Recently there has been a great deal of fuss made over the fact that the elite universities are not admitting a fair number of kids from ‘bog standard comprehensives’ and even going so far as to blame the teachers for this phenomenon, but I was astounded when I read this! This ‘academic’ has the temerity to claim that working class people have a lower IQ, and therefore shouldn’t expect to gain a place in ‘elite’ universities! That this is a meritocracy, nothing more.
I, for one, take offense at this!
Definitions of ‘class’ are complicated, and depend on which direction you are coming from. Is class defined by culture, by income, by outlook? My grandparents were definitely working class, and this is how my parents were both brought up. Two of my uncles on my dad’s side are postmen, but the other is currently a university lecturer. My father got decent A levels and worked his way up through the ranks of a well known department store to a senior management position and later did a degree in computer programming. My mother works for a well known supermarket, where she started as an assistant, and now she’s management. This is my background, this is how I was brought up. Am I working class, or middle class?
We always had enough money, even if it was tight sometimes, and I never had free school meals, so, financially at least, we were just about middle class.
I always had books and computers in the house, my parents encouraged me to read anything and everything, bought me musical instruments and music when I wanted to play and sent me on exchange visits to hone my language skills. Culturally, then, I am middle class.
My parents were very definitely working class, at least in upbringing, but they were also clever, and they worked hard to ensure that my brothers and I all got a good start in life. They passed on to us the traditionally working class values of a good work ethic, an understanding of the value of money and the need to be thrifty, and most importantly a knowledge of the importance of the family network. When I was old enough, I voted labour (back when that meant something), I am accepted and loved by my predominantly working class family and I flinch when I hear something like this. In many ways I still identify with the working classes.
I excelled at school, and found everything easy. I got fantastic GCSE and A level grades, due as much to good schooling and parental support as to my own abilities. I got these at a bog standard comprehensive in a former industrial town in the North East (incidentally, Dr Charlton is a professor at Newcastle university). I won a place at Oxbridge, and went too.
If my dad had everything I had, he would have got into Oxbridge too. I firmly believe that. Whether he would have wanted to go is another matter entirely. The elite universities have a culture that is a mystery to the working class. They have lunch, then dinner, whereas we have dinner and tea. They have matriculations in latin, gowns in formal hall, beautiful old buildings with lawns you’re not allowed to walk on and sherry with the fellows once a term. Pimms and croquet, a hearty rowing culture and special names for their exams. They are full to busting with people entirely comfortable with this way of life, not wonder the working classes are reluctant to apply there, especially when they come from a family where no one ever lives more than a thirty minute drive from the others. That’s just the culture. Almost all the other students went to public schools or grammar schools, are widely read and super clever. You have to be very bright indeed, and very confident, to hold your own in such company. I am speaking from experience, not stereotypes when I describe this way of life. I had a great time during my one year there before I failed and moved on, but I never truly felt I belonged. This is the problem. Bright young people from working class communities don’t necessarily want this life.
That’s just the culture. What about the money? In this era of top up fees and general high cost of living, it’s no wonder that students from lower income families would prefer to stay at home and save some of the costs of living and studying elsewhere. There was a student in my Oxbridge college who had everything paid for him, always bought people drinks at the bar, because he always had the money and had a charge card for the main book shop in town. I had to scrip and save my meagre student loan, plus what my parents could afford to give and an overdraft allowance to be able to afford books and day to day expenses.
Academically? Oxbridge conjures up images of almost casual intelligence. Philosophical chats over Pimms, poetry readings in dark cafés and one on one tutorials with the most intelligent people in the country. This is perhaps a little daunting for someone from a Comp, who has perhaps been beaten up for playing in the band, attending a chess club or getting 10 out of 10 on a test, or whose parents believe they should get their noses out of those books and go and earn some money.
If the middle classes do have a higher IQ it’s because they have had all the opportunities in the world to develop their intelligence. Because they have been socialised into a culture where intelligence is rewarded, not scorned. This academic believes this is meritocratic. The middle classes are smarter and therefore deserve it more. Rubbish! The middle classes have an almost unassailable advantage over the working classes.
The elite universities are often so far removed from the day to day reality of many working class communities that it’s no wonder they’re not applying for them. They’re an impenetrable world meant for other people, for the upper classes, people with money and brains, not for them. This is the problem. These universities can admit students if they don’t apply.
I don’t mean to say that students from comprehensive schools shouldn’t apply to elite universities, quite the opposite. The ancients in particular (Oxford, Cambridge, Durham) along with the London Universities and the major city red brick institutions provide an excellent launch into a world of work where the source of a degree is becoming increasingly more important. We need to know what barriers exist, so that we can abolish them. I hope that as a teacher I will play a small part in this, but attitudes like Dr Charlton’s can only harm the situation.