Sons who wear T shirts with slogans, and inheritance from Grandad

I have been travelling around with my boy looking at universities. I inherited strong views about education from my father and a strong belief that education has the potential to change and transform lives.

My parents bought their three bedroomed smart new house in the 1950s. In our cul de sac my father was always proud that our street was full of educated men and men with “qualifications” the professional classes. Growing up in a city that was bombed to the ground my parents lived in poverty for most of forties. Mum and dad had such different experiences of education. Mum was sent up the road to what appears to be a poor secondary school. Mum is left handed, but was made to write and do tasks right handed which naturally made her struggle at school.  She was at fourteen told to leave school and get a job. No qualifications and no trade her destiny was as a shop girl and also as the youngest child to stay at home and keep house for her ageing parents. I have always had the impression that meeting my Dad in her late twenties profoundly changed my Mum’s life and also he introduced to books, current affairs and having some dreams and aspirations.

My Mum is one of the wisest women I know. She has emotional intelligence and is well read and is creative and has amazing practical skills. As a child my Mum designed and made all our clothes creating the latest fashions out of scraps of fabric. She also knitted, baked, gardened and kept house. She had a talent for being able to make anything with “making do”.  Yet she has always felt her whole life held back from her lack of education and her subsequent perception that she is “thick”.   These days I would like to think my Mums “learning difficulties” would be assessed and possibly being diagnosed with dyslexia her creative talents would have been encouraged.

Reflecting on this I can see that this is my youngest son’s experiences. His statement and support he receives at school will hopefully allow him to reach his full potential. I have battled for some of this support but it is worth taking a moment to be thankful for how far we have come with our education systems and schools.  The school he attends does not see his difficulties with reading or writing as a barrier to achievement.

Funnily how stuff gets handed down or indeed parenting ideas get in inherited. As children my Mum regularly bought us as special treats drawing books and pens. I can still now remember with a smile always starting a holiday with a new sketchbook, and the excitement of all those lovely bright colours of felt tip pens! Youngest boy the other day sat in his bedroom drawing was requesting whether he could please have a new sketchbook as his latest one was full. So even in this world of laptops the pleasure of drawing and doodling here lives on!

I digress.

Back to reflections on higher education and indeed my lovely Dad.  Growing up in Plymouth most fathers  worked in the dockyard and this was my Grandfather’s expectation for his son. My father passed his 11+ and was offered a scholarship to the high performing fee paying boy’s college. He couldn’t go as his parents couldn’t afford the uniform. Attending the local boy’s high school with cheaper uniform my father took  the Old School Cert passing with highest marks in science and Maths. Having his final interview with the Head his father got told “you should be kicked around the parish for allowing this boy to leave school he should be staying on to study”. At sixteen my father was in the dockyard working like most sons alongside his father.

So my father like many went to night school. As a child and indeed young adult I always took my father’s profession as an engineer and draughtsman for granted. But can you imagine how much hard work it would have been? He would have done a full hard weeks work and in the evenings would have been studying hard for exams and assignments. There would have been no grants so he would have used all his spare money on this. No wonder he was so proud to be a member of the Chartered Institute of Engineers.

So let’s skip my generation of art student to Masters in social policy and social work because yes my Dad was proud of me. So many of us from the “working class made good” background through grant system were the first to go to university or college as we called it then!

Back to large teen boy. He has worked so hard and is now looking at universities to undertake a science degree probably physics.  I can’t help thinking we have skipped a generation. He has my father’s logic and talent for Maths and science. Through me he also has his passion for a subject and a drive somehow to want to do well.  So we are looking at the top universities for Physics. To be honest it has been a jolly old time travelling the UK in the sunshine visiting some of the finest educational institutions in the worlds let alone the UK.

I however  still have that feeling that higher end of higher education in this country is still for the privileged and for the middle and upper classes. Not only that but I have been struggling doing it all alone.  Let me explain:

Firstly the cost: I keep having whispered conversations in halls   of residence bedrooms with other parents “how much is it all going to cost/oh this room is cheaper than >>>>uni etc.” Yes I know it is a loan / low income gets more help etc. But as a parent when you know deep down your opportunities to support your son will be limited you have to question the proposal to laden himself with £50k worth of debt?

The UCAS systems: I always thought I was pretty savvy re-education. After all I have taught with the OU and did my Masters at The LSE.  In this house we missed a fair few open days as we did not know to look early enough. I have spent hours looking at prospectus, UCAS systems and form filling and am still not sure if I am any the wiser – I shall keep you posted! All of this is very time consuming and hurtling around the UK is indeed costly in days off, travelling etc.

Speaking the speak and walking the walk: Being able to talk the language of higher education and enabling your little voice to be heard at these institutions is a challenge in itself. I have been surrounded by men with sensible haircuts, blue oxford button down shirts and brogues. Were surrounded by a sea of privately educated girls and boys from public schools armed with the right list of questions and teacher.  I have been a little shocked at the prejudice son has experienced not looking the look or doing the walk but causing astonishment with answering the right question in physics or maths at right time.

Getting the grades: Right here is the deal. Cambridge assure us they only look at A level grades and only 3 at that and then interview. My boy is at average sixth form with average class size and average teaching. An exceptionally bright boy he studies hard and is getting those high grades. If there was ever a boy who truly deserves a place at University it is he. I wept this week as the realisation that if he was at an “exceptional sixth form” with small class sizes and excellent teaching with all the support others have around them he would walk it for a place at Cambridge. So you see “getting the grades” appears a principle of equality but how hard my boy must peddle to get there.

I am working hard to overcome all of this. I am also working hard to protect my boy from it. So I have developed a strategy-

–          We are above class as we are “bohemian” darling. This includes wearing arty clothes to open days developing a neutral accent

–          Alluding to art college but more so my time doing Masters at London school of Economics (which I hated as was so posh and couldn’t understand a word anyone said!)

–          Polishing and wearing the armour of single parenthood.

–          Comparing the cost and fees of higher education in other countries like USA – makes £50k look a bargain!

–          Remembering that everyone was has right to higher education and my hard working taxes contribute

–          My son is amazing for going that extra mile on his own studying without support of privilege and his talent and intelligence will shine


We looked at Churchill College last week and loved it. It is a modern Cambridge University built in memory of Churchill.  Many of the universities we have visited have memorials to other great men and women. I have this week taken a moment to remember my Dad. Mum and I shed a tear the other night. He would have been so proud that his son was considering an Oxbridge application. I suspect as a young man without the lap top, phone and dyed hair my Father was much like my son or indeed like Granddad like son.  Through me he has inherited his values and principles of fairness and equality and I like to think that Mr Churchill might have his college but working class men and women of same generation live on through the hopes and aspirations of their grandchildren.

My Dad would have been proud. Large boy returned home last weekend cut his hair and has decided that he will be presenting a “neutral look” for university interviews. He is beginning to play the game thought cannot see him in a shirt, smart shorts, pair of brogues or leather moccasins just yet.



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