Lily is 16. It's her second to last year in school and she's trying to work out who she's going to be when she leaves. She doesn't feel like school has set her up to be a real adult. She has many questions about all the big things: money, sex, racism and – very importantly – how to fix a puncture. In this documentary, she talks to a bunch of adults about how they're navigating life and how school could make someone like her feel more prepared for the future.
Listen right here, and if you're deaf or hard of hearing, the full transcript is below.
School’s Out, What Now
Lily: From VICE and BRENT 2020, London Borough of Culture, this is VENT Documentaries. Young people from one London Borough, telling you the stories we care about. This is series one, where we’re talking about identity.
Lily: I’m Lily. I’m 16. This is my second last year in school, and I’ve been very preoccupied lately with who I’m gonna be when I leave. How do you have a functioning healthy relationship? What the fuck is a credit card? How do I have good, productive conversations about massive topics like race and colonialism? I don’t feel like school has set me up to be a real adult. This documentary, I’m gonna talk to a bunch of adults about the school curriculum, and what should be added, or taken away, to make someone like me feel more prepared for real life shit?
Jenny: Do you know anything about bikes?
Obi: I’m learning this now, I’m 25 yeah, that girls aren’t that scary.
Hiri: There is not one person of colour in the science curriculum.
Anna: Have you had sex ecducation at your school?
Lily: I don’t think so?
Ryn: Ahh, ahhh, umm, it's so fucked, it's so confusing.
Ross: It's an uncomfortable truth, our country wasn’t the good guy.
Mathlida: And the ripple effects of that are massive.
Lily: So, I had to start somewhere. And one big thing I’ve never really had in school is lessons about actual practical stuff. So I went on a little field trip.
Jenny: This is the London Bike Kitchen. We’re a tiny, tiny little space but you know, small yet…
Lily: It’s really cosy.
Jenny:…perfect, yeah, exactly! It's cosy.
Lily: It's really nice. I’ve come here to learn how to fix a bike, because I don’t know how to fix a bike. There’s just metal things everywhere. I have no idea what any of this stuff is, but it looks nice.
Jenny: Thank you. This is kind of what a typical bike workshop looks like. But most people don’t get to see this. So the idea, the concept behind it is you get to come in. You get to be the mechanic for the day. We teach you how to do it. Before we do anything. Do you know anything about bikes?
Lily: I’ve ridden a bike.
Jenny: You’ve ridden ok. You know how to ride a bike. Ok cool.
Lily: Like the last time I rode a bike was like four years ago…
Lily: We’re gonna be coming back to my adventure at the London Bike Kitchen. But fixing a bike is like the tip of the iceberg when it comes to real life stuff I haven’t learned about in school. For example so far, I’ve had almost no sex ed at all. Which sucks because stuff to do with sex can be super awkward to talk about.
Obi: I have so many embarrassing stories.
Lily: Even our parents and families can be really weird about it.
Obi: I remember there was one day when I was, I wanna say, fourteen.
Lily: This is a guy I met recently called Obi.
Obi: I was in my room, and the next thing you know my auntie bursts in unannounced yeah, opens the door, doors flying off. She throws a paper bag at me and then she says ‘when you need to use this, you use it’ and I was like ‘ huh? what the hell is this?’. Literally tipped the bag onto my bed, it was just bare condoms. ( Laughs) I had a never ending fountain of condoms in that bag yeah, I thought it was a magic trick at first. I was so confused. Should I be offended or proud?…I don’t know how to feel about this, now I feel weird. Auntie like huh? She did that, dipped, and I was like, oh my god.
Lily: Obi’s a comedian and presenter. For him, sex wasn’t openly talked about in his family growing up, so he relied on school to get his sex ed. But school did not come through for him.
Obi: Our sex ed in school was trash.
Obi: Absolute just, trash.
