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I’ve worked in education since 2010, as an English teacher, Head of Department and Assistant Head in four schools. I’m currently Head of English at Michaela Community School. I write about curriculum, teaching, leadership, English and reading. You can read about what education means to me and why I do what I do here.

Curriculum

Teaching

Leadership 

English

Reading

 

Tutor Time at Michaela

A number of people have expressed an interest in how tutor time works at Michaela, and given that we have nearly an hour of tutor time every day, it is probably worth explaining our system.

We have tutor time in the mornings for twenty minutes, which is often stretched to twenty-five minutes, as we love to get the kids into the nice warm building, especially in the winter months. Two mornings a week, the children have assembly. Then, we have tutor time every afternoon for thirty minutes.

The tutor at Michaela is absolutely central: they have the strongest relationship with their tutor group, and we work the timetable to ensure tutors also teach their tutor groups. Although our tutor groups are large, the amount of time spent together, combined with excellent behaviour, means that tutors can really get to know each of their tutees.

On an assembly day, the tutors are responsible for lining their group up and leading them into the assembly hall. Occasionally, one tutor will decide to become competitive about which tutor group boasts the neatest, strongest line, and we’ll make this into a silly competition. (In my experience, tutors are generally just slightly more competitive than the kids on this one!)

Once in the assembly hall, tutors stay with their groups, reciting poetry together, rolling numbers together and singing together before assembly begins, and giving merits to members of their form who are doing a great job. Again, we will occasionally make this into a little inter-form competition. Tutors stay for assembly, making sure their tutees are behaving, and also absorbing the key messages of the assembly we want to be reiterating with the children in form time. Our assemblies are built around our school motto: ‘Work Hard, Be Kind,’ and will normally fall into one of those two categories.

On mornings with no assembly, the kids file into their form rooms, and take out their reading books. The tutor completes the register, before doing a quick equipment check. We have a standard expectation of the equipment every child must have, and the tutor ensures that every pupil has this equipment at the start of the day. This is to ensure no time in lessons is wasted with children not having a pen, or a ruler, or any other vital piece of stationery that could stop them learning. Some tutors check this during silent reading time, and others get the kids to hold up their equipment, issuing merits for the swiftest rows with the most professional attitude.

Our pupils are set online Maths homework every day, and morning tutor time is a good opportunity to show the kids who has done the most questions, or who has spent the most time on the Maths programme. Tutors can celebrate this with their tutees, and remind those who aren’t putting in the effort to do so in future. These pep talks are invaluable, as we find now that we often have our weakest pupils making the top ten for Maths prep, and so making huge progress from their starting points.

Before the tutees leave, the tutor gives a swift pep talk for the day, reminding their form of any key expectations they feel they are forgetting (my form last year were in the habit of slouching, so I would take a minute to explain why sitting up straight would help them to focus in lessons), before sending them off for the day.

At break time, tutors are timetabled to be with their form groups for at least ten minutes of that time, so they are able to circulate and speak with individuals, or so that individuals can find their form tutor and speak to them. The same happens at lunch break, when tutors often play table-tennis or basketball with their tutees, and chat and laugh together. Tutors also eat lunch with members of their form each day at family lunch. All of this provides an opportunity for any pupils having a tough time, or seeking reassurance, or struggling academically to find their tutor and express their concerns. It also allows the tutor to seek out pupils who are doing well to congratulate and encourage them, or, if they have a new pupil in their tutor group, to answer their questions and allay their concerns. All of this ‘down time’ together means tutors can really get to know their tutees as individuals, not just as learners.

At the end of the school day, following the final period, the tutor group comes back to their tutor room. After the register, they read their class reader together. Any English teacher knows the joy of sharing a story with a class; at Michaela, all tutors have this same joy. The tutor displays the merits and demerits for the day, week, term or year, congratulating those at the top, having conversations with those who are struggling, and asking those at the top of the chart to explain what they are doing to achieve their merits, to inspire their peers to emulate them.

 

The afternoon is also our time for one-to-one conversations, where co-tutors take out individuals who are struggling academically or with their behaviour. Wander down any Michaela corridor at the end of the day, and it is a hum of urgent, whispered chats between co-tutor and pupil, with our toughest kids having the most support. Co-tutors like Ms Cheng use a little book to set goals for the day – how many merits they wanted to have achieved, homework that needs to be completed, extra revision that is needed – and follow up on these goals.

