The more I debate education with people the more convinced I am by the impact of people’s own educational biographies on their idea. For this reason I am putting together an ‘educational biography’ similar to the reflections PGCE courses require of new teachers. In doing so it may highlight why I hold some of the beliefs I do and it is also a place I can refer people when they incorrectly make insinuations about my own education/life as a child. It is amazing how often that happens.
My childhood was most conspicious for its utter normality. I lived in Widnes; a small Northern town mostly known for its chemical industry and enormous power station. My dad spent 29 years as a busdriver before his 65th birthday last year, my mum is still a secretary. Both passed their 11+ exams but for various reasons both ended up in a Secondary Modern school. Between them their education bestowed a grand total of zero qualifications. So much for the grammar system.
Being normal I went to the local comprehensive school. At university people would often tell me I went there because my parents didn’t love me enough to sacrifice holidays abroad to pay for private school. They were surprised to learn I was offered a full scholarship to a private girl’s school in Liverpool on the basis of my Year 6 SAT results. I didn’t go to the private school because my best friend was a boy and he couldn’t go with me. In response the same people would tell me my parents really didn’t love me because parents who love you send you someplace where you will be miserable but extremely well educated. Me and these people have different ideas about love.
During my normal education I was taught in classrooms suspiciously like the ones my privately educated friends would later talk about. We both had some teachers who were fantastic, and others who weren’t. Some subjects bored us to insanity , some fired enthusiasm. Some kids we knew became drug addicts; some (like me) never even touched a single cigarette. The only thing I ever remember thinking seemed different was the access to facilities. Where we had worn-out textbooks shared between two that were counted in and out each lesson, richer counterparts talked of having one for school and one for home. Where our gym hall was lopsided from subsidence they had pristine pitches, training gyms and boats. The difference between trips was particularly upsetting: I was crushed when I learned some regularly had chance to spend a week in New York whereas we’d been grateful for a Year 8 trip to Menaii. Even as I’ve grown older each conversation I’ve had with privately educated people has made me believe the only real difference between what they had – and what we had – were only facilities, class size and extra-curricular activities. The rest is identical.
Nevertheless school agreed with me. Even as it slipped towards ‘Notice to Improve’ (it is now closed) – and my form of 26 bizarrely fell to 15 due to truancy and exclusions – it never bothered me. I had friends, I learned, I achieved. By 16 I received the highest GCSE results in the borough, but by that point I was thoroughly cheesed-off with everything school was. The petty rules, wearing a uniform, not being able to listen to my walkman in the corridor, having other people sign my homework diary when I was perfectly capable of dealing with homework myself – all of it seemed so pointeless. I wanted out.
So I ran away, at least as much as you can when you’re 16. I signed up to study A-Levels at an adult education centre two bus journeys away. More upsetting for the careers advisors was my decision to study English, Maths, Politics and Film Studies A-Level (I can hear the EBacc purists crying into their tea). Unfortunately I found out the day before I was due to start that English clashed with Film, and Politics was cancelled. With only one afternoon to make new decisions I rang mum who asked which one I most wanted to do out of English and Film (Answer? Film. Yes, yes, sob away). This left a choice in the other block between Law and Psychology. Mum asked some other people in her office what I should do and Kate – a secretary in her early 30s who I only ever met once – said she had “really enjoyed a Psychology module” when she was at college. Thanks to Kate, Psychology it became.
People sometimes find this story upsetting. How dare mum have allowed me to choose Film over English? Didn’t she realise this would bar me from entry to the elite Russell Group? Didn’t she think it was important that I spent hours researching my future career and working backwards? No, she didn’t. Because my family were *normal* people and we had no idea about these things. Besides, as it turns out, it wouldn’t affect my future at all.
In the year 2000 I was assaulted by a mental health patient, got a caution put on a stalker, won a McDonalds Super Team trophy and gained a serious boyfriend with a toddler-aged daughter in tow. But none of that was the most remarkable part of year: no, that was reserved for the privilege of getting an Oxford University interview.
Padgate College was one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. Like my high school, it no longer exists. Labour tried to shut it down when I (and my friends) were half-way through our first year because it was too expensive and too niche. Mostly it provided ‘day release’ courses for mature students but a few “young ‘uns” like me were allowed into its fold. Many courses, including the English A-Level I took in a year, were delivered in the evenings and because of this, plus its mature student intake, the pass rates were predictably low – about 19% – and the local council felt the cost of the place wasn’t worth it for such awful achievement. Thinking about how that looked on paper I can see how it seemed a sensible decision. But for me, Padgate was like heaven.