Obi: Funnily enough, like, Lewisham around that time had (laughs) the highest teenage pregnancy rate in London. My school was in the borough of Lewisham so I don’t know whether they were just being like “ok lets just try and not talk about sex at all” but its evident 16 year olds are having sex. Just trying to sweep it under the carpet was not the best way to deal with it. We never had more of the relationships side of sex.
Lily: I feel like this is a huge thing to leave off the curriculum. Sometimes just talking about sex, or even talking at all to someone you like can be the most awkward part. If you can’t talk about intimate stuff, it can lead to all kinds of problems.
Lily: Tell me about the first time you took Viagra.
Obi: I’m trying to remember the first time. I remember why I decided to buy it.
Lily: When Obi was younger, he used to party really hard. So one night, he was out with some friends, drinking and doing drugs.
Obi: We got really fucked up (laughs). Then we met up with some of our female friends afterwards, went to a house, whatever. I was about to have sex with one of them, and then I was like so fucked up that my dick decided just go to sleep and just not listen to anything I was saying. In that moment I just felt mad embarrassed, like proper embarrassed. But instead of talking about it like normal people, I'm just there like now she's just gonna fucking roast me in the group chat. She's gonna tell her friends. Aww man, and I’ve been chatting so much like I’m such a big like… whatever and then if she's gonna tell her friends that now I’m just gonna be like….
Obi: So my own insecurities that lead me to buy Viagra in the first place. When I look back at it, I didn’t really need to take it.
Lily: Even though Obi didn’t need Viagra for any medical reason, he ended up taking it all the time. No one had ever told him that it was completely normal to sometimes not be able to get an erection. He was so scared of being shamed for it that he took Viagra, instead of being honest with his sexual partners. Obi ended up making a documentary for VICE about Viagra addiction in young men, which it turns out is super common.
Obi: It’s led me to ask some really intimate questions to myself, and led me to be kinda ok with being vulnerable. Because believe it or not quite a few people have Viagra stories I just found out (laughs). But they just don’t talk about it and then we talk about those times and they just be like ‘oh’, and you just feel less alone.
Lily: So now I’m wondering, what would it look like if we all had way better sex ed at school?
Anna: It would look like being really comfortable in your body. Really loving your body. Not feeling like, shame about your body, and loving yourself.
Lily: This is Anna, from an organisation called Split Banana. They go into schools to run sex and relationships workshops with students.
Anna: I think it would be, not being afraid to come out. Not feeling like you have to come out at all. Being able to be in situations, like sexual situations and feel really comfortable expressing what you want, what you don’t want and listening.
Mathilda: Being ok with awkwardness.
Lily: And this Mathilda, also from Split Banana.
Mathilda: How great would that be, if we were all just fine with being awkward.
Anna: Have you had sex education at your school?
Lily: I don’t think so. We had the one day in year 6. I missed that for a dentist appointment. In secondary I learnt about periods, contraception but nothing about sex for GCECs.
Mathilda: So that's part of biology. So that's always been compulsory because it's kind of the clinical, biological side of sex that you learn through biology.
Lily: Apart from those biological bits of sex, actual relationship and sex education wasn’t compulsory in schools until this year .
Mathilda: It's going to be…
Lily: So I missed it.
Mathilda: … (laughs) yeah you missed it. You’re already beyond. But as of September this year schools are going to have to provide sex and relantionship education.
Lily: So it looks like schools might finally be getting forced to do better sex education. But Anna and Mathilda also said that the budget attached to this announcement is really small. So schools still might not have the resources to actually teach sex ed in a good way. I was thinking though, it’s not just money and the curriculum that stops schools from doing better sex ed.
Lily: Some teachers are actually really good at what they do. But then most teachers are like ‘the kids are gonna laugh,it’s awkward and uncomfortable, I'm just gonna kind of skim over it and move on’.
