littlemavis

Little_Mavis' rants and musings


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Privilege and Oxbridge

This may not be a well written blog because I’m trying to write it quickly and I’m trying to put over an idea that I think is quite simple but others find more complicated.

It’s to do with access to Oxbridge and other forms of success and privilege and how many people still don’t understand how it works. I’ll illustrate this with my own story. It’s from quite a while ago – I took A levels in 1972 but I’ve taught in an inner city sixth form in the naughties so I do know that many of the issues still exist.

First, background.

I come from a working class community. My dad was a train driver (started as a cleaner, as you did back then, and worked his way up through fireman etc as the older drivers retired). My grandads were both miners and my mum worked in a factory until she left work to bring us up – women did that then). Nobody, even in my extended family had ever gone to university, A couple of cousins a few years older than me had gone to teacher training college (before teaching was all graduate), my parents had both left school at 14, this was during the war.

I passed my 11+ and went to the local grammar school. I was in the top set of the top mgsstream. I didn’t work particularly hard. I wasn’t nagged at home because my parents had no real idea what these exams were and certainly no idea what university even was. O level results (1970) were good but not spectacular (9 with a range of grades from 1 to 5 (passes were then 1-6) in today’s money I think they’d translate as 1 A*, 4A, 2B, 2C. I took 4 took A levels in Physics, Chemistry, Biology & Maths, also sat General Studies. My mock results were truly dreadful and I realised – in the January of the year I was taking my exams – that I wouldn’t be able to get by on native wit. Another issue, worth mentioning at this point, is that the teachers’ careers didn’t hinge on our results. They taught us. They told us what we needed to do to get the results we should but after that it was on our own heads. When I got reports that said things like

“Capable of a much better mark. Has not worked as hard as is necessary this year relying far too much on her natural ability” 

My parents expressed disappointment but honestly, not much else.

Anyway, the results scared me enough to work much harder in the remaining 4 months, but it turns out that you can’t catch up on 2 years work in that time, especially in Maths.

Meanwhile, I had applied to university. I had decided that I wanted to take Chemistry and I was particularly keen on modular courses that allowed a broader range of topics. I applied mostly to what were then new universities and the most common offer I got, even from the only established uni (Newcastle), was CD. Yes, you read that right CD.

The combination of working to improve my grade from appalling to meeting requirements but only having to reach CD meant that the panic receded. I ended up with 3 Cs, an A in General Studies and an E in Maths (An improvement from the 25% I achieved in my mock) and got the place at Warwick.grad 2

I did not even think of applying to Oxbridge. I have no idea if I’d have got in if I had. But the clumsy point I’m making here is that it wasn’t even on the horizon.

If I’d had middle-class, graduate parents would it have made a difference? They would have had higher expectations for a start. The best I managed was that my parents didn’t stop me from carrying on into 6th form and applying to university (That may sound odd but there were 2 girls in my class, top stream at a grammar school remember, who were made to leave after they passed O levels because their parents didn’t feel it was worth continuing). They would have known their way around the system and given encouragement and advice rather than the hands-off slightly bewildered approach my parents had. The school tried, obviously, and there was an expectation that we would all apply to and go to university but, honestly, that was mostly it.

Maybe I wasn’t clever enough anyway? I certainly didn’t work hard enough which I suppose is my fault. There were people in my year who went. One friend who did had a father who was a manager, did that make a difference? We don’t know. BUT the knowledge, encouragement, space and opportunity to work are definitely different in middle class families.

I’m sure the middle class kids who go to Oxbridge are clever and work hard. There is only an issue when they claim that that is the sole reason they made it. There are many, many other kids who are just as clever, many of them will have worked just as hard. The reason they haven’t made it isn’t because they are less clever or less hardworking, it’s because they don’t have the specific knowledge and contacts that would have made the difference.

What some people are missing here is what Rumsfeld was talking about

Rumsfeld stated:

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

Working class students, their parents and, to some extent, their teachers have a problem  unknown unknowns. They lack the knowledge that would enable them to succeed but they don’t know what it is they lack or even that there is something they lack.

Middle class success stories (JHB for instance) have a different blind spot. They have unknown knowns. They know stuff that those working class families don’t but it is such second nature to them that they don’t realise that not everyone knows it.

If you did grow up in a middle class family, think of those times when you’ve spoken to a friend or colleague and been surprised that there was something you took for granted that they didn’t seem to be aware of. Privilege is that. Writ large.

I especially salute all those who have succeeded from a working class background. I’m pleased you had the drive to succeed anyway (Look at Diane Abbott for a brilliant example of this and imagine how much harder it was for her to get to where she is than it was for, say, George Osborne)

Anyway, I’m rambling and I’ve told you all far more about myself than I’m really comfortable with. But my point is this. Just because you have worked hard and succeeded, it doesn’t mean that people with fewer advantages than you could have been just as successful if only they had been as clever as you and worked as hard. They will have had to be cleverer, worked harder or been much luckier.

And finally, as an aside, we shouldn’t be valuing only people who are clever or work hard anyway. We should value people for what & who they are. The kind people, the empathic people, the diligent people, the plumber, the cheerful barman, the taxi driver, the Englishman, the immigrant. We can’t all be academically clever, we can’t all go to Oxbridge. That doesn’t mean we aren’t deserving of respect.