The A-Level centre was a converted residential hall in the corner of what was then a University of Manchester campus for Sport Science and Media students. On the same site were also the Greater Manchester Police Training school (Bruge) and “Stepping Stones”, a centre for people with learning difficulties and mental health problems. Every morning the canteen was alive with stereotypes: bobbies in their hi-vis jackets supping hot coffee, Down Syndrome students working behind the counter learning how to count out change, sporty students hopped about in shorts while the media students wafted by with dramatic outfits and pitchy voices. The library was university standard – and it was there I first learned about academic journals – prompted by my amazing Film Study tutor Alan Ellison who part-pioneered our entirely theoretical Film A-Level based on his own experiences of teaching undergraduates. Psychology class counted among its rolecall a young offender on remand, a man in his 40s with Post-traumatic stress disorder from a horrific car accident and Vinnie, our real live Schizophrenic. I use that term ‘real live’ purposely, because at 16 that was how I saw him. Up until meeting Vinnie mental health disorders were something I read about in library books with an almost grim fascination and now, in this weird learning universe, I got to sit next to a real, live Schizophrenic who would kindly and calmly update us on his episodes and ensure to brief us if any ‘extra’ guests were sitting with him in class that day. On reflection I feel like that could sound cruel, almost mocking, but that was never the tone of his dealings with the class nor our dealing with him. Padgate was just a place where people – of any and all varieties – learned together, and I loved it.
Beyond the diversity, the second best thing about Padgate was the timetable. Many students were on day-release from work so they squashed the lessons together as tightly as possible. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays I was there from 8.30am until nearing 5, and with my evening class on Wednesday I didn’t finish until 9. But this meant that Thursdays and Fridays were half days and Mondays were gloriously free. In order to get money for a car so I could stop sitting on the bus for 3 hours a day, I got a job working at McDonalds. For the first six weeks I hated it because I was useless. GCSEs were easy for me but putting burgers and fries into the correct bag? Apparently that was impossible. One day I got yelled at violently for putting through an order of “Big Mac no mayo”, I was so embarrassed I cried through my entire 40 minute break. Apparently Big Mac’s don’t have mayo on them, they have Mac Sauce, and this mattered more than anyone could have expected. After six weeks of torture I wrote out a resignation letter and, somewhat trembling, I took it to the manager’s office. I knocked, but he wasn’t in. Dejected, I put the letter back and with a heavy heart started my shift. For whatever reason, the work that day wasn’t so bad. In some ways I kind of liked it. Twelve months later I finally threw away that letter when I threw away my work bag and replaced it with a new one bought using vouchers I won when I received the coveted Super Team Award for Best Counter Service.
I worked thirty hours a week in that McDonalds. Three ten hour shifts every single week. By the Summer of 2000 I was asked to take the Floor Managers exam, though the asking was more a process of elimination than anything more complimentary. At that time becoming a Floor Manager involved sitting three exams: a multiple choice, a short answer exam and one on maths. Restaurant managers booked exam seats weeks way in advance and paid for the privilege. Someone in our store – I can’t remember who – dropped out of their exam 3 days before it was due and so the restaurant manager called me into his office. On his desk was a manual the size of the phone book and he told me I had three days to memorise it. I could sit out the front of the store, I could have any food or drink I wanted, I would be paid for every minute I revised: I just needed to pass the bloody thing. The story would end wonderfully if I could tell you I aced the test, but facts are, I didn’t. The book was huge and I’d only spent a limited amount of time in the kitchen so I didn’t understand half it. That said, I passed, in no short part due to my Maths A-Level and everyone else’s maths illiteracy. There were no flying colours when my results were announced, but I passed and I donned a Floor Managers uniform before the summer was out. I remained at McDonalds for a further two years – including a year while I was at university. And the guy who made me cry over the Big Macs? He was the one who eventually became my serious boyfriend. Life gets you like that sometimes.
So now for the important bit: Oxford. Over the years my story about applying has become a bit warped so I’m never really sure anymore what’s true about the application process and what’s not. The only bit I am certain about is how I came to my decision that I would apply at all. Until the summer of my AS year I hadn’t even thought about applying. As far as I was concerned I would study Film at university, possible even a specialist Film & Television school. Then three things happened. First, I saw a poster for Cambridge University that said “Did you know you only need six GCSE A-grades to be considered for Cambridge?” Weird, I thought. I’ve a lot more than that. Does that really mean I could go to Cambridge? Weird. The poster bugged me for about two weeks and then it got ripped down and I stopped thinking about it until a few weeks later when I was sat with friends having a conversation about the talent we would most like to have if it was to be granted to us with absolutely no effort required on our part. I chose the ability to play drums as marvellously as Tre Cool in Greenday. My friend, Carrie, said she wished she could be clever because then she could go to university and she’d probably study something like medicine so she could save young people who died after all that would be a pretty cool thing to do with your life. I immediately regretted my choice about the drums. In fact, I suddenly regretted a lot of choices. I was smart enough to go to ‘proper’ university and I was probably smart enough to study medicine, but instead I was going to do film because it wasn’t too hard and I liked being able to talk about it with my friends. Sure, I liked film – I still do – but it wasn’t really what made me fired up inside. Dang it. Being a doctor was now unlikely, I didn’t have the right qualifications, but perhaps I could think more seriously about what I really wanted to learn at university. Maybe even at that Cambridge place?