Mathilda: Because they feel awkward too, that's the thing. The teachers teaching it feel super awkward too, because often they’re kind of like ‘oh yeah we’re gonna have to do sex ed, so you the geography teacher has to teach it’. And they themselves have had no training, don’t feel comfortable talking to their students about it. Because they have to talk to them about erosion and mountains and stuff the rest of the time ( laughs).
Lily: And most sex education still only talks about cis straight relationships, and doesn’t even touch on anything beyond that.
Mathilda: So for example the queer community, there was this thing called Section 28.
News Archive: Clause 28 will prevent local authorities from actively promoting homosexuailty. Campaigners say it's an attack on basic human rights.
Lily: That’s crazy, I can’t get over it
Mathilda: So you literally couldn’t talk about being gay, and the ripple effects of that are massive. Because we’ve spoken to teachers still, who don’t feel comfortable being out and proud in schools, because it's still quite a hostile place.
Lily: It’s so frustrating to me that most schools have been getting sex ed wrong for such a long time. Maybe if it was better, we could all feel way more chill about sex, way sooner.
Obi: It’s funny, I’m learning this now, I’m twenty five yeah, that girls aren’t that scary. You can talk to them and then just be like, they will understand. I keep thinking that everyones is gonna slate me on the group chat. 9 times outta 10 the girl will be understanding, or your partner will be understanding and then you just go to sleep, wake up, try it again in the morning.
Jenny: Have you heard the term righty tighty lefty loosey?
Lily: We’re back in the bike shop.
Jenny: We do this thing called the drop test.
Lily: The bike we’re working on has a flat tyre. Jen’s showing me how to pump it up to check if there’s a puncture.
Jenny: This type of valve, you shove it on and then you pump.
Lily: Wooo, yeah.
Jenny: If I push it down, air comes out. Anyways I’m gonna let you have a go.
Lily: Oh god ok.
Jenny: Yeah, so you wanna go counter-clockwise. You need to unscrew the.. .
Lily: Ok, oh righty tighty lefty loosey. I’m such a genius. Is that it?
Jenny: Yeah, there you go. Yeah keep going, keep going.
Lily: Did that do anything?
Jenny: I think it moved. Keep going. Can you go faster?
Lily: I’m way too short for this.
Lily: Let me try this again sorry.
Lily: So, practical stuff and sex education were two things I felt like school wasn’t schooling me on properly. Another huge thing is money. None of my friends know the difference between a credit card and a debit card. I met this guy…
Lily: Hello Ryan
Lily: Introduce yourself.
Ryan: So my name's Ryan. Im 27, I'm an associate editor, predominantly writing about cultural stuff, so music, film, fashion, drugs, maybe some sex stuff, that kind of thing.
Lily: Ryan knows a lot about a lot of things. But I wanted to talk to him about the stuff he doesn’t know about.
Lily: So you’re here to talk about how you fucked up your taxes.
Lily: How old were you?
Ryan: When did I realize that I was fucking it up do you mean?
Ryan: Two years into having done a bit of freelance work, that I would have had to of paid tax on. I pay taxes already, do you know what I mean?
Ryan: I pay, but my difficulty was that it was on the side of my actual job, and I pay tax, it comes out of my payslips.
Lily: On a normal side of a job right, you get your taxes taken out before you get your money.
Lily: Right. So then if you’re doing freelance, how are you supposed to pay your tax?
Ryan: How do you mean?
Lily: Like what do you do?
Ryan: What do you do?
Lily: Ryan started talking about ‘invoices’.
Ryan: Every time you do an invoice, you’ve got to number your invoice 001, 002, 003 and…
Lily: What's an invoice? (laughs)
Ryan: What's an invoice? Ah, that's like a receipt you give to someone for the work that you’ve done. I had all my invoices saved in a folder on my laptop. I spilt a drink on it over christmas and everythings been lost on it. So that's like four years worth of tax stuff and invoices.
Lily: But if you don’t lose all your invoices…
Ryan: There’s a website HMRC. Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs.
