Thirty years ago I left school aged 16, thoroughly alienated and without a qualification to my name. I don’t think I was a bad student but school didn’t really suit me. Somehow, I never found out what it was I was great at or liked doing. The teachers weren’t particularly good and could be brutal. I recall my PE teacher, Mr Perkins, finding me alone in a corridor of the sports hall, picking me up by my neck and flinging me hard against a wall (I don’t recall why). Not that the school was entirely to blame. I could be disruptive and difficult, particularly when I couldn’t see the value of what I was doing. The continuous ego-bashing bullying I experienced throughout the last two years of compulsory education didn’t help much either. The thought of going into school made me physically sick. I stopped going out after school and after a while I stopped going into school altogether. If my parents were at work I would stay at home. If they were at home I would roam around the park adjacent to the school. I couldn’t face my final exams either, though I told my parents I’d sat them, delaying the inevitable fallout by a few weeks. By the time school finished, formally that is (it had finished for me some time before), I was scared, friendless and utterly lost. After a dismal summer spent dreading the day the exam results came out, I began signing on.
This wasn’t anything unusual at the time. I grew up in a mining town in a period when the industry was being systematically dismantled by the government and most of our fathers were unemployed. After a while, I was told to attend an interview, for a job with British Gas, I think. When I didn’t turn up (my busy schedule of not looking for work, listening to The Smiths and writing terrible poetry didn’t allow it), I was summoned to a meeting where I was told that my unemployment benefit would be stopped if I didn’t go on a Youth Training Scheme at a local glassmaking firm. A year of making tea and running errands ensued (with a bit of mild sexual harassment thrown in). The poetry got a bit better, I read most of the books in Penguin’s Modern Classics series and I started to think about further education and, maybe, doing journalism for a living.
I enrolled at the local technical college, taking the A-levels and GCSEs I needed to get onto an NCTJ ‘pre-entry’ journalism course. It was at the college that I encountered great teaching for the first time, and a brilliant English teacher who made me see myself in a new light. She was smart, funny, interesting and different. She dressed differently and she spoke differently, all of which was pretty inspiring to a lad who was desperate to find a way to be different. Most of all, she was interested and encouraging, quick to see the value in the work her students did and to support them in doing what they did well, better. And she made it plain that we were her equals, jointly negotiating the terms of our learning. That was such an importance difference for me.
This was a time when it was still possible for a working-class kid to get a foothold in a profession like journalism without contacts, parents with cash to splurge on an internship or even a university degree. I had no idea, though, that I was part of one of the last waves of working-class, non-university educated entrants to the industry. The lecturers who interviewed me for a place on my chosen course, at Preston Polytechnic, were both sharp-witted, working-class newspapermen who had got into journalism through local papers and gone on to work for the nationals with some distinction. This was still a well-worn and very common path in the eighties and it wasn’t unusual for people like Harold Evans (who edited the Sunday Times up until 1981) to have emerged in the industry from working-class backgrounds, progressing through regional newspapers, to edit national newspapers, often very brilliantly (as in Evans’s case). And the newspaper industry was all the better for it, reflecting society and its concerns much more roundly than does the present cohort of senior journalists and commentators, most of whom share very similar backgrounds (many also being friends and university contemporaries of the politicians they are charged with holding to account). My course was full of working-class teenagers, school leavers, with a few older adults who were looking to retrain. Within a year, pretty much all of us were employed in regional papers around the country, learning on the job, which is where most journalistic educations really begin. I served my ‘apprenticeship’, gaining an incredibly wide array of really useful skills, including important ‘soft skills’ such as tenacity, the ability to listen and a respect for deadlines – which have been incredibly useful to me since, both academically and professionally – as well as the knowledge, technical skills and general storytelling know-how necessary to become a senior journalist. I was lucky enough to have a few hugely enjoyable years as part of a terrific team of reporters and editors at the Shropshire Star, most, if not all, of them with social backgrounds similar to mine.
Since then, however, journalism has, increasingly, become a profession for middle-class university graduates. Alan Milburn, in his 2009 report, Unleashing Aspiration, described it as ‘one of the most exclusive middle-class professions of the 21st century’ – quite an astonishing shift in such a relatively short period of time. This trend was confirmed in this week’s Sutton Trust report, which found that more than half (51 per cent) of leading print journalists attended fee-paying schools, while 54 per cent attended either Oxford or Cambridge. The private school sector, it is worth remembering, educates just seven per cent of the total population, and Oxbridge less than one per cent. I fear that many working-class children would now think of a career in journalism as something beyond them, socially and economically. And I suspect that, given the longstanding recruitment profile of both the BBC and the Guardian, senior positions in both of which are dominated by the privately educated, many working-class journalists would now not even consider applying for posts with either of these supposed bastions of liberal, democratic values.
