There are many myths about class in the UK. The repercussions of these myths go largely unchallenged, and individual voices are often lost. In the first of a new series looking at the diversity of stories that make up the working class, Dr Michelle Deininger charts her journey from a council estate in Oxfordshire through her experiences in education to her current role as humanities lecturer at Cardiff University.
I had a moment, a few weeks ago, that left me with a horrible churning feeling that I haven’t experienced in decades and I wasn’t able to shift. I was asked to speak at a careers event for PhD students in arts, humanities and social sciences. The reason I got asked in the first place is that after four years in the post-PhD wilderness, I had been offered a permanent academic job, as a lecturer in humanities, managing and teaching adult education courses for Cardiff University’s Continuing and Professional Education division.
I was asked to speak honestly and openly about my experiences, about the journey from a PhD studentship to a permanent academic post. And I did just that, detailing my successes and failures, the jobs I wanted, the jobs I didn’t get, and the jobs I couldn’t take. I also talked about being working class, and being a parent, and the challenges that I had had to overcome in order to stand at the front and speak to the students in the first place. It should have been a moment of triumph, of being able to own the success that had been so elusive for so long. But it didn’t quite turn out that way. I was one of five speakers, and at the end, the PhD students could choose to sit with three different speakers in turn and quiz them more about their educational journey and experiences. No one came to sit at my table. Not once. The feeling in the pit of my stomach was something that I recognised – of feeling out of place, awkward, unwanted. I was someone who did not belong.
I choked back tears, and got on with it, warmly welcomed to a different table by a colleague from another department. Being included made the feeling dissipate for a while. But it came back. A few days later I found myself reading a couple of stories on twitter about class, social mobility and higher education and I made the connection between that feeling in my stomach and the memories it evoked. I started writing a thread, unsure where the story was going exactly, but knowing that the feelings were deeply interconnected.
In the 1990s, I was a working-class kid, from a council estate just outside Oxford, where no one went to sixth form, let alone university. There was a hierarchy amongst the estates at school. Blackbird Leys was considered the roughest, marginally worse than Barton. Kidlington was OK, while Rose Hill and Wood Farm weren’t too bad. Greater Leys didn’t exist yet. I was from Blackbird Leys, which had gained much notoriety as the joyriding capital of Europe in 1991. I remember having a massive silver sports bag for school books, a huge purple puffy coat, and a perm.
At some point in the academic year of ’92-3, the local upper school (we had a weird, three tier system) came to do a talk about options for GCSE. The teachers talked up the fact that a certain (woeful) percentage of students got five grades at A-C. I thought, quite frankly, that this was a pile of unacceptable, mediocre crap and that I wanted better for myself. I told my parents I wasn’t happy. I asked my parents to look elsewhere. Sometime around this time, they stumbled upon the Conservative Government’s Assisted Places Scheme and they took me to a local independent school to have a look around. I remember I had an interview with the headmistress and we talked a lot about my reading, especially The Lord of the Rings and The Chalet School.
Not long after, I took the entrance exam. For geography, I was given a map of Australia to label and I wrote Alice Springs on every arrow as I knew at some point it would have to be right. In maths, I wrote lots of question marks and made a hole in the tracing paper. I was years behind where I should have been and I still, to this day, struggle with basic things like shape and volume. Maths was the one subject where I never caught up. In the French oral exam, the teacher felt sorry for me, partly because I’d had a retainer fitted a few days before and was speaking like I’d shoved cotton wool in my mouth, but mostly because I knew so little. I understood some of the questions, but I couldn’t reply. In between exams, I was looked after by some current students. They did not have perms. Or purple coats. Or big silver sports bags. They were really nice, complimenting me on my stripy jumper (that I had borrowed from my mum) and they had beautiful hair. But that’s when I realised I was different.
I assume I probably failed some of the elements of the geography, maths and French exams, but I know I aced the English papers. The school secretary commented on my beautiful handwriting and the turquoise ink I’d used on the essays. I knew I could write, and I think that shone through. In the spring of ’93, I was given a place at the independent school, funded by an Assisted Place that was meant for the year group above me (so, a year less than I needed to complete my studies). Ah, the Assisted Places Scheme, the Tory social mobility project. It would pay up to the full tuition fee, at eligible schools, dependent on the level of parental income. I know that, in the past, there has been a lot of criticism of the scheme, and how it was supposedly milked by middle-class parents who had clever accountants. But we were in the income bracket where we never paid a penny towards the fees. We were, in all honesty, dirt poor. My dad doesn’t know this, but I used to find the rent arrears letters in the kitchen drawer and cry because I knew we didn’t have enough to manage.
