Xylophones have a lot to answer for in terms of my educational development. I was obsessed with the xylophone when I was a child. I wasn't confident enough to sing, I wouldn’t be seen dead with a shaker or a tambourine and the recorder required too much effort, so the xylophone was the perfect choice for making a pleasant but substantial noise in primary school assemblies. It was during one of these assemblies that the local vicar, who was tasked with directing our cacophonous shambles of a school band, noticed the wild enthusiasm with which I bashed the bars and asked whether I had ever considered playing the piano. I was completely enamoured with the idea and promptly began pestering my parents for a piano and piano lessons. My mum worked evenings as a cleaner in a school and my dad worked shifts in a foundry so this wasn’t something that they could easily afford, but they eventually caved in to my persistent nagging and approached my teacher at a parent’s evening to ask whether the school had any provision for music lessons. The teacher consulted with Mrs. Guest, my strict and rather rotund and red-faced headmistress, to ask whether piano lessons could be arranged and Mrs. Guest’s answer was sharp and to the point: children from my council estate did not ‘do’ things like learning to play the piano and it was ridiculous of my parents to encourage a child like me to aspire to do such things.
My parents accepted this response and broke the bad news to me, however the school vicar was not going to allow me give up on my dream that easily. He arranged for me to have piano lessons with an elderly lady who lived locally and charged very little for lessons (she lived alone and I suspect the company alone was payment enough) and my parents bought me a second-hand piano which we shoehorned into my tiny bedroom in our two-bed council house. When I passed my Grade 3 piano, my mother confided in me that she was pleased that I had persevered with my lessons because my parents had thought (hoped) that my musical ambitions were a passing phase and she told me what my headmistress had said when they had enquired about piano lessons. The headmistress’s comments were like a red rag to a bull – how dare she say that my friends and I shouldn’t aspire to achieve our dreams just because we live in a deprived area! I would like to say that I rattled through my piano grades so that I could entertain the masses, teach a new generation of pianists and learn a skill that would enhance my cognitive development, but my main, if not sole, motivation was to prove that headmistress wrong. I have a distinction in Grade 8 piano now. Fuck you Mrs. Guest.
Growing up on a council estate in Birmingham, I encountered the ‘children who shouldn’t aspire’ attitude numerous times throughout my school life. My high school hit the very bottom of the league tables while I was in my GCSE year and it was widely expected amongst both the staff and students alike that girls would fail their GCSEs and banging out a dozen babies while sitting on the dole and the boys would also fail their GCSEs and become career criminals, winding up in trouble with the police or locked up. One teacher even told my class that we should start to plan a family early because there was a good chance that some of our babies would die due to the deprived nature of the area.
It was when a child challenged these preconceptions that things got really interesting. My best friend at high school desperately wanted to be a lawyer but she needed A Levels in order to apply to university, so we bravely asked our teachers if it would be possible to study for an A Level together. No-one from my school had ever taken an A Level let alone applied to a university before so the teachers thought that we were crazy and completely out of our depth, but they agreed to let us sit A Level English Literature on the condition that we did the required reading and research ourselves with some guidance from a business teacher who had experience in teaching A Level courses. I took the class to support my friend and I had no intention of applying for university myself – after all, no-one from my school went to university and my parents certainly couldn’t afford the fees - but when I accompanied my friend to university open days I liked what I saw and began to think seriously about whether I wanted to pursue the same educational path…
I enrolled on a series of A Levels at evening classes and cobbled together a mishmash of grades that made me a pretty poor candidate for a red brick university. Nevertheless, I bit the bullet and applied to the University of Birmingham. The admissions tutor was bound by the entry requirement grades, but after a short interview he surprised me by saying that he would make an exception in my case because ‘I had a something about me’. Throughout the entire first year of my undergraduate course I felt like I had broken into the place or stolen a legitimate student’s identity. Some students had come from well-performing schools and they had been rigorously trained to perform to a high standard, but there were also a few students like me from less privileged backgrounds in or around Birmingham who had similar educational experiences to mine. By the end of my first year, it was clear that some of the high performing students were struggling to function when separated from a controlled, classroom environment. They could swallow and regurgitate information but they could not think for themselves and many of them started to drop out of university as a result. On the other hand, those of us who had been previously cast adrift with our educational development and forced to think for ourselves were thriving in this environment and most of our group achieved a 2:1 or higher (I graduated with a very high first class degree, winning a series of prestigious scholarships, moving quickly onto an MPhil and finally completing a PhD). I suspect that the ‘something’ about me that the admissions tutor had spotted was the same ‘something’ that each one of us in the less educationally privileged group of students possessed; namely the ability to think for ourselves and to cope when left alone to conduct research and develop our own arguments, independently of a teacher or classroom environment that dictated these things to us.
This ‘child that shouldn’t aspire’ now has a PhD and she is the manager of the same university department that she hesitated to apply to in the first place. It’s strange to think that I felt so nervous and inadequate when I first arrived as an undergraduate and now I play a senior managerial role in its day-to-day activities! Having experienced higher education from both sides - from the point of view of the ‘child that shouldn’t aspire’ and the point of view of a university graduate and member of staff - if I was to turn back the clock and speak to my fellow cohort of children at a school assembly then I would give them the following pieces of advice...