Lily: Really? I thought it was like Human Resources.
Ryan: (laughs). Other people I knew were paying tax and they were…
Lily: On their freelance work?
Ryan:…yeah I think so, and maybe they were earning a similar amount of money to me and I was like “hmm something doesn’t seem like right here, what's going on?”. And looked into it and yeah lo and behold I’d done two years without paying, without like registering or like doing anything.
Lily: Then he has to somehow figure out how to fix it.
Ryan: Then I started to get on top of paying my taxes.
Lily: But even then he was massively set back. Because catching up on his taxes lead to even more money problems.
Ryan: So I ended up just screwing over my whole finances in overdrafts and that kinda of thing. Then the overdrafts were really stressing me out because I’m looking at my bank account and I don't really know how much money I have at all. It’s kinda confusing, because it was in minus figures. I can’t, I’m not trying to do maths when I’m drunk….
Lily: Yeah, that's so confusing
Ryan:…trying to figure out if I have enough money to like do something or buy a drink or whatever and I have three bank accounts that were overdrawn, so then I just consolidated them all into one loan. But I didn’t realize you had to pay loans back like, every single month. I was really paying 266 pounds back every month. It's all, it's really confusing.
Lily: That sounds really confusing.
Ryan: It's really complicated. It’s so fucked, it’s so confusing. Ahh, ahh, umm, it's like really confusing and I don’t know why no one…
Lily: I have to do this when I’m older.
Ryan: It's so stressful.
Lily: I feel so sorry for you.
Lily: How do you think you would have handled money better, if you'd been taught otherwise?
Ryan: If you’re talking about school in general I think it really needs to be instilled in people how to handle money. But I don’t know if that's having a class on money because that would be fucking boring. But just a couple lessons a year on the importance of money and like personal finances, and all these questions you’re asking like ‘what is an invoice? How do you do this thing?’. Because also you’re a bit fucked if like, for me as well my parents don’t even understand how really like…my parents have no idea how this works either.
Lily: That's scary.
Ryan: I guess that's the difference as well, if you have a certain kind of background or education, maybe you’d be better equipped to deal with these kinds of situations. But it’s not a level playing field and not everyone has the same knowledge and the same information.
Lily: This is such a good point. School can level out the playing field by teaching all of us the stuff that some of our parents might not know. It’s kind of the same thing for Obi. His family weren’t comfortable talking to him about sex, and I think school should have filled that gap for him. So I decided to call a teacher. That’s next.
Lily: I’m in year twelve, and when I started making this documentary, I was expecting to do my mocks in June. But it looks like now, that’s probably not gonna happen. What happened instead, is Covid-19 hit the UK, and every school was suddenly closed. We had barely any time to prepare before getting sent home for god knows how long.
Lily: You know, I feel umm, really embarrassed because on the last day when I was in form with my form tutor I ended up crying. I was like ‘I don’t wanna go, I miss school’.
Hiri: What have you missed about it? If you don’t mind me asking.
Lily: This is Hiri. She’s the teacher I wanted to speak to, to ask more questions about school and the curriculum.
Lily: It’s not that you like lessons, you don’t always like education either, because it means doing compulsory things, and that sucks because like essays and tests. But going to school everyday can be like an escape for a lot of people. It can be like being at school lets you kind of bring out yourself whether its with your friends or with your teachers. Because I don’t have that, because the only thing I’ve been given right now is work, and I am struggling so much.
Hiri: From what you're saying, the work doesn’t replicate being in a lesson.
Lily: Suddenly having just the work but none of the banter, I can see what I get out of being at school, beyond just what teachers want me to learn.
Hiri: My favourite thing about teaching science, even though it’s compulsory, is the fact that I tell the kids I can literally answer any question because it's always based in science. Why do so many people like Taylor Swift? It's based in science, she uses a specific beat and a specific tone that everyone feels they can get involved with. They’re like ‘is that true?’ and I’m like ‘go search it up’.