What the scheme didn’t cover was the extras, like the charges for books, and trips, and dinner money. There was a uniform grant at the beginning, but it didn’t cover everything, especially as the uniform could only be bought from a specific (and obviously expensive) shop. I never had any replacements. I soon noticed that other people’s parents didn’t have problems paying the dinner money fees, which were due in termly instalments. My dad was a self-employed gardener and never got paid on time. Once, the dinner money was so far in arrears that my place was in jeopardy and my gran, a cleaner, had to step in and pay it. At middle school, it was a scrape to find the money weekly, let alone in a lump sum. We qualified for free school meals in the state sector but we couldn’t claim them in an independent school. I also noticed that when other students made holes in their jumpers or, in my case, squirted bright yellow acrylic paint up my sleeve, there would be new uniform. We’d only had powder paint at middle school, often in short supply, so I had no idea acrylic was as enduring as permanent marker. The other thing I noticed was that other people’s clothes didn’t smell like cigarette smoke. I always smelt like smoke. “Why do you smell?” they’d say. “Why do you smoke?” they’d ask. I have never smoked, but my mum would have been on around 30 a day back then.
There were other things, too. Like having to bring a sewing kit for Domestic Science, or whatever those sewing and cooking lessons were called. (I found them hellish.) I didn’t know how to make quiche or fairy cakes and I’d never used a sewing machine before, which either made the teachers angry or bemused. “I like your sewing kit,” a girl said. Did she really? Everyone else had department store baskets. I had a converted ice-cream tub, covered in maroon felt and lace. My mum tried really hard with that, and I kept it for years afterwards.
I also had to learn Latin. And like every working-class Cinderella, I had a fairy godmother who was a former Classics teacher. Well, actually, my Irish Catholic grandmother cleaned the house of a very rich (and equally Catholic) former Classics teacher. I don’t know quite how she ended up being my godmother, but she did teach me Latin. Every Saturday morning in the lead up to my independent school debut, my dad would drop me round there. I’d learn how to decline magister and bellum, and the difference between amo, amas, amat while he cut the grass for some other posh woman up the road. Nearly a decade later, my grandmother would die of a heart attack on the back steps of my godmother’s house, in the middle of her shift. She had cleaned that house for over forty years and had hoped that I would one day inherit the piano. (I didn’t. I also can’t play).
When I got to the school, it took me about a year to catch up. I was like a sponge. The entrance exam had already shown me that my knowledge was vastly inadequate, and I worked really hard to prove myself. I thrived on the education I received. Before, I had been the kid who was bullied for being a “brain box”. In middle school, a gang of girls hid my lunch bag behind a toilet cistern for a whole term for fun. A boy called me ugly, stole my coat and threw it in someone’s garden. No one wanted me in their team, unless it was a quiz. But at the independent school, there was none of that kind of crap. Learning was OK. In fact, doing well academically was what was expected of everyone. (I just couldn’t catch a bus in case anyone from my estate saw me in my very distinctive uniform.)
But there was a different kind of crap. Aside from being smelly and keeping my needle and thread in an ice-cream tub, the feeling of being different was just as isolating. Once, a girl told me that her father simply didn’t believe in council housing. How do you respond to someone’s inherited disdain for the very structure that keeps you safe at night? Another time, a girl asked if she could buy my dad’s rusty sherpa van, which transported all his gardening equipment. She thought the van was cool. She was joking about buying it, I think, but she had no idea that relying on a vehicle could be so important to maintaining an income. She works in broadcasting now, and I’m sure she could afford a sparkly new one all of her own.
But the grown-ups were worse. The Bursar (I admit I had no idea what one of these was for years) once asked me politely in the lunch queue, “So what does your father do?” When I said that he was a gardener, he queried if he worked in landscaping. When I said no, he blushed and turned away. I think this was the first time that I felt ashamed of my family’s background, and without really understanding why. Landscaping was OK, thirteen-year-old me could tell, but plain gardening was not.
There were lots of other little things, but it’s the shame I remember most. A few years later, my English teacher came up to me in the hush as assembly was about to start. “Don’t worry,” she said, “We know your parents can’t afford the trip, so the school will pay.” She meant well, I think (looking back), but I wished the ground would swallow me up.
Eventually, my assisted place ran out (remember, it was a year short) and there was no more funding as New Labour scrapped the scheme within days of coming into power. The money would be used to improve primary education by cutting nursery class sizes to no more than 30. I remember being so worried that I wouldn’t be able to finish my A levels. In the end, the school stepped in and used part of a scholarship to pay for the final year.
