Sunday 8 September 2013

Reflecting On Privilege In Education

Yesterday I attended the fantastic researchED 2013 conference at Dulwich College. I've been past there a few times round the South Circular (usually being towed to the Fiat specialists in Catford...), but this was my first time inside. The setting was beautiful, the conference very well organised and smoothly run - no complaints whatsoever on that front. But being inside somewhere open only to the truly privileged made my skin itch a bit.

It started when I pulled into the car park, my battered, bird-shit-covered, bumper-stickered Punto nose to tail with enormous SUVs and Jaguars. I was promptly turned round and sent back round the corner to the conference delegates' parking space, on a building site. My tyres were caked in mud and my shoes still have Dulwich College hardcore embedded in the soles. In the meantime, the car parks inside were entirely empty. There may have been a logical reason for this (gate wardens on duty only until lunchtime, perhaps), but it definitely felt like the riff-raff were being separated out. Paul, even more left-wing than I am, was grumbling under his breath for a good 15 minutes.

Then, the Master of the College referred, in his opening speech, to the sixth-formers helping with registration as "servants". I bristled at this. We often ask students to help us out with events. But we call them "ambassadors" - we place them in a position of respect and responsibility, not servitude. In the hall there were pictures of former headteachers - all men, naturally. Then again, it is a boys' school, and you'd never see a male headteacher's painting on the wall of a girls' independent school. Our walls are covered with pictures of students. It felt as though our two institutions had very different opinions of the worth of their students.

Then I saw a couple of posters in the student café, protesting the abolition of the Educational Maintenance Allowance. I wondered how many students at Dulwich College were even eligible for EMA. When EMA was offered, getting on for one-third of our full-time students were eligible, most of which were entitled to the full amount of £30 per week.I remember very few of my students not being either EMA or ALG (adult learning grant) recipients. For the non-UK readers, EMA was basically paid because otherwise low-income students would have been unable to afford the bus fare to college, and in some cases eat. The government has now abolished it, and instead raised the participation age to "motivate" hungry students to come to college.

Now, I consider myself middle-class. My father was a teacher, and my mother, the daughter of a country GP (so pretty much high society for Shropshire), was a radiographer. Paul's father was a bank manager, and his mother is still a teacher. I attended a comprehensive school until I was 16, then won a scholarship (and the benefit of a government-assisted place) to an independent school for the sixth form. This step undoubtedly gave me a massive boost in getting to Cambridge, and well - they don't come much more privileged than a Cambridge graduate. And as both of us are teachers, that makes our family middle-class, despite the fact we can only afford to rent a one-bedroom flat.

The most frequently-asked question of me by my students is "Why didn't you become a doctor?". The second most frequently-asked question is "Why do you want to teach here if you went to Cambridge?" And I get that one from students and staff alike. For students, I turn it back to them - "Why wouldn't I? I think you deserve to be taught by highly qualified teachers, don't you?" For staff, it's been harder, but I think my response will be a shorter version of this post. I think I have a talent for teaching - the thanks, the little gifts, the continued contact with my students over the years suggests so. I cannot bear the thought of restricting that talent to the most privileged - they do not need my help. They can buy tuition, their children can have more personalised teaching, they can do amazing things (through the school) to pad out their personal statements so they're a shoo-in for the elite universities, and with the pedigree they have, they will walk into highly-paid city jobs when they graduate.

For most of my students, the four and a half hours in a class of 20 with me is the only tuition they can afford. And so I give my time outside of this willingly with no expectation of reimbursement (though a chocolate bar to share during a long session is always appreciated). Students at independent schools have access to a plethora of teachers, many of whom have Oxbridge degrees, not to mention highly literate parents - they have an advantage when writing coursework, personal statements and the like. Many of my students are the only members of their family who can speak English (making parents' evening really interesting!). They can't ask their mum or dad to look over their personal statement, or proof-read an essay. So I do that too.

I teach in FE because it's the best job in the world. I love the diversity of the students I teach and their ideas and experiences. I teach in FE because they have never asked me to apply for a job via hand-written letter, as one independent school did. I suspected if the quality of my handwriting and the choice of pen and paper used was an important consideration in an applicant, then the headteacher and I would not have got on, and so I decided not to go through with the application. I teach in FE because I far prefer being called "Julia" than "Mrs Anderson" (though a plaintive "Miii-iiiss" seems to haunt female teachers everywhere). I teach in FE because, through a combination of my brain-power and money from the government, paid through taxes, I was able to get a place at a top school and then the best university in the country. What sort of person am I if I was able to enjoy that privilege at little cost to myself, only to not pay society back by helping others to enjoy an excellent education?

I also teach in FE because I don't imagine the likes of Dulwich College would appoint me with blue hair, facial piercing and tattoos up my arms, but that is probably another issue entirely.

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