Over the summer I decided I wanted to study philosophy & economics. Philosophy because I liked thinking, economics because it would be useful. At least if I could become a banker then I could probably make enough money to pay for some third-world doctors and assuage my continued guilt. Having typed those subjects into the UCAS search engine I came across Politics, Philosophy & Economics as a course, which sounded ace, but it was at Oxford. Huh. Oxford. Okay. But really, Oxford? If I went there wouldn’t everyone think I was a prat? How was I going to explain it to people? “I’m thinking of applying to Oxford”… “Wow, you think you’re smart don’t you?” “Err….yes?” Such conversations felt like they would inevitably end with a slap. In fact, the idea of having to tell my friends that I had the audacity to even attempt to get a place at Oxford was almost enough to put me off. And then I watched Good Will Hunting.
A scene in that film changed my mind entirely. In fact, it made me think that applying to Oxford was the most important thing I could do. The scene is near the end of the movie when Will, a prodigy at maths, has turned down his offer of a scholarship at Harvard to continue working on a building site with his buddies. Explaining his rejection of the Harvard offer to his best friend, Chuck, who Will seems convinced will be pleased because it means they can raise their kids together, teach them Little League and continue drinking beers on the building site. Chuck, however, is disgusted. He tells Will that if in 20 years he still lives on the estate it will be an insult. Will, annoyed at the response venomously spits out words I had said, in the same ridiculous manner, in my own head several times: “Why? Because I “owe it to myself” to go? F* that, what if I don’t want to?” Chuckie turns back to Will, flailing his arms around in wild self-important wailing, and points out that Will doesn’t “owe it to himself” he owes it to his friends, because the other people on the building site would give anything to have the lottery ticket way-out that Will had and being too scared to cash it in is, quite frankly, an insult to them all. Hearing those words was like hearing my own demons being set free. If I didn’t apply it couldn’t be because my friends would be pissed off at me. They wouldn’t, I had created that myth in my mind. They would be far more pissed off, in fact, if I chose to squander my chances.
The rest is hazy after that. There’s a disasterous Oxford application form with a question that no-one knows how I am supposed to answer, the college gets everything off late, there’s an interview and there’s an acceptance. The only thing I remember about the acceptance is that it arrived on a day when it was pouring with rain and I’d worked five hours overtime on my McDonalds shift. Fighting fatigue as I drove home under lashing skies, all I could think was that if I drove off the road and crashed and died the headline would be all about that letter at home waiting for me.
Why did I get into Oxford given that I had such a hotch-potch of A-Levels? I don’t know. I do know that I didn’t do very well on the entrance exam, which is unsurprising seeing as no-one had been able to tell me in advance what was on it and most of the other students had been practicing at lunchtime with their school tutors, and I know that the tutors were a bit baffled by my Film Studies A-Level. But I also know that I can reasonably hold my own in a debate, and I particularly remember when they asked me why I wanted to study at Oxford there was a moment when I’m certain I came across like Billy Elliot’s dad in the Ballet School who, having endured great lengths to get enough money to pay for Billy’s audition, is asked whether or not he is a supportive parent. Without adequate words to explain just how much he supports his son he does nothing more than nod, but – somehow – in that nod, one gets the sense that he would walk to the ends of the earth to ensure his son learned ballet. I remember the tutor asking me what it meant to study at Oxford and all I could get out was a sort of half-gasped “Everything. It means…well…everything”.
Looking back now it’s hard to believe that could be true. Twelve years can do a lot and I know that I now sound – in accent, manner, confidence, vocabulary – nothing like the 18 year old me who sat in front of those scary wise men and spluttered about the difference it would make to have access to a library with decent books in it. That person is so far gone it’s hard to write about her in anything other than hackneyed clichés, and it’s often hard to believe that those clichés are real. But one thing helps: I still have the emails from those first few months at Oxford. Slivers of the reality I was living occasionally sent home to mum, and nan, and the boyfriend who made me cry about the Big Mac. The girl who wrote those emails is clearly scared, and lost, and doesn’t fit in. She talks about the way that people make fun of her accent, and how she can’t cope with the work, and how the tutor tells her that she’ll never get more than a 2:2 unless she shapes up, but she doesn’t know how to shape up because whenever she asks for help they tell her that this is Oxford and there’s no hand-holding here. Reading those emails reminds me of how out of place I really felt (even though I absolutely think I was in the right place) and allows me to remember that Oxford really did mean ‘everything’ to me and more.
They succeeded in closing Padgate after we left. We fought and fought for it to stay open: writing letters to MPs, going on local radio, I even read every darn page of the minutes of local council education meetings and dug out the laws on Curriculum 2000 in order to make my case, and this was before the internet so I spent a lot of time polking around various vaults at the local library. The letter we received from our MP saying that the college had agreed to stay open for one more year so we could complete our studies was priceless. He attached a letter from the college Principal that said: “I have commended them on the well argued case they presented to us”. It’s not true, no-one ever commended us, but we got to finish our studies in peace and didn’t have the negative effects of moving schools half-way through our studies. Years later, when I taught Citizenship, I would show students that chain of letters as proof positive that children can and must stand up to adults who are trying to destroy their world without due regard for what that will mean. No doubt this whole experience also affects how strongly I now feel about policies relying on ‘school closure’ as a way to improve the system.