 

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Grammar School

My next instalment of school life in olden days.

If you would like to see the earlier posts, they are Infants, Juniors and some background.


Before I start, I want to make it crystal clear that I do not support the reintroduction of grammar schools. This is simply a description of what it was like as a South Yorkshire working class girl attending such a school in the 1960s, It was a good experience. I probably didn’t take quite as much advantage of it as I should have. It may also give some insight as to why some people in power, who would have attended somewhere similar and who gained from it might be nostalgic about them and support them. I also suspect that the intake of this school was more working class than those in leafy suburbs. It was a mining area, solidly Labour then & pretty much so now, apart from UKIP inroads. “Posh” kids were the exception, not the rule so I don’t think I felt the alienation that some in similar positions felt. My brother went to the local secondary modern and did just fine. He got Grade 1 CSEs & a couple of O levels. He did practical subjects that the grammar didn’t offer and got an electrical apprenticeship straight from school.

I came out with 9 O levels and 5 A levels and was the first in my (extended) family to go to university. I can’t say I made the best of a good education, but many of my classmates did. For us, it was a success. I completely understand that it wasn’t the same for everyone, but you can’t ignore the fact that for people like me, it worked.

So. 1965. I passed my 11+, along with a good proportion of my classmates and was sent to the local grammar school. The school I went to was an old fashioned grammar school with a twist. I think I’m going to make this in two parts. First, describing the school itself and then my personal experience of it. I’m not sure how it compares to other schools today. I only attended the one and the school my children went to was a comprehensive that had been built in 1950s as a grammar school but was becoming rather dilapidated.

I haven’t worked in a High School except for short times on supply so have very little idea of what is standard, either for normal high schools or grammar schools.

Our very first visit was on the day we started after the summer holidays. No visits to get to know the place, just “Turn up at 8:30 on Monday”. We were all sent into the hall and were allocated into 6 classes, 30 per class. There were proper cloakrooms to hang your bags and leave your outdoor shoes and we had a classroom with proper desks with lift up lids that we kept our books in. The teachers came to us, except for things like science, art, domestic science & PE.

We did exams twice a year and our report books included our mark & our position in class for each subject.

The school building was very new. It had its first intake in 1964 when we were in year 6 so had, what was then considered to

mgs

Typical 60s built school. Since demolished and replaced.

be state-of-the-art facilities.

For PE we had a boys’ and a girls’ gym with a sports hall between, tennis/netball courts, huge playing fields with multiple pitches for hockey, rugby and football, a rounders pitch, a full size running track and long jump and high jump pits. We also had a swimming pool. Well, to be honest, it was more like an oversized water tank in a greenhouse.

We had dedicated labs for Physics, chemistry and biology, art rooms, domestic science, both cookery and sewing music and woodwork and metalwork rooms.

We also had a kind of tiny farm with rabbits and guinea pigs. I’m honestly not sure what that was for.

After the first year, we were streamed. The top third (no idea how this was done) were put into two classes which comprised the Latin stream and, were taught Latin alongside other subjects. I imagine we were considered those most likely to go to university. Within those two classes we were further set for science only. We did have to choose between (I think) art & domestic science for girls and art & woodwork for boys. There was no thought of girls doing woodwork or boys taking DS.

The teaching was pretty formal, they told us stuff, we wrote stuff down, we learned things and discipline was, well, not especially strict actually. Some teachers expected you to stand when they came into the room but not all. Some wore gowns, most didn’t. Boys were caned for some misdemeanours, girls weren’t.

Every year we had an “Arts Festival” which was an inter-house arts competition which included creating & performing a small play (multi-year) reciting poetry, playing instruments etc.

great hall

The College hall from a more recent photo found on FB

The school had an annual Gilbert & Sullivan production with both (sixth form) students and teachers performing roles and a school play, again sixth formers. The two I was involved in were The Beaux Stratagem and The Petrified Forest, so it covered a decent range.

Girls played hockey, rounders, netball, boys did rugby, football, cricket. Boys also did cross country. We girls lobbied to be allowed to also, but the head was against it, he didn’t want girls “running round the countryside with bare legs”. He was eventually persuaded that we could run a circuit of the school fields, which is what the junior (years 7 &*) boys did. We soon discovered it wasn’t all that much fun, especially in the mud. We had inter-house sports and played against other schools. Often first and second teams.

The head was rather eccentric. He built an aeroplane in the woodwork block as a school project – I believe it is still flying today and help “High table” on the stage prefectin the college hall where about half a class would have lunch with him while we chatted politely. I remember him as always having food stains on his tie.

The sixth form was in a separate block, though it shared science labs and was not a standard school sixth form. It was, as far as I know, the first sixth form college.

I found this extract in a book which explains it quite well. There was no uniform in the sixth form and although we did not call teachers by their first name we did have a more informal relationship with them. We had a sixth form common room and free periods, at least, you did unless you had foolishly decided to take four full A levels.

mgs sixth form from Education 16-19 In Transition by Eric MacFarlane

From Education 16-19: In Transition Eric McFarlane

I’m sure there are things I have forgotten here but since I’m planning a further post on actual experience this is just meant to be a brief outline. I’m not sure it’s substantially different from many comprehensive schools today. I’ll write again about my personal experiences.