Friday, 29 July 2016

Social mobility and a sense of (not) belonging

Warning, if you read this blog for the fun archaeology, this post is unlikely to interest you! It's a bit of a personal grump about life and academia. Wasn't even sure whether to post it, but here goes.

I'm having an identity crisis at the moment. It's been brought to the forefront because of Brexit, but it's something that I've always felt in the back of my mind for as long time. I never recognised it at the time, as it has been a process rather than a sudden understanding, but I think it started when my parents (mam in particular) decided that I should go to a private (fee paying) secondary school rather than the state school all my friends were going to. Up until that point, I was the same as everyone else in my family. Grew up in Wallsend, lived in a council house, walked to school which was the local primary. Had never been abroad on holiday, and never expected that I would. We didn't have a lot of money as my dad had lost his job in the shipyards, and that's just the way things were. Just before my 10th birthday, my mam suggested that my sister and I should sit the entrance exam for a private girls' school in Newcastle (La Sagesse, now sadly closed). I didn't think too much about it really, parents didn't make a huge fuss or anything. We passed the exam, and were awarded places on the (ironically, Tory) government's assisted places scheme. The scheme was abolished by the Labour government in 1997 for being elitist. And there began the seeds of my dual identity: poor working class family but from age 10 having friends who on the whole would be regarded as middle class, and certainly with more money than we had. I still accepted that we didn't have a lot of money, and was hugely grateful for getting to attend a great school. Grateful is the right word, as it was what I was taught. My parents always went on about how lucky I was to go to a 'good' school, and that it was better than the state school, that I had to make the most of this opportunity by working hard and doing well. Whether it was better than the state school isn't something I can comment on, never having had experience of the other, but La Sagesse was certainly good in that most of the teachers were great, class sizes were small, and there was a lot of support.

Things changed even more when I went to university. Regular blog readers know I went to Oxford as an undergraduate - even further removed from my experience growing up on a council estate in the north east. I could hardly believe I got offered a place. I know that going to a private school probably helped, at least as much as my own hard work and being academically gifted. I doubt I would even have known how to apply otherwise. All these little things that people don't think about - how would a student be expected to know how to apply to university when no one in their family has gone before? I saw my success as a product of having parents who emphasized how important it was to get a good education if I wanted to get a good job and do well in life. The 'aspiration' was there I guess, the encouragement (sometimes verging on obsessive) from my mam that made all the difference.

Over the years I have gradually moved into a 'middle class' lifestyle, though I am often reminded that I am not quite there. The majority of people I know and spend time with are now middle class rather than working class, rather than people like my family. The conversations I have, the things I care about, are mostly 'middle class' concerns. But I still remember what it was like, and what it is still like for my parents. That is why I understand why they voted Leave in Brexit (don't get me wrong, I am incredibly exasperated by it!). I was angry at first, but I calmed down after a few days. I've had lots of conversations with academic friends, all of whom are Remain like myself, and it is clear that many of them do not have the same understanding of the working class perspective that I do. I can see why they are angry too. There seems to be an undercurrent around the whole debate that if you are educated you are being elitist, and if you're not then you're stupid. I've had it from both sides (not intentionally, just implied). Even my parents who went on and on about the importance of a good education, now tell me that I'm on the other side, with an implied tone of betrayal. I used to think social mobility was something everyone should aspire to. I have no regrets about my own circumstances and wouldn't choose anything else, but it does have a downside that I never considered until now. The feeling that you don't quite belong anywhere, the feeling that you are no longer connected to the place and people you grew up with.



I want to use my experience to help students with similar backgrounds achieve things they want to achieve, maybe in future to visit local schools and talk about university to kids who think it's not for them. I've become worried though that doing this is somehow being elitist, by saying that everyone should aspire to a good education? Jeremy Corbyn (firmly a middle class upbringing) said something recently about street sweepers being the most noble people he had met, then the comedian Robert Webb (working class background, now middle class) responded on Twitter that it was romantic and priggish. Then there was a whole argument about Webb being elitist and looking down on street sweepers, which I followed aghast. That is what made me write this post. I sort of agreed with Webb, that someone with a middle class background romanticizing the working class was very self righteous, a bit like those annoying people who romanticize indigenous cultures. But at the same time it made me worried that maybe I was betraying my working class roots. Should I think that being a street sweeper is something to aspire to? Should people bother trying to do something 'better' than what their upbringing might dictate? I don't look down on street sweepers, of course I don't, but surely if someone wants the chance to be more than that, they should have the opportunity?

I don't really know where I'm going with this. Like I said, identity crisis...

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