 

 

Finally, the afternoon is a perfect time for notices and announcements. Tutors also read out the detention list, and can reiterate the teacher’s message of what has gone wrong, and what needs to happen in the future.

Some extra things tutors do:

  • Once or twice a term, give their tutees postcards to express their gratitude to members of teaching staff or support staff.
  • Discuss attendance weekly with tutees, congratulating those on 100% and having discussions with those who have missed a day or two of school.
  • Displaying the number of books each tutee has read weekly and encouraging them to read more.
  • Giving postcards to their tutees: anyone who has been especially kind, worked especially hard is awarded a postcard. This happens at least once a week. Some tutors do a ‘Michaela drum roll’ (like a regular drum roll on the table, but they SLANT as soon as they are asked) to introduce this and build anticipation.

Like everything we do, we are constantly evolving how we do tutor time. We’d love to hear of what other schools find successful, as we are constantly learning from others around the country to improve what we do. In addition, tutors are constantly innovating and trying new things with their tutees. Things individual tutors do are videoed and emailed out to all staff, so that we can learn from each other and do our best by our wonderful children.

 

Fifth year (or: how university should be)

Of all the years at university, the fifth year was the best. Why did I decide to do a Masters when I had found my undergraduate so difficult? And why in History, a subject I hadn’t even studied at A-level?

The summer after fourth year, I found out I had not got a first. I was absolutely crushed, but given the amount of time I had spent in work or in the newspaper office, I had no right to be. There was one thing I knew: I was done with English Literature. I had presented a possible PhD thesis to a tutor in my final year – a psychological study of Milton’s Satan entitled ‘What’s the problem, Satan?’ – only to be laughed out of the room (or actually, the opposite of laughing – ‘you can’t make a joke on your PhD proposal’).

I loved my job at the theatre. I’d been promoted, so I had more responsibilities and more money than I had ever had before. I ate proper meals and was genuinely happy.

I decided I wanted to really challenge myself. In my final year, I had chosen courses I knew I would do well at, but now I wanted to do something I was unsure of. Having spent four years in Ireland, blissfully ignorant of the country’s history, I would spend a year immersed in ‘Modern Irish history.’

To prepare, the summer before I began I read tome after tome on Irish history. I asked everyone I knew who had done a history degree for recommendations. I went from knowing nothing at all to having a very shaky grasp of the chronology on the first day of the course. But I loved learning something new. And I loved reading something different. I read not a single novel for two years after my final year of university. At the time I thought I might never read a novel again. I was done with literature, and literature was done with me. I had never seemed to understand it, and the less I succeeded, the more I grew to despise what I had once most loved.

The Masters was blissful. There might have been 12 or 15 of us taking it, so we all knew each other. We were all total geeks. For once, I totally fitted in. We went for lunch and talked about history. We went to optional seminars just because we wanted to. It was absolutely joyous. I was totally out of my depth, but almost no-one had studied Irish History before, even if they had studied history. I also came to the course without arrogance – I knew I knew nothing. Unlike literature, which I felt so confident about, only to have my ignorance painfully revealed, here I merrily accepted how much I had to learn. My undergraduate degree had knocked humility into me.

And History suited me. Instead of synthesising abstract theories, I was plugging away in the archives, reading documents and letters written hundreds of years before. In History, the long hours spent reading endlessly were rewarded with high marks. I seemed to be doing better at something I had never studied before than I had for my entire first degree.

I grew in confidence. In the second term, I was the only person who chose to take a course which was fiendishly challenging that had hundreds of pages of assigned reading every week, along with plenty of statistics. Now I had a degree, I was paid more to teach drama at the weekends, and I also marked essays for a correspondence course. I invigilated exams for undergraduates. I had worked at the theatre for so long I could choose shifts around archive times and seminars.