My first piece of advice would be this: don't be put off by thoughts of inadequacy based on perceptions of higher education that you might have in your head. I spent years passing by the red brick wall of the University of Birmingham and believing that the Hogwarts-like building in the distance was full of pompous professors who wouldn’t give disadvantaged students a second thought and wouldn't know real struggle and hard work if it bit them on the ass, but now I’m one of those people behind that red brick wall and let me assure you, I’m still very much in touch with that little girl who played the xylophone in school assembly and I know what it’s like to dream big, work hard and have real monsters stand in your way. I am no monster and neither are my colleagues. My university is nowhere near the snooty bastion of pomp and ceremony that I expected it to be as an undergraduate student and any feelings of inadequacy had dissolved by the time I reached graduation. Most people that I encounter on campus are lovely, down-to-earth people who have a lot of time for students from all backgrounds and I regularly speak to colleagues and students who have had similar educational experiences to mine (I currently work with a very talented doctoral researcher who grew up on murder mile in Hackney!). If you’re still unsure then book onto an open day and speak to some of the staff and students about what it’s like to study at their institution. Hopefully just taking the first physical step into the institution and engaging with the people there will eliminate a great deal of your fears. And take it from me; do not be intimidated by class perceptions or how someone looks, behaves or speaks in a higher education environment because these things are certainly no indicator of intellectual ability. Hard work is a very good leveller of all people.
My second piece of advice is for the kids who feel that they are being pushed into higher education when it really isn’t ‘their thing’. Parents and educational authorities alike can be guilty of this. We try to encourage children to fulfil their educational potential but some children just don’t possess the capacity for academic study. For instance, I can play the piano very well, but I struggle to play the drums and there are lots of other things that I’m terrible at. I can’t swim and I can’t run long distances without collapsing in a sweaty heap. I accept that I do well in some things but I’m awful in others. Likewise academic ability is something that you either possess or you don’t and some school leavers are just not cut out for higher education, in the same way that I’m not cut out to swim the channel. Simple as. There is no shame in accepting that you are not academically minded and many students leave school without qualifications and develop specialised and valuable practical skills that allow them to become experts in practical roles in society. These practical roles are often undervalued due to our obsession with pushing students down the path of higher education when in some cases the student feels that it isn’t a good fit for them. As a graduate I find this obsession with the pursuit of higher education at the expense of practical skills difficult to understand because university education is *not* the be-all-and-end-all that some people talk it up to be, it is not an open door to a guaranteed dream job and it certainly doesn’t make you any better that the next person. I have seen how genuinely grateful the professors in my department are when an IT person comes to fix their computer or a maintenance person comes to fix a light or repaint their office - no matter how academically qualified you are you will always depend upon and value those around you with practical skills.
My third piece of advice is a warning. In addition to the academically minded and the practically minded, there is another type of school leaver that educational bodies need to be aware of; the chancer. Thinking back to the student cohort at my school, there were a number of kids who exhibited a genuine flair for study or practical skills, but alongside these students there were also out-and-out chancers who wanted a piece of the same opportunities and achievements without putting in any effort or hard work whatsoever. And coming from a disadvantaged background gave them the claim to preferential treatment and the free pass that they were looking for. Dangers arise when admitting these free-pass-grabbing students to a higher education institution just to tick a quota box or feel like you’re helping the disadvantaged in some patronising and self-righteous way. If every single school leaver, regardless of academic ability, demands that they must have equal access to higher education then we will end up with a quagmire of students who blindly dredge their way through a course of education that they care very little about, dragging the genuinely capable students down with them and at best leaving with the same qualifications. Employers will struggle to differentiate between a job application from a genuinely capable student and a chancer and eventually the qualifications that they both possess will become worthless. After all, if we give trophies to everyone who runs a race then how are we going to pick out the ones that we should train to be Olympians? As gratifying as it would have been to see everyone in my high school class achieve a university place and prove the Mrs. Guests of the world wrong, I’m also a realist and I’m well aware that amongst the genuine students seeking help there are also chancers looking to take advantage of freely available opportunities and milk them for all they're worth. If a student from a disadvantaged background expects to be handed a qualification on a plate simply because they plead for special treatment and they do not intend to apply any hard work or effort, then there is a very good chance that they will fail and educators should not feel guilty or responsible when that happens. It's tough, but that’s life.
The fourth piece of advice is intended for a different audience: my former teachers and those teachers who still advocate the Mrs. Guest approach to educational privilege. Resist predicting the growth potential of students based entirely upon whether a student comes from an impoverished or affluent area or what their parents do for a living because, if anything, you’re probably showing your age. Gone are the days when library access was restricted to wealthy schools and knowledge was passed down from parent to child; we are living in the age of Google where children grow up with access to more information than ever before, they are taking control of their own educational development and it is very difficult, if not impossible, to restrict knowledge to a social class or geographical location. There is a world of knowledge at every child’s fingertips these days and it is their personal motivation and inner drive that will determine what they do with it. My undergraduate course taught me that battery farming students in a well-performing school is no guaranteed indicator of success and ‘children that shouldn’t aspire’ can be just as capable, if not more capable, than the children that are naturally expected to succeed. I would suggest that children who work independently to achieve something that they desperately want for themselves are often the ones that are best equipped to persevere with a course of study, to be intensely self motivated and weather the challenging times that all students face. A tough skin and dogged determination cannot be learnt in a classroom and yet these are the tools that are most essential to carry a student through a university education.
My final message is directed to those who, like me, have followed an unconventional route through higher education and still work within it. Talk to the kids out there who demonstrate academic potential and express an interest in applying to university but have had their confidence knocked by poor educators or feel somehow inadequate at the thought of attending university alongside the privileged kids. Tell them about the scholarships and resources that are available to help them to gain access to courses (I am living proof that these work) and give them the confidence that they need to go to open days and submit applications. And, most importantly, show them that there are no monsters behind the red brick wall and many of us in university departments are just like them and we understand what they are going through. Who knows, they might just end up running the place…
Helen Ingram (@drhingram)
Helen Ingram (@drhingram)