Friday, 16 March 2007

What did your Daddy do ?

There's some fuss today about the idea that school leavers should indicate on their application forms whether or not their parents went to university.

This is doubtless a well-intentioned attempt to enable positive discrimination for kids who don't have the advantage of coming from an 'educated' background. And as such I don't have a problem with that.

When I applied for Oxbridge (almost 20 years + ago) there were a couple of questions asking about parents' occupations and what newspapers were read at home. This was little more than a clumsy way of asking 'what class are you from?' At that time I was not at all sure that this was well-intentioned and in fact suspect that it was a mechanism for filtering out 'oiks' like me.

Trouble is that these days although it sadly remains true that working class kids are a lot less likely than middle class kids to progress into higher education, on the other hand higher education now no longer makes you middle class.

In part this is because of the decline of so many skilled working class jobs. I know this from personal experience - in the print industry craftsmen with four or even seven year apprenticeships were once considered to be the top of the pecking order; now a common route into the industry is as a graphic design / media studies graduate.

But also my own family background demonstrates that class and education do not necessarily have an automatic correlation.

My parents could both be considered as coming from lower middle / upper working class backgrounds and both came to higher education through rather indirect routes in their mid-twenties. Dad went into the print industry from school, then went to university, then back to the print industry. Mum went to teacher training college having left school at 16 and doing some fairly odd jobs including working in an admiralty laboratory. Now I too work in the print industry, having also gained a degree in an academic discipline of no relevance to my job.

The result is that my family believe very much in education for its own sake rather than as a means to 'getting on'. Although perhaps not usual, such an idea is not uncommon, particularly in the labour movement. The great socialist educationalist John Maclean spoke about wanting to 'rise with his class not above it'.

So yes by all means let's encourage more working class kids to continue education. But rather than spurious questions about family and positive discrimination, how about the simple expedient of abolishing fees and restoring the grant on the basis that education to the limit of one's abilities is a right for life and not a privilege ? Until then class and education will always be intertwined.

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