I’ve been reading with interest a lot of the responses to CentreForum’s recent report highlighting the relative underachievement of white, working class children and the suggestions for why this might be the case.
I was one of those working class children in the 70s, 80s and 90s and recall that period without a hint of nostalgia. There is talk in the press of a poverty of aspiration. In my case, we didn’t have much room to aspire, to be ambitious – we were too busy trying to survive, to get by. (Ben Elton tells an amusing story of his time at Manchester University in which he never saw a tomato ketchup bottle the right way up. His whole life was about eeking things out). Sure, I daydreamed about what I would do as an adult, but the harsh reality of life would puncture those dreams with depressing regularity.
We lived in a council house, which we now tend to use as a proxy for “succeeded against the odds” – I’m not sure why as most people I knew lived in a council house in those days. My parents bought it, interest rates soared and it was then promptly repossessed when I was doing my GCSEs. We were technically homeless for about a week, and slept on the floor of a friend’s house. We then ended up in a bed and breakfast twelve miles away for a few months until we were rehomed by the council. In that time the single most depressing thing in my life happened. I answered the door one day after school to be met with, I was told, a representative of the court, who issued a repossession order to me for the B&B. The landlord hadn’t been keeping up with his mortgage payments either. So, out we went, off to another B&B for a few weeks. My mediocre set of GCSE results and a whopping 50-odd days of absence in Year 11 were statistics that were sources of ridicule when I went for an interview at the Army careers office. I had dreams of being an army officer, but that time in my life was about survival, coping with the nausea of watching my mum get ill with the stress and wondering where we were going to live.
Bad things happen to people. They have setbacks, they cope with difficulties. So what, you no-excusers may say. Get on with it.
Financial difficulty was one thing. However, the more chronic problem was that I didn’t know what to aspire to. Adults I knew were labourers, chippies, sparks, brickies and plumbers. I was working on a building site days after I finished my GCSEs – an exceptional experience that probably did more for me in terms of convincing me to do something different with my life than any careers lesson. The poshest people I knew were my teachers and I regarded them as a class apart. How could I aspire to be an engineer, a doctor, a solicitor? I had no idea who these people were or what they did. I’d had the misfortune to experience up close how bailiffs worked on more than one occasion and the only good thing that came out of that was a certainty that I’d never be one. I’d never met anyone, apart from my teachers, who had been to university. I didn’t even know what one looked like or what people did there (see Paul Mason’s Guardian article here). I defined people as posh if they went to Spain on their holidays, or if they were able to afford to fill up their car or pay for 12 months road tax on their car in one go. Andy, who lived in our street, was a quantity surveyor and I regarded him as superior because he wore a shirt and tie to work.
This was only reinforced by experiences in my mid-teens.
I applied to join the Irish Guards at 16 and received a letter soon after to be told that they had no vacancies in my year of birth. Some time later a friend, a highly-decorated officer himself, told me that they were doing me a favour. My dad’s job – he’s a digger driver – meant I would be unlikely to be able to afford the lifestyle it demanded. It took some explaining to me why my dad’s job had any bearing on my ability to be a soldier. I tried another regiment, where I got chatting to another candidate.
“What school do you go to?” he asked.
“Brakenhale,” I responded.
“I’ve never heard of that school. I go to Pangbourne College.”
“It’s a comprehensive. Why would you have heard of it?”
“I went to a comprehensive for a day once. It was horrible.”
He’s in his 40s now, I guess. I hope he’s ok.
In the Officers’ Mess that week I was talking to a Captain and another candidate. They were talking rugby and asked me what position I played. When I responded that I had never played rugby they both looked at me with utter disdain. It was quite clear to me that I didn’t belong.
Much of my life up until then had reinforced my place in the world. This was brought home to me when working in Slough in a school for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. We lived in a static caravan when we first moved back from Ireland and I remember the hilarity that met this fact when I told my tutor group. I was regarded as the poshest person in the school by the kids and they reminded me of me when I was their age. I counter it with an example when I worked in a selective independent school. Year 10 (Fourth Year in their parlance) were off for a week’s work experience. I asked James in my physics class where he was going. “Dad’s sorted me a week at a political think tank in [Washington] D.C.” I was stunned, but it just tripped off his tongue without a second thought.
What’s in our children’s frames of reference? What do they think is achievable? Don’t blame these kids for having a poverty of ambition. They need to be shown the way. They need to believe that they’re as good as anyone else.