Saturday, 14 May 2016

To All The Kids Who Think They're Not Good Enough For University (And The Teachers Who Agree)

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 didn’t possess the confidence to sing, I wouldn’t be seen dead with a tambourine and the recorder required far too much effort, so the xylophone was the perfect choice to satisfy the minimum energy required to make a substantially disruptive noise in my 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 xylophone bars and asked me 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 was a housewife and my dad worked shifts in a foundry so this wasn’t something that they could easily afford, but they eventually caved against my persistent nagging and approached my class teacher at a parents’ 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. I was devastated. However the school vicar was not going to allow me give up on my dreams that easily. He arranged for me to have piano lessons from an elderly lady who lived locally (she charged very little for lessons because she lived alone and enjoyed the company of visitors) 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, I would imagine) that my musical ambitions were a passing phase. She also told me what Mrs. Guest had said to them when they had enquired about piano lessons.

My 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 tell people now 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 my headmistress wrong. I have a distinction in Grade 8 piano. 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 final GCSE year and it was widely expected amongst both the staff and students alike that the girls would fail their GCSEs and banging out a dozen babies while sitting on the dole and the boys would 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 planning a family early because infant mortality was high in the area due to its deprived nature, so there was a good chance that some of our babies would die…

It was when the children on the estate challenged these preconceptions that things got really interesting. My best friend at high school desperately wanted to be a lawyer and 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 kids in my school had ever taken an A-Level let alone applied to university before so the teachers thought that we were crazy and completely out of our depth. Nevertheless they agreed to let us sit A-Level English Literature on the condition that we did the required reading ourselves, with some guidance from a business teacher who had experience in teaching A-Level courses. I took the class solely to support my friend and I had no intention of applying for university myself – after all, my parents certainly couldn’t afford the fees - but when I began accompanying my friend to various university open days I liked what I saw and started thinking seriously about whether I wanted to pursue the same educational path… 

I enrolled on a series of A-Level evening classes at a nearby college and cobbled together a mishmash of grades that made me a pretty poor candidate for a red brick university, but I bit the bullet and applied to the University of Birmingham. The admissions tutor was tethered firmly 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 as though I had broken into the place or stolen a legitimate student’s identity and I suffered great anxieties about whether I was ‘good enough’. Some students had come from well-performing schools where they had been rigorously trained to perform to a high standard, but there were also a few students 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 outside a controlled, classroom environment. They could absorb and regurgitate information but they could not think for themselves and many of them started to drop out of the course as a result. On the other hand, those of us who had been previously cast adrift with our educational development and who were frequently required to think for ourselves were thriving in this environment and most of our group achieved a 2:1 or higher. This ‘child that shouldn’t aspire’ arrived with a dismal set of A-Level grades and graduated with a high first class degree (the only first in my year), 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 direction from a teacher or classroom environment. 

But it’s not just the hidden abilities of the ‘child that shouldn’t aspire’ to achieve academic qualifications that I wanted to address, it’s their experience of the university environment too. I am now on the senior professional management team of the same university department in which I was a student and I have day-to-day dealings with students that started out exactly like me. I see the same hesitations and anxieties in them that I had when I first arrived. So where do these anxieties come from? If I was to turn back the clock and speak to every child who wants to go to university but has concerns about how they will be perceived then I would tell them 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 glance and wouldn't know real struggle and hard work if it bit them on the ass. But once I stepped inside the red brick wall as an undergraduate student I quickly realised that my university is nowhere near the snooty bastion of pomp and ceremony that I expected it to be and any feelings of inadequacy had completely 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!). Now I’m one of those people behind that red brick wall and let me assure you, I’m very much still in touch with that little girl who played the xylophone in school assemblies 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 - you have no need to be afraid of us. 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 inside the wall and engaging with the people behind it 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. I have seen pipe-smoking, plum-mouthed professors struggle to open a door or operate the simplest mobile phone. Intelligence doesn’t have a face, tone of voice or tweed suit.

I would also like to address 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 freely encourage every child to fulfil their educational potential but we struggle to admit that some children just don’t possess the capacity for academic study. There are always going to be things that children – and adults too, for that matter - are good at and things that we are bad at. For instance, I can play the piano very well but there are lots of other things that I’m absolutely hopeless at - I can’t swim, I can’t play the guitar (despite trying to teach myself hundreds of times) 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 take up practical roles and become experts in their craft. These practical roles tend to be undervalued due to our obsession with pushing all students down the path of higher education, even when 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 a guaranteed open door to a dream job and it certainly doesn’t make you any more superior to the next person. I have witnessed how the professors in my department are genuinely grateful when an IT person arrives 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.

In addition to the academically minded and the practically minded, there is a third 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. They had no interest in gaining qualifications or skills, but they were acutely interested in avoiding employment. And coming from a disadvantaged background gave them a 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 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 their indifference and leaving with the same copycat 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. 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 pleads for special treatment and expects to be handed a qualification on a plate with no application of hard work or effort whatsoever 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. 

To my former teachers and those teachers who still advocate the Mrs. Guest approach to educational privilege, I would say this: resist predicting the growth potential of students based entirely upon their parent’s occupation or whether a student comes from an impoverished or affluent area because, at best, you’re going to show your age. Gone are the days when library access was restricted to wealthy schools and knowledge was largely passed down from parent to child; we are living in the age of Google where children are growing up with access to more information at their fingertips than ever before. Young people 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. With instant access to an extensive world of knowledge, it is a child’s personal motivation and inner drive that will determine what they do with it. My undergraduate university experience 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 survive the challenging times that all students face. A tough skin and dogged determination cannot be taught in a classroom and yet these are essential tools when pursuing a university education. And please stop pushing all school leavers into academic study at the expense of practical skills. We should be celebrating and empowering those who are gifted with practical skills rather than viewing them as somehow incapable of higher education. I would much prefer to live in a world filled with people that can build houses than a world full of people who ruminate on how to build a house…

My final point 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 show 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. Who knows, they might just end up running the place…


  1. Fantastic much for the priviledged to pay attention to as the underpriviledged.

  2. a brilliantly crafted piece... and so very true