Breadline to Silver Spoon: My academic journey through the UK class system
This isn't so much an article, rather a write-up around my personal experiences of both state and private education in the UK. I'm intrigued to hear about other experiences and opinions around this topic, so please feel free to share with me.
My entire existence revolved around school. Not for wanting to prove anything, but because I preferred staying back late to study than going home. Living in a council house - with only the support of my single, migrant mother and government provisions - was not the easiest or most inspiring environment in which to seek refuge. So, I sought it in books and at the tip of my pen.
I had shaped my entire identity around academia and had close to nothing to fall back upon when it came to genuine confidence, self-worth and interpersonal skills (what I have come to know are true drivers - not indicators - of “success”).
I unknowingly suffered from the anxiety that entailed an uncultivated life beyond school; I often fell short of the money needed to join extra-curricular clubs and trips, or to join friends and visit family, so breaking out of this fear and lack of engagement took a great deal of work.
I went on to neglect all that which resonated with the core of my being: reading, art, poetry, music. I unknowingly lay my creativity into its grave whilst chasing grades I thought would solve my poverty.
Let me tell you, poverty is not physical. Being raised without the optimum conditions of a fruitful existence instills a certain mentality: one that screams nothing is possible because I am not rich / educated / skilled enough. Our state schools should be doing way more to harness the knowledge and interpersonal qualities genuinely required to traverse life within the UK's highly polarised class systems.
By the end of GCSEs, I could list less about my cultural heritage than I could digits of Pi - knew less about my well-being than the life cycle of stars. So much for education!
Thanks to certain kick-ass, working-class role models within my school, I had an idea of what social mobility meant for me: opportunities will not be handed unless demanded; stability can be attained with blood, sweat and tears; there will be obstacles on my path to a "successful" future, yet mindset remains the most substantial of all.
After the initial gush of validation I felt from having received the best grades in my state secondary school’s history, I felt no more satisfaction than if I was to have just scraped the grades I needed to get to the next stage. I had little more to my name than some sparkly grades that I now had to live up to.
This was also the year I was first able to travel abroad - when I finally had the chance (or, more accurately, the funds) to see that there's a world beyond this dingy and depressing corner where all the woes of society are rife. It was beyond me how anyone could take such eye-opening experiences for granted? Until I was able to attend one of the country's most prestigious, private, boarding schools.
I swiftly became a very small fish in a vast pond of privilege and opportunity. I hadn't quite passed the prestigious scholarships exams (of course - prodigies don't come from my ends!), but Uppingham still offered me a place to study at sixth form. A full bursary for the little teen who uses her cutlery the wrong way around, whose "t"s are masked by a glottal stop, who hasn't a penny of savings to her name.
My new classmates recognised the neighbourhood from which I was peeled as their GCSE case study on deprived areas. Some spoke about state benefit/bursary recipients as though they didn't deserve "free money". I never mentioned that this undeserved cash put a roof over my family's head, food in our belly and clothes on our back. I failed to say how the avenues of my future had been caved open thanks to public money and philanthropic handouts.
After the initial period of intimidation, my new tanned, athletic, eloquent, confident, straight-teethed peers brought me my first ever sense of community. It's awesome to what extent wealth (both physical and mental) can bind a society together. What a shame it's as elite and exclusive as it is.
I was given a taste, a glimpse of what growing up as a poor / working class / second generation migrant can so often (or at least in my case) fail to cultivate: a sense of community, reliable health services, small classes at school, routine exercise and sporting opportunities, extra curricular activities, social occasions, nutrition beyond frozen or tinned food. In the middle class, these are fundamental rights. For me they were novelties that allowed me to appreciate how much more comfortable life can be!
Despite the intense pressure to make myself "worth" the money Uppingham invested in me - and despite the period of depression that followed - I still had the richest two years of my life (pun intended). Dissolving the boundary between my sub-breadline upbringing and these Hogwarts-like realms was simultaneously the most terrifying and wonderful thing I have ever experienced to date.
I can't quite express the stark contrast of these worlds, and I can preach hand-on-heart that there is so much more we can be doing here in the UK to ignite hope and determination in our youth - especially within the working class.
I haven't yet a resolution to give this article the uplifting closure you might be expecting, but I hope the privileged position I have come to know will soon contribute to change.
Let me know if this is something you have explored - I would be delighted to discuss and learn further.
For young students who don’t come from riches and opportunities galore:
The school of life is beyond the classroom and beyond your comfort zone.
Instead of grades, let your talents and interests define you. Don’t have many? Swallow your fears and try things out.
To those who come from a place of privilege:
Don’t sit in your own comfort, use the power of your position to benefit others who may not have had access to the same resources and opportunities as you.
Give people a chance to surpass your predisposed prejudices.