Instead of queuing for the library, I swiped into the 24-hour graduate reading room any time I wanted; a beautiful and old room where there was always a place to sit and where you could bring your coffee without anyone seeing you and telling you hot drinks were for outside the library. The 24-hour reading room was full of geeks just like me. I knew few of their names, but all of them to smile and nod at. There is a warm community in the geek world. Now, lecturers wanted to talk to me. I would turn up to their offices and we could talk about the essays I had written or the documents I had found in archives. They would share their research, and point me in the direction of a new cache of papers.

As the year drew to a close, I submitted my PhD thesis proposal again – on nineteenth century Irish history this time. It was well received, and although I didn’t get funding for it, there was the strong suggestion I would if I reapplied the following year.

It would have been lovely to do a PhD. I finally had a lovely, lovely life; super friends and the best part-time jobs ever. But university had made me tougher. I wanted to take the difficult route. I had heard that Teach First was tough, so I decided to do that instead.

 

Summing up

After five years of university, I had not had a full week off. I had barely had a full two-days off. I had counted every penny for five years. I had been genuinely hungry many times. I would not do those five years again for any money. They were difficult years.

But I did not hate university, and I do not hate university.

University killed my arrogance – eventually. It taught me humility would be a surer route to learning. It taught me that work can be the highlight of your day – and that is ok. When I had failed in seminars and failed in the library, I could still turn up and do a good shift at work. We should never despair, because we can always do some good.

And however disappointed I was to not achieve a first, I did not fail. I did not drop out. I finished, despite how difficult it was.

In the amazing musical In the Heights, one of the characters struggles to find her place at university, far from her multicultural home, and wonders what her life would have been like ‘if my parents had stayed in Puerto Rico.’ University is such an immense culture shock, it is tempting during the experience to imagine: what might have been if I had stayed where I was ‘meant’ to stay? If I lived the life my background wanted me to live, instead of living this alien life, this life of literature and theatre and Waitrose?

I have so much to be grateful for: university taught me the value of a good day’s work; it taught me that I was strong enough to withstand slurs and smears and stay standing; it taught me that I could choose the tougher option and succeed in that option. A quote I read recently in The Count of Monte Cristo really resonated with me on this: ‘those who are born with a silver spoon, those who have never needed anything, do not understand what happiness is.’

University was not like I imagined it would be when I read those 1920s novels. Nor was it anything like the experience of some of my closest friends, who describe it as three years of fun and parties. University was a struggle, but the struggle was brilliant.

 

You can also read about my first, second, third and fourth years at university.

Fourth Year (or: I had to pass)

Fourth year started. I was feeling happy. I had good hours working a job I loved that paid well and also enabled me to study while working. I worked on the newspaper stand in Freshers Week when I wasn’t working, encouraging new first years to join us. I had a group of people I loved working with at university, and a group of people I loved working with at the theatre.

But it was also time to get serious. I may have neglected my studies in third year, but I wanted to get a first. I needed to get a first. I was the first person in my family to go to university, and I wanted to show I had thrived there.

At the end of third year I had signed up to do a course in the modern novel and a course in Jane Austen. I had done all the required reading. I had even, possibly for the first time since Atonement in Freshers’ Week, enjoyed it.

But I needed a first. And one of the course leaders had given me a low 2.1 in first year; the other a low 2.1 in second year. I needed to be strategic. I swapped onto two courses with course leaders I’d never had before, but which were topics I had got firsts in previously – Shakespeare, and Old English. And I really did love those courses. We had optional essays for the Shakespeare course, one a week; I completed every single one and got a first for all of them. None of the marks counted towards my final year marks, but it seemed like a good trajectory.

I was balancing three jobs now: the theatre most of the time, teaching weekly drama and creative writing classes, and occasional waitressing at a sports stadium. I was also balancing my commitments to the newspaper and other university societies. I put everything into everything. I studied between customers at the theatre, where I worked with some of my favourite people I had yet met in Dublin. I ran between lectures and the newspaper office. I burned the midnight oil in the library. I was working so much I didn’t need money for anything but three meals a day; for lunches I could finally afford a proper sandwich with any filling I chose. Life was glorious.

