I’m a huge fan of Chris Hildrew’s blog, and browsing around recently I stumbled over this post on his experience of education. It really inspired me, and caused me to write about what education means to me.
The story, as with so much of what makes me who I am, starts with my Mum. One of seven children, my Mum was the only one to end up in her local grammar school. And she didn’t even pass the eleven plus; the teachers at her new school just thought a mistake had been made when she got there and referred her on.
Grammar school was great for my Mum, and she has always spoken fondly of it. But there are times when her stories have a wistful tone: only one other girl in her year spoke with the same “Suffolk accent” my Mum had (the rest of her side of the family still sport amazing accents; Mum has since dampened hers greatly), and girls used to make fun of the council houses to the extent that my Mum was sometimes ashamed and avoided telling her classmates she lived in one.
At that school, it was discovered she had a huge talent for sport. A coach took her under his wing and opened up a world of opportunity for her through athletics. He even bought her a pair of spikes so she would be able to compete at a higher level, and invited her to dinner at his family’s house, where she experienced a whole different kind of life. Passing all her O-levels well, the teachers pleaded with my Mum to stay on and do her A-levels there. Mum, who had never been outside Suffolk, chose to join the army and to see the world.
She had some experiences in the army that make me feel very proud to be her daughter, and learned a lot – none of it examined, all of it priceless. But when it came to my education, I think she had started to feel like she wanted something different for me. On leaving the army, she found that the world was a very different place, and education was gaining a top billing. I remember my parents arguing when I was around 9 about how they’d be able (or not able) to pay for me to go to University one day. Hugging me after, I reassured Mum: “I’m not going to go to University.”
Soon after, Mum set about finding a way for me to get a better education. At my current school, I was sat at the back of my English class with a textbook, working through it, as the teachers didn’t seem to know what to do with me; in other lessons, like Science and Maths, I was pitifully behind, and tended to mess around to avoid doing the work.
Despite a difficult financial situation as a newly single mother, Mum found a way. She’d heard of Assisted Places, which would cover almost all the fees of a private school, and she was determined I would win one.
I sat an entrance exam for our local private school. I failed it. Something tells me my Mum intervened, and before you know it the Headmaster, David Kidd, had me in the school’s library looking through my paper with me.
“Your English was brilliant,” he told me, “but you’ve scored almost nothing on this Maths paper. What happened? Did you rush it?” I shrugged. He decided to take me through the questions I’d answered incorrectly.
“How about this one? What’s the perimeter of the field. How do you find out the perimeter?” I looked blankly back at him. I had literally never heard that word before. He explained to me, patiently and kindly, what it was, and I answered correctly.
He did that for every question I’d answered wrong, without once making me feel stupid or inadequate. It took a considerable length of time.
I’ll always be grateful for Mr Kidd. Years after I left the prep school, he’d greet me by name in passing. That day, he went to my Mum and told her: “she can do it, but she hasn’t been taught it.” He also put me in the top set for Maths. The level of belief in my potential is something I’m still coming to terms with. The woman who went on to teach me Maths for the next 5 years, who sat me at the front and made me focus, who told me off without raising her voice above a whisper, has inspired me hugely in my own teaching career (Mrs Meadows-Smith: I don’t know how I got an A, but I know it is 100% down to you).
The pitfalls of my own education, however, ran parallel to my Mum’s. I didn’t have siblings to feel estranged from, but I knew that my old friends viewed me differently, especially when my accent changed. Well-meaning friends from my new school who came to my house were often surprised at how small it was, just as I was equally astonished at the vastness of theirs. Although I made some of my best friends at school, I can’t help but feel there is a chasm between us – the only difference being their safety net, perhaps.
I have to stress: I was never made to feel different at school because of my background, either by teachers or by students. But I was, and I felt it keenly, and I wonder today if what I gained in academics I lost in feeling like an ill-fitting piece of a puzzle for so much of my time at secondary school. Like Chris Hildrew, I went on to study English at University; unlike Chris, it was not Oxford, though I sorely wanted it to be. I wanted everyone to see that my transformation was complete: I belonged in that elite world.
At university, I felt even more out of place; there didn’t seem to be anyone like me. Everyone who had gone to a private school didn’t have my financial concerns; everyone who had gone to a state school assumed my background was very different to theirs. I started to feel ashamed of where I had gone to school, as if I was somehow at university by virtue of my privilege – which is also exactly right. It was a privilege fought for, tooth and nail, by my ambitious Mother.
When I heard of Teach First, I knew what I had to do. Education had put me where I was: one amazing teacher had taken a shot on me, and I’d done well. I dreamed of a world where all children, regardless of background, go to a fantastic, local school, as wonderful as the one I attended. I wanted to make that a reality for everyone. We are all entitled to learn and achieve, and we are all entitled to fit in to both our school and our community.
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