Education, meritocracy, and being working class

*WARNING* I don’t really care if this post makes me out to be a class warrior- I never really thought class mattered until I came to university. This is just a glimpse at my experiences as a rural working class student from Devon and I will not be demonized for this.

It has been a few weeks since I’ve left university and I am back home in Tiverton, the place where I was born and bred. Subsequently, I’ve had a few weeks to reflect on my three years at the University of Southampton and although its largely a working class city, I did feel out of place as a working class student.  Although, the proper term I’m told for a working class person today is ‘chav’, seeing as the ‘working class doesn’t exist anymore’ or ‘we are all middle class now’- well, I’m neither apart from traditional working class.

Yes, I do have a ‘good’ education now, but class isn’t determined by education. I was once told that you are born into a class and that you can’t rise above it, but your children can depending on your livelihood. Now, seeing as this person supports Thatcher, I can’t help but feel there is a massive contradiction here? Thatcher claimed the war of the classes was over, and if you worked hard, you basically got what you deserved. So, the idea that you can’t ‘rise’ or ‘escape’ the working class baffles me, especially when you had Blair, Brown, Thatcher and Cameron bleating on about it.

My ‘good’ education wasn’t without its stumbling blocks. Although I come from the South, the area I am from is very deprived with NHS services oversubscribed (Devon has the largest proportion of old people), education very underfunded (they have literally only just started teaching coding in high school this year), and decent jobs are basically non-existent. My school, when I was there, had a 46% 5 good GCSE pass rate and although it has gotten better over recent years, the mindset of the children is very much the same- why should I bother if there are no decent local jobs? In fact, many of these children are in the same position I was in. My parents both left school at 16, I have no grandparents, no aunties and cousins that went to university as they all took up pretty decent apprenticeships (something trying to get off the ground again) and I was told that I pretty much had no future by my teachers at school. We were often reminded of our working class backgrounds, told that we shouldn’t really bother thinking of applying to Oxbridge because they ‘don’t take people like us’. This led many people not to bother trying, I mean, why would they? If you had been told all your life that because of where you were born you would never amount to anything, at the age of 14 that is a bit hard to swallow, especially if you have to do your GCSEs in the following years. You might say that we shouldn’t have allowed it to get to us, or to prove them wrong, but not everyone has that kind of confidence in themselves, especially if you are a free school meals student whose parents aren’t in secure employment, which was the sad truth for many students- including me. The cherry on the cake of my time in education in Devon is when I found out I have severe irlen syndrome, poor processing, and mild dyslexia at the age of 17. I had left school by that point, it was the Royal Marines who had picked up on all of this, so all of the times I couldn’t read Of Mice and Men aloud in year 8 and was laughed at by my classmates- no one bothered to flag it up, or they didn’t have the resources because ‘I wasn’t struggling enough’. Funny thing is, I wasn’t predicted any GCSEs by the time I did my CATS in year 7. I remember now not being able to finish the ridiculous testing because I couldn’t physically see what was on my paper, and yet I somehow managed to defy all of the odds on this ‘great’ test and get 12 GCSEs- all above a B grade. While this isn’t a rant on educational testing, the CATS clearly have no place in modern-day prediction, I mean even the pollsters of the 2015 election weren’t that off with their predictions.

At 16, I joined the military because it was stable employment and I thought it was the ‘done’ thing to do. Although I got all of my GSCEs, I believed there wasn’t a place at a university for me because I struggled so hard to read and music was what I seemed to be naturally good at. Unfortunately, the military didn’t do much for my already eroded confidence. Naturally, I was screamed at, told I was a piece of shit and called every name under the sun. I knew it was part of the ‘game’ but that doesn’t stop it getting to you, especially when you have never been told any different. My mental health started to decline before I turned 18, I started to self harm (iron burns) because I truly believed I wasn’t good enough- even though I really was. My discharge was because they found I had Bradycardia, but really I had two broken hearts- one physical and the other emotional. It tore me apart having to go back to college, but I was told (by my best friend) that it was the only way I could escape the cycle of poverty. My best friend has known me before I joined the military and the change that happened afterwards and they were the only person at that point who has ever believed I could. I really struggled with college, I was told I’d have a good chance at getting all 5 of my uni choices, not because I was talented, but because my learning difficulty, my school background and my parents income meant I fulfilled many universities ‘quotas’. While this is a step up from the kind of pessimism at school, it still isn’t fair to say that to a student. I ended up getting A*A* (Music Diploma through Marines), A, B, C, which wasn’t bad- but it wasn’t what Southampton offered me. Even on my results day, one of my teachers said ‘you are lucky that you are poor because a rich student would have never been taken on those grades’. Now I think back to the comment and think ‘how dare you say that?’ Not only was our teaching not the best, we also had no resources, so how could I have done much better? I worked just as hard, if not harder, than any other student but there is only so far no books in a library and a lack of research material for your history coursework can take you. The funny thing is, for Geography A Level you have an exam on fieldwork and research, something you are meant to do on a field trip- well we got told to do ‘imagined fieldwork’ and had to blag the exam not having a clue what we were writing at all because we didn’t have the knowledge or experience to sit the exam!

As you can see, although I’ve got a First Class Honours from the University of Southampton, my previous education was very much hindered from where I’m from and the attitudes engrained into us from the loss of stable jobs. I got a First at Southampton because I had the means to do so, I had the resources, and I for once had Lecturers who believed I was intelligent. My current anger is with the postgraduate system, as although Southampton has taught me that your degree classification doesn’t care about your class background, it is clear to me that postgraduate degrees do. There is a massive disparity across the country for PG courses. Ranging from as little as 4 grand for a MRes, to in excess of £20,000 (if not much more) for places like LSE and Oxbridge it makes you wonder- does meritocracy only exist for those who are middle class and above? I’ve been accepted into CEU, Sciences Po, Edinburgh, Durham, and Southampton, but I’ve already had to decline CEU and Sciences Po (despite receiving some scholarships) because of finance issues. I can’t afford Edinburgh without the scholarship (the fees alone are £12,000) and it is the same with Southampton, despite an Alumni discount. Some people say to me ‘well why don’t you work a year?’- I say, well it is hard enough to get a job in Devon that pays well as is, I don’t think it is possible to save that money in a year. Coupled with the fact I am a Coeliac, Bipolar, and have learning difficulties taking a year out would be really hard for me and university is already expensive with my medications. I could wait a year and apply to Oxbridge, but with MPhil’s being two years long and coming in tuition at around £24,000, it looks like although I might be good enough, I could never afford it. To those who support Thatcher/Blair, I ask how is this their ideal of being able to ‘escape’ the working class? How is this a reward for me working my ass off against all odds? I already worked 18 hours a week in my undergraduate degree, did two volunteer roles a year, two external volunteer roles and completed my degree- I can’t do this again for a Masters, it drove me to breaking point at the end of my third year. I want to ask again, how is this okay?

Our education system can’t keep going the way it is. It doesn’t reflect the talent of all classes and definitely doesn’t live up to the Thatcher ideal of ‘everyone being middle class’ or ‘you get what you deserve’, as myself and many others face the horrid truth that we simply don’t, we have been failed.

Maddy out xxx


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