There were low points. If you throw yourself into ‘public’ life (or, the public life of the amateur stage that is university), you are a target to be shot at. Plenty of people wrote letters to the editor about how awful my writing was. One person took umbrage at a column I’d written about life after university, alleging I’d been born ‘with a silver spoon’ in my mouth and ‘could rely on Mummy and Daddy’ to bail me out after my degree, which could not have been further from the truth. One person stood up at a society AGM and called me a fraud and a hypocrite. One person stood up at another society AGM and said I had abused society funds for my own personal advancement, when of course I had done no such thing. An email was circulated to the whole English class about me, the content deeply personal and clearly vindictive. When I complained to the university officials, they said they would investigate it if I halted an ongoing newspaper investigation into dodgy aspects of the university administration they did not want being made public. It was my first experience of officials using their position so dishonestly. I refused to pull the investigation, and the writer of the malicious email went unpunished.

I remember the day results came out. I had arranged for the day off work so I could prepare myself. I longed for a first.

Use the links to read about my first, secondthird and fifth years of university.

Third Year (or: I stopped going to lectures)

After the blow of not winning a scholarship, I felt resentment building up about English Literature. I had read everything, and worked so hard, but it had not been enough. Not knowing anything about Dweck and ‘Growth Mindset,’ I declared that English was ‘not my thing,’ and proceeded to throw myself into other aspects of university life.

And third year was in some ways a really wonderful year. I worked for the university newspaper, and for the first time my work felt purposeful. I wasn’t serving drinks to make a pittance, and I wasn’t slaving over books to fail to win a scholarship. I was writing, writing, writing and copy editing; spending whole days and whole nights in the newspaper office over a production weekend, and making actual friends who also got a kick out of working insane hours to produce something concrete at the end of two weeks. I absolutely loved it.

Getting involved in university also had other perks. I found out that there were events that had free drinks, if you only knew the right people, and suddenly I had something of a social life. I worked in a shop, not a bar, so I had evenings free and could actually socialise the way other people did.

The downside of my shop job was, after Christmas (when they had employed a huge amount of extra staff to deal with the massive Christmas bonanza), they kept on far too many of us, which meant there weren’t enough hours to go around. I went from working twenty-five hours a week in term time to being rota-ed for about ten. It was not even enough to pay my rent.

But others who worked in the shop were sometimes flaky. Although my availability for hours was weekends and times when I did not have lectures or seminars, I would often get a call: ‘can you come in for six hours? Someone hasn’t shown up.’ And I would go in.

Third year was the year I started skipping lectures. I didn’t make a habit of it; except that I did, because they always called to offer me hours, and I always said yes. I didn’t want to miss classes, but I did.

When I turned up to the classes, I had done the basic reading but nothing more. I had stopped reading anything to accompany the texts. When I knew I would miss the lecture or the tutorial I didn’t read the text either. I was scraping 2.1s on my essays, which I would painstakingly draft and re-draft in the hum of the newspaper office in between churning out articles and re-writing other people’s. In the newspaper office, I learned the difference between a dash and a hyphen, and when to use a semi-colon. I learned how to check sources and get quotes and find stories. But I did not learn much about English Literature in my third year.

Before exams, the hours had dwindled ever more. Others were feeling the pinch; for some, this was their full time job, and they were working less than 20 hours a week. I resigned just before exams, hoping others could take my hours. I went for a newspaper-related scholarship. After all, I had given up evenings and weekends (in between shifts) to the newspaper. I thought I stood a good chance.

The end of third year brought both good and bad news. I did not win the newspaper scholarship. It turned out, being involved in university societies meant you made enemies as well as friends.

The good news was that I had a new job. I was working in a theatre, selling tickets. It was a different world. For one thing, I got to sit down all day for the first time in three years. For another, they were willing to give me ten-hour shifts six days a week during my university’s summer holiday (on the seventh day, I worked as a teaching assistant at a weekend programme for young people; soon, I was a drama and creative writing teacher there). And finally, when the phone wasn’t ringing or customers weren’t queuing, I could read. It was the perfect solution to my problems. No longer exhausted and run off my feet earning minimum wage, suddenly I could draw the wages of a king (€10.50 an hour!) for sitting and reading. I saw Riverdance five times, and loved it each time more than the last.

In the summer, I looked up my exam results online. 66%. I’d got a 2.1. In fact, I had dropped only one per cent from my first and second year results. The difference in not attending lectures and not spending 8 hours a day in the library was one per cent.

Next week, I will write about my final year of university.