Looking back, I can hardly believe how much time I spent worrying about money when the whole point of the scheme was supposed to raise my aspirations. And to take me away from the council house, the sherpa van, the cigarette smoke, the perm, the puffy purple coat, and the massive silver sports bag. If aspiration was the main point, to be socially mobile, then it worked. But at what cost? The cost of always feeling less than good enough? Always having a point to prove? Of never feeling like I truly belonged?
By late 1997, I held an offer to study an undergraduate degree in English Language and Literature at St Anne’s College, Oxford University. My dad took me to the interview, dressed in his gardening clothes. The woman in charge told him to get out. While I was waiting to be called, I sat on the floor reading a book of poetry. I remember my boots were made of plastic and I didn’t like them all that much. When it was my turn, the student running the desk mocked my surname, complaining it was unpronounceable and foreign. (These days, my strange and supposedly unpronounceable name serves me well – it’s not an easy one to forget, especially on a publication).
The interview was intense, but I was not phased. I even enjoyed it, in a weird way. I did, however, realise I had been pronouncing Coleridge wrong the whole time. The lecturer interviewing me corrected me as she sat across from me in her study filled with books, curled up on a sofa with no shoes on.
But kids from Blackbird Leys did not go to university and they certainly did not go to Oxford. All I needed was three perfect A grades in English Literature, History and Latin. I was the only person in my Latin class. It was a bit lonely. I wasn’t very good at it, but I thought it would be a waste of all those Saturday mornings with my godmother not to take it and I loved the poetry, when I could decipher it.
I remember turning up at school to pick up my grades. My parents waited in the car. We’d got rid of the sherpa van by this point. My dad had given up on the self-employed gardening and had finally become a salaried employee. Still a gardener, but paid regularly, and on time.
When I went inside the hall, no one would look at me. I knew it was bad. My hands were shaking. But I’d known all along I wouldn’t do it. I’d missed loads of lower sixth, partly from illness and partly from just not showing up. The strain of feeling out of place took its toll. One day I had got to school after a tortuously long bus ride and had walked back out again, because I couldn’t be in the same room as all the other girls. Looking back now, I can see my self-worth and confidence were on the floor.
I came back to the car, clutching my two Bs and a C, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget the look on my mum’s face. I’d not only missed Oxford by miles, but I’d also failed to meet my insurance offer by a grade, too. The embarrassment of having to tell friends and family that no, I hadn’t done it, was awful. I went off to a campus in Surrey feeling like a failure.
I’d picked the Surrey campus because I’d visited it at a UCAS fair and I knew it was small. I had applied to a few other universities, but the grades they expected were no lower than Oxford. I was the first in my family to pass more than one qualification at secondary level. No one knew how to help me choose somewhere I would fit in. I’d moved from Blackbird Leys to the midst of the Home Counties, where everyone had attended good schools, still had nice hair and went home at weekends to places like Windsor or Virginia Water. I didn’t fit in.
I shared a room with an old school friend to save money but I still had none. My grant cheque was delayed and I didn’t understand how to apply for a student loan. I lived off supanoodles and dropped to under eight stone.
I hated the linguistics seminars and I wrote a whole essay on a topic I did not understand but still passed it. The critical theory classes were taught in a physics lab, where the tutor was always in a strop and made me feel stupid when I didn’t grasp something straight away and would pick on students who weren’t able or didn’t want to speak up. Years later, when I taught first years myself, I made sure I never made my students feel like that. Another tutor, who taught the novel course, said my writing was good – she said a bit more of a push and I’d be first class. I wanted to tell her how unhappy I was feeling, but I couldn’t make the words come out of my mouth.
In the meantime, my A level English Literature was upgraded to an A. I was one of five students in my year to have received a whole grade lower than was fair due to a so-called rogue examiner. I made the front page of the Oxford Mail. My mum was misquoted, and I sounded like a brat.
I lasted a term at the Surrey campus. It felt like an extension of school. My personal tutor didn’t know my name when I turned up to withdraw. No one noticed me quietly slip away and give up.
A few years later, with two small children in tow, I did some evening classes and completed another A level, this time in Philosophy. That went OK, so I moved on to a part-time foundation certificate in English Language and Literature at Oxford University, in the Continuing Education Department.
