I’m a sociologist of education, and anyone familiar with this area knows that the notion that we live in a meritocratic society is a myth. Rather than education being a golden ticket to social mobility, the most disadvantaged in our society are systematically held back in education, and in work. This has nothing to do with a lack of ability, but is a complex cultural/financial conundrum, slicing up in different ways across demographic dimensions, from class to gender, ethnicity to geography.
OfSted admits that the issue of class and educational outcomes ‘continues to be the most troubling weakness in our education system’. One striking outcome is that the poorest students are the least likely to go to university. If they do, they’re largely excluded from those universities that provide better or even exclusive routes into postgrad courses and the best jobs, and are also less aware of/able to access opportunities that improve their employability. Universities (out of social duty/under threat) are working on this by providing outreach, scholarships, favourable entrance requirements, and better student support. They could be doing more, particularly some of them, but they (and education more generally) can’t solve social inequality by themselves.
Undermining all of this is a policy landscape – largely under the smokescreen of austerity – that further marginalises the most vulnerable. The Conservatives, of course, still place the blame firmly on education – and families. In other words, they’re defending their success/affluence (attributing it to nothing but their own merit) by pointing the finger firmly away from where their responsibilities should lie. At times the futility of it all makes me want to scream or weep, but the more we know about it, the more we can find ways of improving the situation. It’s an uphill struggle as there’s the weight of a system to shift. I’ve been working in this area for a while, researching various aspects of it and I also teach it with passion. I have to admit, though, that at times I feel like the enemy within. I have a dirty secret, you see – I’m posh. There, I’ve said it. Admitting to your problem opens the path to the solution, some say. We’ll see.
In my ‘defence’, it wasn’t my choice, and I doubt if there was a conscious decision to send me to a private school, as that’s just ‘what one does’. I’m an army brat: my dad was an officer in the army (‘a Rupert’!), so it was expected/assumed that I’d be packed off to a private school, and it was mostly paid for by the state. I didn’t – as many do – go straight from school to a fancy university and stay in the system, and I haven’t always had professional level jobs. I’ve worked nights, washed pots, worked in retail and catering, on building sites, and did all sorts of assorted temping work. I’ve worked in outreach through social services, too. I’m certainly not denigrating these jobs, and doing them has taught me a home truth or two. It took me a few years to get a well-paid job; I did that for a while before quitting to travel and then go back to university. At times I’ve been hard up (but nothing near this), and my family helped out (not infrequently) when it was needed. Without them, far less of what I’ve done would have been feasible, or at least getting here would have been far, far harder than it already was. In other words, I’ve had every chance to get to wherever I wanted to go. A lot of – most – people don’t have that.
My poshness is the result of my own unfair advantage and in some ways works against me. First off, I should probably check my privilege. However, you don’t have to be disabled to work in disability studies; you don’t have to be a woman to be a feminist, either. In terms of the latter, I’m not, and I am. But in what way am I qualified – other than on paper – to pass comment? Would I be better, and more eligible to work in this field, if I’d been discriminated against, rather than for? I’d be less likely to be where I am, and I’d certainly be even angrier about inequality. What is central here, though, is that I don’t project my experience or expectations onto what is researched and published/publicised. It is up to me to listen to others, to not marginalise anyone else’s perspectives. After all, I ‘know’ nothing of this except what I’ve seen, heard and read – I’ve not lived it. In a sense the job at hand is to find out as much as we can, shout it from the rooftops, and try to redress the imbalance. I’m trying to, in as many ways as I can find.
A second, less important, dimension to all of this is that it sharpens my sense of imposter syndrome, the fear I’m a dullard masquerading as an intelligent academic. Not only am I posh, but I’m from the most privileged educational group of all: white, male, able, and for eleven years an inmate of our proud tradition of British boarding schools. Boarding at an ‘independent’ (let’s admit it, it’s a polite term for private and exclusive) schools nowadays costs about the same or more than the national average salary. People at these schools make up about 7% of the school population but are twenty to fifty times more likely to go to elite universities than the poorest pupils. They also dominate the professions. This is the sharpest end of our British unmeritocracy. ‘We’ have better chances in life because of who we are, who we know, how we talk, what we wear, how we act – it’s not that we’re any brighter. This implies (or proves?!) that my success is less down to hard work and overcoming hurdles than it is for many of my colleagues, and this means that I’m often loath to admit my educational background to them. Maybe I’m fooling myself, it’s probably obvious as soon as I open my mouth.
Within the literature on this topic there’s also a sense (or maybe it’s my sense) that vilifies the most affluent pupils: some of us are shamelessly entitled. In all honesty I probably was when I was younger – I had no idea how fortunate I was. In a sense I couldn’t have – I was cloistered (literally), and my social sphere was by and large removed from wider reality. Ten years ago I’d have despised the eighteen year-old me for being cluelessly stuck up and full of myself, but now I’d be more likely to try and enlighten the person I was. I’ve no right to feel sorry for myself, and I don’t. I can count my lucky stars in so many ways, but my lucky stars also make me feel uncomfortable. Perhaps that’s how it should be.