You can read about my first year here, my second year here, my fourth year here and my fifth year here.

Second Year (or: desperate for a scholarship)

The summer after first year was filled with work – paid work, and library work. I was surviving on five or six hours of sleep a night and spending the day in the university library. I spent the summer in Dublin so I could keep up my job and my library schedule intact. I read for my courses, and I read for my soul. I read all of Shakespeare’s plays and Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I still loved reading. My first year results were good. I didn’t get a first, but neither did anyone else on my course for that year, so I felt like I had done well. I won a prize for one of my courses, but when I went to collect it they said that it had already been issued and they couldn’t give it to me again. It had been book tokens. They re-printed the certificate, though, which I kept as a reminder that I was not, contrary to how I felt, stupid.

I had worked all summer so that I would not have to work during the first part of the year. The scholarship exams were in April, and term started in October. I had seven months to win the scholarship, and €100 a week to get me there, after rent. For lunch in my first year, I had bought a cup of boiling water (€0.35) and mixed a packet of powder soup into it. This year, I could buy a scone with jam (€1) for lunch. Life was good.

But studying for the scholarship exams was tough. You had to re-learn everything from the first year, including things I hadn’t especially understood the first time around, plus everything in the second year, including courses that hadn’t yet been taught. I went about it the only way I knew how. I read everything, learned quotes for everything, read critics’ essays and learned quotes from them. Somewhere along the way, I had lost any idea of having a critical thought myself.

While I ploughed the bibliographical furrows most the day, the lectures were increasingly disconnected from anything I had ever thought about literature, and the seminars left me feeling more and more out of my depth. I could not have spent more time in the library, but my ideas were all wrong. I had to give a presentation in one seminar. About halfway through my five pages of painstakingly prepared notes, the seminar leader interrupted me, shaking her head and saying, ‘no, no, no! You have got it all wrong. You haven’t thought about it at all.

I had read all the books, but couldn’t understand a thing. It was the intellectual equivalent of ‘all the gear, no idea.’

That said, I felt confident when the exams came around. I couldn’t help but feel confident. No-one else had spent the whole summer in the library. Some people had only started putting serious library time in from January. But I had always been in the library, and, like the slow and steady tortoise, I thought that would work. More than that – it had to work. I had to win the scholarship, and be free from financial stress; be able to eat lunch with my friends who I would surely make and keep when I could go out with them occasionally or buy them a coffee in return for the ones they had bought me. I went into that exam hall – huge and daunting, decked with immense portraits. I had my exam rituals and my lucky pens. I had read everything.

Immediately after the scholarship exams ended, I contracted the worst illness I’ve ever had. My body completely collapsed. But I had to work. With high fever, I worked two jobs under a ‘trial’ basis, only able to keep my tips. I collapsed and was sent home from one, and I stayed in bed and didn’t show up to the other one, which I had forgotten I had.

The day of the announcement came, and I had never been more nervous. I had managed to get a new job, and skilfully managed to get the day off. I silently hoped I would not return to the job, but would spend out my ‘emergency fund’ the rest of the year, safe in the knowledge my rent was paid for the following two years, and more if I did a PhD as I dreamed I would. I remember hanging around the English department with another hopeful before the ceremony started. The Head of English came out, and stopped. He looked at my friend. ‘You’re Tom,’ said the Head of English. ‘I am,’ he replied. The Head of English nodded and continued walking. He hadn’t said anything to me. That’s when I first thought: maybe I haven’t won it.

As it turned out, neither of us had. The long list of names was read out, and I stood with the others at the back of the hall, increasingly despondent. Afterwards, we crowded to the board to see our results. All the English hopefuls, five of us, had got 2.1s – enough to not have to take the summer exams that year. But none of us had reached the magic first – the 70% needed to secure a scholarship. The Head of English sidled up to us. ‘No Scholars in English this year,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘It’s a real shame.’ Given that he had marked the papers, we felt his expressing this sentiment was a little inconsiderate.

In the two months after finding out I hadn’t won a scholarship and was exempt from all exams, I both worked and slacked. I did not go to lectures. I did not go to seminars. I did not go to the library. I did, however, go to the university newspaper. I met some people and started to write. I hung around and hoped I could find a place there.

