Anne-Marie is 13 and lives in Port Talbot with her mum, stepdad and four younger siblings. She is one of the top students in her school year and should be destined for a bright academic future. But her teachers are concerned that Anne-Marie – whose family is on benefits – is losing confidence, and that economic disadvantage might stop her fulfilling her potential.
Her story, and those of five other 13-and-14-year-olds, feature in a series that will help reveal whether social mobility in Britain is a myth.
Generation Gifted follows the teenagers’ progress over three crucial years leading to their GCSE exams. Each of them has been identified by their school as gifted in at least one subject; each, for different reasons, has a challenging life at home.
“Why is it that half of the children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds don’t do so well at GCSE?” asks programme-maker Edmund Coulthard.
“The answers are partly to do with confidence and partly aspiration. If your horizons are small and very few people around you have gone to university, it seems the best thing you can hope for is to get a job rather than move into higher education.”
Coulthard ’s team looked at hundreds of schools in areas where the number of students going into higher education is below average. “We spoke to dozens of headteachers; they were very keen to talk about the unequal playing field in children’s lives,” he says.
Having identified potential contributors, they then brought in a child psychologist to assess their suitability for television. “Children that age are very shy,” says Coulthard, “but they had to be able to express themselves.”
Were they worried the cameras might add to the pressure already felt by the children? “Of course,” admits the filmmaker, “13 is a tender age, and when you’re having a film made about you, there are moments that can be tough. You have to deal with that in the most responsible way you can so that you’re not intruding.”
The first two programmes will be updated next year and in 2020, though Coulthard accepts that as with its older, better-known sibling Seven Up!, there’s no guarantee the children will want to take part.
“You can’t safeguard against dropouts.” Coulthard believes that money and class are assuming greater significance in the lives and prospects of those about to enter adulthood.
“It’s even more shocking when seen through the eyes of a child. If you come from a family where going to university is an expectation, or you don’t live in a disadvantaged part of Britain, you’ll have no idea about children who don’t have those opportunities.”
Anne-Marie, Port Talbot
Anne-Marie lives with her mum and stepfather. They are full-time carers for her younger brother who has severe autism. She is an avid reader who wants to study criminal psychology at university. But her teacher says, “She is so uncomfortable with her own potential and abilities.”
Liam lives with his mother and younger brother. She works on the checkout of a local discount store and her food budget is between £20 and £40 a week. “I know my mum is working as hard as she can,” says Liam. “I’m afraid of failing my family.”
Shakira is a talented artist but sees no life beyond the Staffordshire town where she’s grown up. She also feels a responsibility to her disabled younger brother. She says, “I do get upset and cry when I see what he is going through.”
Kian is a talented mathematician, but with his dad a full-time carer for his mum at home, money is tight. “They have said they are going to try to support me, but I don’t want them to because it might put them in a worse position.”
Jada and her family moved in with her grandmother in Handsworth after becoming homeless. She’s ambitious and wants to become a paediatrician. “It doesn’t matter what class you come from because there’s a ladder and you can climb it.”
Jamarley is described by his music teacher as a naturally gifted musician. He lives with his mum and younger brother in Barnet, north London. Says his mum: “I have told him it’s OK to be poor, but it’s what you do after that makes you a better person.”
Generation Gifted is on Wednesday, Thursday 9.00pm BBC2