Ah. Class. The word that shalt not be spoken.
Since I began working in the area of Widening Participation in 2005, my background has been described as “disadvantaged”, “economically disadvantaged”, “POLAR Quintile One”, “from a Low Participation Neighbourhood”, “a WP learner”, “a Pupil Premium student” but rarely “working class”. Strange, that.
Growing up in Stoke on Trent in the 90s was an exhilarating experience. Oasis sung that we were “free to be whatever [we] choose” in The Wheatsheaf, a sticky floored music venue in Stoke Town (that’s Stoke upon Trent, a town in Stoke on Trent. Not the City Centre – that’s Hanley. Call me for clarification). And largely, we believed them.
So what did we choose? The vast majority of my friends didn’t go to university. That’s fine, of course. Many continue to live exceptionally happy and fulfilled lives. Some got shot at in Iraq or Afghanistan. Or both. Some have struggled with life: drink, drugs. We didn’t have the same connections or networks as those 20 miles North in Wilmslow or 15 miles West in Market Drayton who were blessed with a “privileged upbringing”. But that’s the class system, right?
A few of us did go to university, and subsequently got jobs that demand a salary more in line with the Wilmslow set. So are we “Socially Mobile”? Are we (gasp) “Middle Class”? No. Do we still engage wholly in our tough, tight knit community? Yes. Do we have a brashness and tell it as we see it? You better believe it. Do we still walk along the Trent, then the Caldon Canal to go to the match, sing and enjoy cheap lager? Not only do we enjoy it, it defines us. Do we champion our working class culture and rich heritage of pits and pots? Every day, duck.
So it’s not social mobility; creating opportunities is social justice. My belief is that education and life-long learning plays a significant role in social justice.
At the recent UUK & Action on Access Summit a slide was presented looking at applications to Higher Education in 2019, based on ethnicity and Free School Meals. Some of this years ‘winners’ were Non Free School Meal Black Females, Non Free School Meal Asian Females and Non Free School Meal Other Females. Some of the ‘losers’ were Free School Meal White Males, Free School Meal White Females, Free School Meal Mixed Males, Free School Meal Black Males, and Free School Meal Asian Males. It appears that we have a class issue.
In various victory speeches following the 2019 election, the Prime Minister spoke about “levelling up” areas that “lent us their vote” and that “white working class boys” would be a priority. We shall see what that means at some point, maybe. I would say that regardless of ethnicity, working class communities have taken a battering, and continue to do so: robbed of pathways, industry and educational opportunities. White, Black or Asian; never mind “levelling up”, the “leveller” seems to be class, with the postcode that you were born into going on to define your chances. You don’t have to be white to be working class. Our aim should be to create opportunities, justice and celebrations for all of our rich working class communities.
I won’t use ink waxing lyrically about the programme that I look after, but over 2100 activities delivered to over 40,000 working class young people in three years, on sustained, progressive and multi touch programmes is certainly helping to re-address some social injustices, locally at least. Our lead institution has doubled the amount of POLAR 4 Quintile 1 learners (sorry) enrolling in Year One in the last 5 years. I think we can take some credit for that progress.
One thing that we, and other practitioners, see is that the use of positive role models is key. Student Ambassadors, Project Officers and mentors who sound like them. Not just literally – though that helps – who sound like them in what they say, how they feel, what they have experienced. It’s powerful. It’s real.
The more young people we have making informed, positive decisions about their future, the richer our society will become. And that, as we would say in year 10, is ‘class, mate’.