You can read about my first year at university here, my third year of university here, my fourth year of university here and my fifth year of university here.

Visiting Michaela: an update

Michaela had always been open to anyone who wanted to visit, and we would actively encourage all kinds of people to visit us. We were so proud of what we did, and we naively thought that if only those who disagreed with us could see it in action – see how happy the children were, and see how much they were learning – they would have to concede that what we were doing was right for them.

Unfortunately, our trust in teachers to do the right thing regardless of their preconceptions and biases was broken. Our guides began to report some guests being rude towards them and the school. Some guests were asking inappropriate questions of our guides, who were feeling increasingly anxious about dealing with these kinds of teachers. In December, we had to close our doors to visitors following a serious safeguarding concern. It has taken us some time to look into this concern, and to alter our policy on visitors to ensure our pupils are kept safe.

Since publishing that blog, we have been inundated with emails, Tweets, and direct messages from those who expressed sympathy that we had to take such action; supporters of what we are doing who had really wanted to visit our school. We knew we had to put something in place to ensure that those people would have a chance to come in.

Our pupil guides are incredible, but they are also children. Their confidence and articulate explanations can make even their teachers forget that sometimes, but they are still only children. When you visit our school, we are placing a huge amount of trust in you: to treat our children with kindness and respect, and to never forget that they are only kids – age 11, 12, 13 or 14.

We are also placing a huge amount of trust in our guests to abide by our rules. I wrote before about some inappropriate behaviour of guests. Some people visit our school to soak up every piece of information they can, to find out more, to see what they can take back and implement at their own school. Some people visit with different motivations – to steal resources, or because someone has made them come when they would rather be taking ‘important’ phone calls while their pupil guides wait patiently for them.

It takes a huge amount of time to organise the visits, to complete the logistics, and to train and support the pupil guides. We are happy to take this time if it is to benefit those who are visiting with the right motivation. So, what we need to do is to work out how to tell whether someone is visiting our school because they want to learn something, or whether they are visiting our school because they want to undermine what we are doing.

When people visit our school with a motivation to undermine, not only do they write inaccurate and, frankly, untrue, things about what we do online (my favourite so far has been that teachers do not eat lunch with children – something every single teacher at Michaela does every single day) that damage other people’s perception of our school, but, far, far more importantly, that they put our children at risk. When people come, desperate to prove that what we do doesn’t work, in the face of the evidence in front of their eyes, they put our children at risk. We were hugely naïve to not recognise this sooner.

All staff at Michaela, including our Headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh, visit all kinds of schools all around the country. Our visits have massively impacted on what we do. We often cite King Solomon Academy, Mossbourne, and Dixons Trinity as influencing some of our central ideas and policies, but we have learned something from every school we have visited – even School 21, which many consider our polar opposite, has taught us lots. Because we go to these schools with the mindset to learn. 

So we have now established an application process for visiting Michaela. If you email info@mcsbrent.co.uk, we will ask you to fill out a short form, which will be reviewed by Katharine Birbalsingh or a member of the Senior Team to decide whether the motivation is right. Those who have been kind to us or about us, those who are interested and want to learn from what we do, are welcome to come in. Those who have been rude to us or about us, those who are motivated by the wrong things, are no longer welcome to visit. Any visitor acting in a way deemed inappropriate will immediately be asked to leave. Some schools charge up to £50 per person per visit. We are happy for visitors to come in for free, as long as those visitors are supportive and will not put our children at risk.

Our children are our top priority. Some of our guides are lower ability, and they have been genuinely upset by people visiting who do not like the school, who tell them that the school is bad, and that they are wrong to be happy at Michaela. We hope, desperately hope, that this new policy will be enough to allow those who wish to learn to come in, and to keep our most precious priority, our children, safe and happy.

If you are interested in learning from what we do, please email info@mcsbrent.co.uk for an application to visit Michaela.

First Year (or: why I didn’t drop out in the end)

In a recent conversation about university, I remarked off-hand that ‘I hated university.’ Given that I spent five years there, this is, one would hope, a melodramatic piece of hyperbole. I’m going to write about university in a series of posts, partly to make peace with my time there, and partly to consider some of the pitfalls of the experience which I hope we will be able to prepare our children for in the future. These posts are personal, and I don’t intend for them to be representative of anything other than my own subjective experiences.