Lily: So what actually is the curriculum made up of? And what is it?
Hiri: Expects come together in different subjects and say actually by the end of…so key stage 3, so they look at it in a phase rather than a single year, that would be year 7, 8 and 9. This is what we think they need to learn in our subject.
Hiri: And then that happens again in year 10 and 11.
Lily: Ok that makes sense.
Lily: You’re a science teacher so you might take this personally (laughs). But why is science compulsory? Why do I have to learn about diary journals from 200 years ago in english? Graphs and trigonometry in maths? And why is that compulsory?
Hiri: I suppose we get asked this all the time. Some of it is about learning other parts. So while you’re doing trigonometry it’s actually about problem solving. When you’re facing a dilemma, you need to have some type of resilience to get through it and you know the pain of going through trig.
Lily: Yeah, awwww.
Hiri: Using critical thinking which is using the knowledge you have to unpick or solve something is what those kinds of things teach you.
Lily: That's fair.
Hiri: I know lots of students like, ‘Oh my god science, I’ve got to learn so much stuff, I’m never gonna use it, I really don’t like it’. And then they get turned off by it quite quickly.
Lily: Not gonna lie, that is me.
Jenny: People think to undo stuff you have to be super strong, and actually you don’t, you have to have the right leverage. There’s stuff that I was never…or they tried to teach in school like all theoretical and I’m just like ‘what is this? I’m not gonna use this in real life’. Then I start working on bikes and I’m like ‘oh my god this is physics’.
Lily: (laughs). Brain over brawn?
Jenny: Brains over brawn yeah. Work smarter not harder.
Lily: Hiri wasn’t totally positive about the curriculum though.
Hiri: I definitely think that the curriculum is so eurocentric.
Hiri: There is not one person of colour, or even a female scientist in the science curriculum. When you read things like that, you have to question it and you have to say ‘why did this piece get in front of me?’.
Lily: The curriculum is really eurocentric, which basically means we mainly learn about stuff white people have done. I also don’t think we get taught how to have uncomfortable, real conversations about race.
Ross: It’s an uncomfortable truth, our country wasn’t the good guy.
Lily: That’s Ross.
Ross: My name’s Ross Greer. I’m a Green member of the Scottish parliament and the youngest person to be elected to the Scottish parliament. I was 21 when I was elected in 2016.
Lily: I heard of Ross when he got into massive twitter beef last year.
Ross: The conservative party put out a tweet that was about Winston Churchill that was celebrating him on one of the anniversaries. It was the usual stuff about Britain's greatest ever prime minister, won the war etc, etc, and that really bothered me. I think historical accuracy and context are really important. But in the UK we’ve essentially built up a culture based on an entirely false version of history, and this is a major part of it. So I responded to that tweet that Winston Churchill was a white supremacist and a mass murderer. Now those are entirely verifiable, and I accept that the mass murderer point is more debatable, I think the evidence is overwhelming but it's more debatable. The white supremacist point, theres no debating at all. Winston Churchill used those phrases himself, he said ‘Whites were a superior race’.
Ross: Yeah absolutely. Winston Churchill to justify what had happened to Africans, to black Africans, what had happened to native Americans, what had happened to Aborigonal Australians, he said that they essentially deserved it because the whites were a superior race, and the superior races had a right to do that.
Lily: Ross’s Tweet, calling out this image of Winston Churchill as only a good guy, absolutely blew up.
Ross: A substantial section of the media and of the wider population went nothing short of absolutely berserk, and were really, really deeply offended by what I’d said. So that culminated in my receiving a substantial number of death threats, it was a very very intense episode. The daily mail sent journalists to stake out my parents house.
Lily: Oh, oh!
Ross: The whole thing was a really intensely unpleasant experience. But it did create a wider debate.