This is the moment where everything changed for me. I still had very little confidence. I still felt like a failure, deep down. But I had the most amazing tutors, including Anna Beer, Emma Smith, David Grylls and Clare Connors, and I started to believe in myself again. The course was the same as the first year of the Oxford degree but spread out over two years via weekly seminars. I was free to attend lectures during the day in the English Faculty and I would often go to Emma Smith’s Shakespeare lectures. She would always say hello to Foundation students and make us feel welcome. I also went to Deborah Cameron’s amazing lectures and started to wonder if I had been wrong about linguistics.
I had another go at the Oxford interview, as my course could be used to gain direct entry to the second year of the degree. When I was being taken to the interview room, the student helper looked puzzled as one of the cleaners, or ‘scouts’, hugged me as I walked past her on the landing. She had known me since I was little.
But I was not the same person who had flown through the interview last time, and my words kept getting stuck. I was given a poem by Seamus Heaney that I didn’t really understand. In the second interview, I talked a bit about The Yellow Wallpaper as an allegory about postnatal depression but I couldn’t get my love for literature into coherent sentences. In the feedback, after the rejection letter, they said I was too personal in my responses. I was disappointed, but I didn’t feel heartbroken.
The same week I came to Cardiff for an interview and fell in love with the place. It felt welcoming and homely; the Humanities Café was scruffy but friendly. The admissions tutor gave me a grilling about my course, gruffly admitting that students applying for direct entry were a risk, and mature students even more so. He finally accepted that I was more than ready, possibly because I told him how much I had enjoyed studying Spenser’s Fairy Queene – a poem he focused on for a whole module. (I didn’t mention that I wished Book 1 had actually been about the monster Error, who is part woman, part serpent, and vomits chunks of flesh, books and papers, instead of the knight’s quest.) Even so, he demanded I achieve a distinction, at 70%, to take up my place. I got 71.
Skip forward over a decade and here I am with a PhD and a lecturing job, teaching adult learners, and running a programme that’s very similar to the one that gave me a second chance at education. I also research overlooked and forgotten women writers from Wales, which is a kind of cultural reconnection I never expected to have. Growing up, we used to come for holidays in Ely, staying with my great aunt Ruby. My grandad used to joke about the Ely riots, and how my dad should watch no one stole his van tyres, but it didn’t seem that much different to Blackbird Leys and I always felt welcome.
My grandad had moved from the valleys, then to Canton in Cardiff, then to London, looking for work. He ended up in Oxford, as a second chef in one of the college kitchens. His parents had wanted to make sure that he didn’t end up down the mines, so they encouraged him to move away. Wales was always my second home. We used to spend summers in Victoria Park in Canton, back when it had a proper paddling pool, and eating chips and ice creams on Barry Island, long before Gavin and Stacey made it iconic. There is something quite beautiful in retracing that journey west, and to have finally found a space that feels a bit more like home. I still feel awkward, uncomfortable and out of place a lot, but it’s more manageable now. Researching working-class women writers who felt the same certainly helps. But what I’ve noticed, more than ever, is that these feelings also start to fall away when a student comes to see me and says “I can’t do this – this is not for people like me” and I can say: I understand, I know, and it feels horrible, but education is for you. You can do this. And I will help you.
Writing this piece has become something of a cathartic process, finally admitting and acknowledging the impact that the Assisted Places Scheme, and its promise of social mobility, had on my sense of self-esteem. I wonder now what it would have been like if there had been a teacher at my school who had properly understood what it meant to have come from nothing, rather than simply empathising, too loudly, with the plight of the awkward kid with the bad hair and too-bright clothes. I do know that virtually all of my friends, and the girls I wanted to be my friends, were also on the same scheme, but I wasn’t to find this out for many years. It was as if we all recognised, in some unspoken way, that we were all different. Each of us have had challenges to overcome, in the way we choose to live our lives, the careers we have striven to establish, the people we have fought to become. Our twenty year reunion is coming up in June. I don’t know if I’ll go. Seeing some of those faces on the event list was like walking back into Domestic Science and feeling like I was the only one who didn’t know how to make a fairy cake.
After I wrote the thread, I was contacted by a number of working-class academics as well as former Assisted Place students, who understood what I was trying to say. In my pigeonhole at work, I found a beautiful postcard from Emma Smith, with a Shakespearean quotation on the front, thanking me for sharing my story. Both friends and strangers messaged me to say they had been reading along, in real time, and that the ice-cream tub anecdote had made them cry. In those moments, the feeling I had as I sat at that empty table, that I didn’t belong, was worth it. For all its discomfort, it has made me feel part of a wider network, a community of people who have had similar experiences. People who understand. And I know I do belong here, I have something to say, and you are listening.