This is not a sob story. I don’t have anything to feel sorry for myself about. I love my job and my career to date and my education has been transformative at each stage of my life. But it is anger. It’s anger at a system that even when the cards fall pretty much together still manages to carve out deep spaces of educational inequality that forever alter the trajectory of young people’s lives. That education is transformative is undoubtable; but how often do we recognise that education can be transformative in a devastating way? That education itself can reinforce everything that holds people back and that the power of education is one open to manipulation and abuse?
I come from a socialist family with a passion for education, in the heart of the Black Country. I grew up with a thirst for knowledge and a family who fed that, and at my low end state school with a GCSE pass rate of less than 30%, I flourished, coming top of my year academically throughout and leaving with 13 A*-B GCSEs. So, it seemed logical when I was 16 to go to a selective grammar school for my A-levels – the best state college in the country at the time and one also chosen for the vast majority of private school pupils who lived in the rich outskirts of the West Midlands and in Staffordshire.
It was a terrible choice. I hated college and it hated me. I was mocked for my accent, for the clothes that I wore, where I came from and what my house must look like. The treatment wasn’t just from the student body. It was constructed and reinforced by the staff. The strict dress code meant I couldn’t wear anything with a logo on. This was the mid 90s, when the plain separates of Primark were yet to make an appearance and everything was emblazoned with a brand unless it was very expensive. Sometimes we were made to put gaffa tape over the print – an extra mark of our difference. My mom had bought me a quite expensive wool coat from the Littlewoods catalogue and I used to wear it constantly, even when it was too warm, to avoid getting in trouble.
I had at least already developed the drive and the confidence through my senior schooling and my family to believe that I could get where I wanted. I wanted to go to Salford to study Popular Music. When I told my music tutor, he told me I wasn’t smart enough to get there. He sent me a letter once I had left, as he did to all of the class, wishing me luck in my future, commiserations on my inability to get into Salford and suggesting I do a short course at a local college instead. (When I started lecturing at Salford, I sent him a letter on letter headed paper in response) When I was in year 12, i was accused of plagiarism by the very same tutor with no evidence simply because I couldn’t possibly produce work of that quality and had to undergo a lengthy investigation at the end of which he still refused to mark my coursework. I was systematically devalued and put down.
Unsurprisingly, my grades suffered. I went from straight As to finally finishing with an attendance of 7% in my second year and A-E grades. But worse than this was the impact it had on my relationship to my background. I felt ashamed of being working class. I even tried to hide my accent. Once I brought someone who I went to college with home. She told everyone stories about how I had woodchip on my wall and that that Pulp song was REAL. She made me feel like I lived in a zoo. We lived in a nice terraced house in Smethwick; she cried cause her parents sold the house with the swimming pool. At first I was embarrassed of my background; and then I was ashamed of being embarrassed and its really only now that I have started to pick apart why this happened and how an ‘elite’ education environment did the very opposite.
We sometimes fall into the trap of constructing access and widening participation narratives as helping not so bright kids to be a bit brighter. Its a base classism that assumes working class kids are lacking in the raw talent and academic abilities of their middle class counterparts and believes that we can toe them up with us to the wonders of middle class ‘aspiration’. That those smart working class kids just need the chance to shine in private schools. Education environments are more than the teacher in the classroom. They are complex interwoven communities that transform our worlds and construct our values as we journey through them. Working class kids don’t need to be helped into elitism and oppressive communities. They need to be offered education that values them. The only people who need to raise their aspirations are the educators who think so little of us.