Lily: Ross’s tweet was shocking like, I was shocked by it. But as Ross says, it’s not because what he said isn’t true. It’s because no one’s taught about it at school. Hearing about it makes people deeply uncomfortable, because it goes against what we’re taught to think about British history.
Lily: I definitely did not get taught about Winston Churchill being a white supremacist or a mass murderer at all.
Ross: Yeah, that is absolutely standard across the different curriculums in the UK. We simply don’t teach ourselves either through formal education or through a wider cultural education about these hard truths about British history. We take this really one dimensional view of him. Not just about winning the war, because many of the appalling things he's responsible for happened during the war, but we treat the second world war as a white person's war. Two million people fought in the British Indian army, but four million people died in the Bengal famine. Winston Churchill knew that famine was happening, refused to have food aid sent in, had food removed from the area, had boats destroyed so they couldn't get food into the area, and said that bacasily the Indians deserved it because in his words, they ‘breed like rabbits and they have a beastly religion’.
Lily: It’s definitely made me think about how things are taught in school. It's supposed to be the curriculum is unbiased, maybe your teachers are biased but the curriculum is supposed to be unbiased. How do you think the way that history is taught now, where it's like you said, avoiding uncomfortable topics. How do you think that way of teaching affects how students think?
Ross: Yeah, there's a wider issue here about education that I think you could describe it as the lack of critical thinking or a lack of substantial critical thinking. But that sounds super vague and abstract right? We need to spend basically way more time, teaching young people and encouraging young people to question everything, and to critically examine everything, and to actually look for evidence of the claims that are being presented to them. We’d have a much, much healthy society as a result. I don't think young people are the problem here. I think the current generation are far more critical than the ones who came before them and have access to far more information and far more information from far more sources. If we’re talking about how we change our education system, it's different across the UK and the curriculums have different ethos and objectives and they’ll all structured differently, but on the whole they’re not nearly enough about your ability to debate, to question, to certainly question the status-quo and assumed thinking and assumed knowledge, and to actually thrash these issues out. Because not only does that allow us to have a much more accurate understanding of what has happened in the past, but it makes it much easier for us to make collective positive change going forward.
Lily: This is what I feel like I need from school, and it’s what Hiri was getting at too.
Lily: What advice would you have for me, to kind of navigate my way through this?
Ross: I mean if I was to give you advice it is question absolutely everything. You have a right to question everything. Society is better off when you question everything.
Lily: Question everything. Ok, cool…hopefully that means I’m on the right track here?
Lily: School as an experience, it’s not set up to kind of be…you graduate and you’re just like an adult, a better human being, you’ve come out well rounded and you can now do things. Things to do with money, relationships, identity, stuff like that. They give you a very specific stereotypical example and they don’t leave any room to imagine yourself in there if you’re any different. You're just like ‘ah I don’t fit in I guess, I guess I’ll just kind of learn it on my own’.
Hiri: Yeah I 100% agree with what you’re saying. Our job is to respond to the needs of young people. So when young people tell you stuff, we have to do what we can. That's why talking to us is important because we’re actually not gonna know, if we don’t have a good enough relationship for young people to tell us.
Jenny: You’re doing great carry on.
Jenny: Yeah, yeah. Faster than my adult students.
Lily: I feel weak.
Jenny: If it was easy, it wouldn’t be worth it.
Lily: I saw you move this, this way. Ah, It worked.
Jenny: Yeah, yeah.
Lily: Yaaaay. Is that it?
Jenny: Yeah it's in. It’s in. It’s not rubbing against anything, that’s good. Moment of truth, pump it up.
Jenny: Yeah? Grab the pump…
Lily: Thank you for listening to VENT Documentaries. I’m Lily.
VENT Documentaries are produced by Jess Lawson and Arlie Adlington, with help from Emilia Gill, Moeed Majeed and Kamiah Shae Cowell. Our music is from WMP Studios. VENT is a collaboration between VICE and Brent London Borough of Culture 2020.
Lily: I did it.