stereotypes around “who can drive diggers / do heart surgery / be hairdressers…” should do more to practice what he preaches. And so, as of this morning, he will. He’s going to talk to Warrington Children’s University about how his company can engage with what they’re doing.

The big emotional punch of last night’s episode was Safy’s story — a hugely talented and aspirational young girl whose only barrier to success is a lack of funds. As we all know, talent (we learnt later on Twitter that Safy achieved all A’s in her GCSEs) and aspiration (she wants to be a children’s doctor) is spread evenly in this country but access to opportunity isn’t. Nothing illustrates that quite like watching Safy’s dream of taking up a private school bursary disappear due to her mother’s lack of ability to fund not just her contribution to school fees, but all the things supporting that. I was lucky enough to go to a private school, but even with well-paid jobs my family were stretched by the transport costs, uniform costs and extra-curricular club fees. This is why organisations like Jenny Hopkinson’s Bursary Foundation, offering wider support than just fees, are so important.

Jess and Safy’s stories reminded me of conversations I’ve had with several headteachers since leading Children’s University about how children often hit a ‘brick wall of reality’. Despite their talent, their aspirations and everyone’s best wishes this brick wall of reality is, more often than not, related to money. For Jess, it was the financial reality for her employer that employing an apprentice is more affordable than employing a trained mechanic. For Safy, it was her mother’s financial reality of what accessing the opportunity she faced would really cost. Time and time again this happens unfairly to children from more disadvantaged backgrounds.

The end result of this is not just frustration at missed opportunities, but the harmful and lasting negative impact this has on young people. Despite everyone’s belief in her, and because of the real cost of that opportunity, Safy ended up describing herself as “worthless”. It looked like there wasn’t an ounce of resilience left in her. We as a society need to be doing more to counter this brick wall of reality. As I argued in my TED talk last year, we all need to take responsibility for the education and opportunities available to our young people.

For me personally, at the end of the week in which my 7 year-old started clarinet lessons, cross country, signed up for after school dance and performance clubs and returned to Brownies because my ‘parent power’ means she can, I’m more motivated than ever to do what I can to ensure others have these opportunities. Not only to ensure these opportunities exist, but to ensure that we do what we can to make them accessible to those that need them most. The Mighty Redcar is giving me motivation to redouble my efforts to smash down that brick wall of reality. We owe it to all our mighty youth!