I sometimes wonder if I would have made it into the profession at all if I were starting from the same place today. I think it’s pretty unlikely. It might have been conceivable, in the eighties, that I would find a way to university (as I eventually did) and onto a graduate journalism course. Higher education was free at the time, and that was a crucial factor in my decision to give up work to take a first degree. But I think it pretty unlikely, given where I started from and what my expectations were (i.e. not high), that I would have been prepared to take out a loan for my studies, and incur huge debts that would take years and years to pay off. People from working-class backgrounds, with no safety net to fall back on, tend to find it difficult to see the spectre of mounting debt as an investment in their future. Nor, fairly obviously, would I have been in a position to work for free for a period to get a foot on the ladder, as so many new entrants from wealthier backgrounds do; and certainly not in a city as expensive to live in as London.
Does this matter? I think it does. First, it matters because it diminishes journalism and undermines democracy and the civic life of the country. An industry in which high-level new entrants have usually graduated from an elite university, know someone or have parents who know someone, or be wealthy enough to work unpaid for a time, is clearly not going to be very reflective of the concerns of the general population. And, indeed, it is not. What you might expect to result is precisely what we have ended up with: an out-of-touch commentariat of senior journalists who largely share the backgrounds and core beliefs of the political elite and are deeply hostile to or pointedly amused by anyone who doesn’t. Little wonder so many ‘ordinary’ people feel under-represented by the media, angry that their views and the views of those they voted for are routinely derided, under-reported or ignored altogether. But, of course, if you never meet any ‘ordinary’ people, you wouldn’t know that, would you? If your children go to different schools than theirs, you’re probably not going to feel as outraged as I do when I see how the state school testing regime distorts children’s education and alienates young people. If you’ve never been inside an FE college and don’t know anyone who did, you’re probably not going to be overly exercised when government policy pushes the sector to the brink of extinction and all but destroys what must surely be a key part of the mission of any institution offering further education: lifelong learning.
It matters also because it reflects the more general attenuation in opportunity for people from working-class backgrounds, captured, again, very starkly, in the Sutton Trust’s report. It found that the UK’s top professions remain disproportionately populated by alumni of private schools and Oxbridge. In medicine, for example, nearly two-thirds (61 per cent) of senior doctors were educated at independent schools, while 40 per cent were educated at Oxbridge. Only 16 per cent attended comprehensive schools. In politics, nearly a third (32 per cent) of MPs were privately education while over a quarter (26 per cent) went to Oxbridge. Almost half (47 per cent) of the current cabinet attended Oxbridge. In law, 74 per cent of the top judiciary were privately educated and the same proportion attended Oxbridge. And in the senior civil service, almost half (48 per cent) attended independent schools and more than half (51 per cent) Oxbridge. The same trend is also increasingly evident in sport, entertainment and the arts, where it is difficult these days to swing a Bafta without striking an old Etonian. It is hardly surprising that applications to private school remain high big despite increases in fees, when the simple fact of which school your children attend can make such a huge, life-defining difference to their future prospects.
Despite decades of ministerial hot air about improving social mobility, rungs in the social ladder are being hacked away with increasing frenzy, not least by the present government, which appears set on consigning many of this country’s greatest social achievements to history. The education system, which ought to be at the vanguard of challenging unearned privilege and increasing social mobility is, in fact, reproducing privilege and reinforcing social inequality. As Danny Dorling put it in a recent article, education in England ‘is expanding into new extremes of elitism’. Its covert message, ‘that a small elite, made up of superior individuals, should lead us’, gains greater popular assent the more inevitable and immutable privilege appears to be (as does the belief that those at the bottom are there by dint of their own failings). We end up with a self-reproducing ‘meritocracy’, with privilege passed on from generation to generation, all by awfully nice people who are just doing what anyone would do in their position to secure the best for their children. I don’t blame them. The extent of inequality in this country means the stakes are incredibly high, too high to be healthy. But we need, and deserve, an education system which challenges rather than facilitates this. Our schools continue to fail the poorest children while subjecting them and the schools in which they learn to an extraordinary regime of continuous testing, fake ‘rigour’ and accountability, all of which is extremely harmful to our kids, our teachers and our communities. State-maintained schools are subject to constant reform, with policy – criminally, in my view – written to secure headlines rather than to serve our children. It is here we see, more clearly than anywhere else, the truth of Dorling’s charge that the people running state education think of it as ‘education for other people’s children’. The same is true of further education, so often treated with contempt and ignorance by ministers, despite the hugely important role FE colleges have played in our communities for decades. At the same time, in higher education, government policy has engineered a two-tier system, with elite universities, which remain dominated by the privately educated, offering the kind of rounded liberal education wealthy parents expect for their kids, and the others offering, increasingly, vocational education of one sort or another, to meet the more rudimentary needs of the rest. The ‘complex and intimidating’ Oxbridge admissions system seems almost designed to deter working-class applicants. Education for them, training for us. Calcifying patterns of privilege are not the sign of a healthy society. They are like those spots you see on the leaves of dying trees. They are the warning signs that something is not right, something rotten that, left untreated, will bring down the whole tree.