 

First year (or: why I didn’t drop out in the end)

Why did I choose to go to university in Dublin? Looking back, it seems like a bizarre choice. My first year of university occurred before the ravages of top-up fees set in, and I was eligible for a full student loan at any UK university. Why travel to another country, with a different currency and, as a foreigner, have no access to student finance? I think the choice was a combination of arrogance and ignorance, not uncommon in 18-year-olds. Arrogance, because I had spent my life surrounded by loving family and wonderful friends, and I assumed I was completely content in and of myself and had no need of these pillars of support; ignorance, because I didn’t recognise quite how hard university would be – intellectually, socially, or financially.

My whole life, I had saved up to go to university, but I was not well-off. I had won an assisted place to a private school, and my fairly posh accent belied my actual circumstances. The long summer after A-levels, I worked two jobs – one five days a week, and the other the two remaining days of the week. I signed up for as many shifts as possible. I remember two things about my jobs that summer: one was walking home at midnight through the eerily silent small town as fast as possible to maximise sleeping hours; one was doing ‘split shifts’ (where you work the lunch shift, have three hours off and then work the dinner shift) and coming home in the three hour break and sleeping. I saved everything. I used to go to the bank and deposit hundreds of pounds worth of tips in pound coins and small change into my account weekly. (They hated me at the bank.)

As a result, I paid for the first term of accommodation and had enough money to not work for my first term at university – if I could live on just under €70 a week. I wanted to focus on reading English and really understanding English Literature at university level. My understanding of what university would be like was formed by Kingsley Amis and Vera Brittain, and was hopelessly out of date. I envisioned evenings spent reading in a common room with hot chocolate, debating the vicissitudes of Victorian literature with equally eager scholars. The reality was somewhat different.

One anecdote perhaps sums up this first year at university. I clearly remember Freshers’ Week because I was reading Ian McEwan’s Atonement. This may well differ from many people’s Freshers’ Week experiences. I shared a room with another girl, and I remember her getting ready to go out. A swarm of other first years came into the room, where I was tucked up in bed in pyjamas, merrily reading. They valiantly attempted to persuade me to join them on their clubbing adventure. I had not been to a club before (I did go clubbing a grand total of five times in my career as a student. I hated it each time) and adored my book. I stayed home and read.

I attended every lecture, even the 9am ones. I queued for the library at ten to 9 every morning. I read everything on the reading list, and I read around each book. I sat at the front in lecture theatres. But I was also horribly out of my depth. I didn’t know what ‘dichotomy’ meant, and this turned out to be quite a pivotal word. Derrida and Fanon absolutely boggled me. I had literally no idea what Foucault was saying. I felt, perhaps for the first time in my life, stupid. Stupid, alone, and very far from home.

A few months in, I plucked up the courage to say this to a fellow first year. To my shock, he said: ‘me too.’ I couldn’t believe it. It seemed like everyone else was having a brilliant time; but the reality was, I wasn’t alone. That conversation gave me the courage to go to my ‘mentor’ – the lecturer assigned to first years to be your helper. She was extremely kind, and said we could look into a transfer to a university closer to home if I was really homesick. But I explained that I wasn’t actually homesick. I was just sick of being broke. By term two, I was working long and unsociable hours – 6pm to 3am Thursday, Friday and Saturday – in a bar. The wages would just about cover my rent, and I lived off the tips. That meant I had between €50 and €120 a week to live on, depending on how busy we had been. Enough to live, and enough to eat; and for that I was very grateful. But closer to home I could get a loan.

The lecturer gave me some advice – if it was money I was worried about, I should stay put. The university offered an extraordinary scholarship programme – free accommodation, including a free evening meal, plus the annual ‘student charge’ (around €750 at that time) paid until the end of your degree, including your postgraduate, and all your postgraduate fees. It seemed too good to be true. All I had to do was pass the scholarship exams in the second year.

The hubris of youth burning bright within me, I decided to stay. I threw myself even more into my studies and stopped resenting work. I had a new goal: win a scholarship and stay in university.

 

You can read about my second year of university here, my third year of university here, my fourth year of university here, and my fifth year of university here.