25 July 2009

My roller coaster education ride

By Juliette Harkin

Last week's One World Column, on the lack of access to education for bright, working class students, reminded me of my own unpleasant experience as a school leaver in Thatcher's Britain. Like many 16 year olds, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I ended up wasting my potential, when my local careers service sent me on a youth training programme for 'problem' teenagers. I was not really a problem teenager; just undecided and unaware of what possible opportunities there might be out there. Yet, there seemed to be an assumption, based on class, that I should have no aspirations and should train for factory work.

In my twenties, after a series of dead end jobs, I finally went to college, studying Business and Finance, and took up my dad's advice to learn how to type – a skill which later enabled me to get a temporary job at the BBC, where I was able to work my way up through the grades. Whilst at college our lecturer, Sally McCabe, encouraged students to apply for a place at university. This had never occurred to any of us and we had no idea that we might be able to go on with our studies. Sally, a high flier from the City who had burnt out and come into teaching, changed my life.

Even now with the more accessible information about higher education, the important ingredient is encouragement and the belief that you are capable and that you can succeed in your studies. Being the first in my family to go to college and university, I was from one of many homes that do not have the tradition and assumptions of a formal education. My dad was relentless in his attempts to get his four children into proper and secure jobs, but none of us had found our way and the large scale unemployment of the 1980s fuelled insecurity and squashed confidence.

This year I will graduate from Oxford University with a Masters in Modern Middle Eastern Studies. I was double the age of most of my fellow students and rarely, if at all, did I come across someone who was not being generously funded by their parents. I have felt like an Alice in Wonderland, in an academic environment which has its own strange and plentiful rules and quirks. It was a tough course for me, having been away from education for nearly twenty years, but, it was an experience that made me acutely aware of my own background and exposed for me the inequality of our education system. At Oxford I was convinced that entry is and should be based on merit, but this is just the beginning. Progress for bright students is held back by a lack of access to funding and other financial support. This seems unfair and arbitrary. It was a roller coaster ride in which I saw how some very privileged students receive, as young undergraduates, a very high quality education based on one-to-one tuition in which they are pushed to develop their writing and analytical skills. The thing that had the most impact on me though was the supreme confidence of Oxford students – that they can do anything and that they deserve the best. It can be a good thing, if it is harnessed in the right way. But confidence is the hardest quality to instil in a younger and disaffected generation.

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