A Child is Born – to fail?

Over the Christmas period I have been pondering three unremarkable things, which I now realise are related. I hope that how I think they are related will enable a short pause for thought.

Here are the three:

  1. In the final week of term I finished reading Born to Fail by Sonia Blandford. Instead of the hoped-for magic bullet, I have since been made to think, idly and often, about how we in schools perceive the issue of social mobility.
  2. With the end-of-term bell still ringing in my ears I hit the road and spent three days in the Lake District with some good friends, and after each long day in the hills we retired to a quiet hostel for beer and Scrabble. I lost every game of Scrabble. I had neither hope nor clue.
  3. The final morsel in this smorgasbord was finding my long-lost high school reports in among the Christmas decorations in the garage. Contained within them are comments from my housemaster, Mr Blakeney, about what lovely fellows I and my four elder brothers were.
School report Y9
Mr Blakeney – Praise indeed

Mr Blakeney’s exact words in Year 9 were “a first class character and personality”. He was speaking about all of us, and I know he genuinely thought that. What he doesn’t mention is that my two eldest brothers spent more time bunking off than sat in lessons, and were no strangers to the Headmaster’s office; that my Dad had my third brother hand-deliver a letter, granting permission for corporal punishment. I don’t think Mr Blakeney ever used corporal punishment; instead he would threaten someone with “a ruddy pasting” about every third sentence. These days we would call it “tear a strip”. But – and I am welling up as I realise this – he bloody loved us all.

Even though I’m now a Maths teacher and love my subject, and I can see their signatures and read their words on my school reports, I could not tell you the names of any of my high school Maths teachers. However – even though I didn’t take History at GCSE – I can still hear Charlie Blakeney’s booming, frustrated voice. He cared passionately about everyone in his House, but saved special attention for those who turned up in broken shoes and ripped trousers, with dirty fingernails and a lack of Lynx (this was the eighties..).

My parents didn’t attend parents’ evenings. There were mitigating circumstances of course – six siblings, a farm and living 5 miles from school – but it simply wasn’t something that happened and nor did I expect it to happen. It took me until Year 11 to realise that Mr Blakeney was the one who had stepped in to fill that void. He was the one who took me by the scruff of the neck and pointed my head in a different direction to the one I was expected – born? – to take. In the Year 10 report he mentions sixth-form and university and I remember feeling like that was a world that belonged to other people. In Year 11 he called me into his office to give me a ruddy (verbal) pasting for applying to college, instead of sixth-form, and includes a desperate line in my report asking my parents to come in to talk about my future. He cared, deeply.

My mum made it possible for me to go to university and would have been immensely proud to know that I became a teacher. My Dad, too, but like any congratulations among the men in my family, it would have been in the form of a piss-take.

So, as the first in my “disadvantaged” family to go to university, I am one of the social movers. I’m one of those that Gove and Gibb like to talk about.

So why did I keep losing at Scrabble?

It’s because I don’t know any of those ridiculous, never-used two- and three-letter words. We didn’t play Scrabble at home, ever. It’s a gaping hole in my personal cultural capital. A tiny hole – granted – but a hole nonetheless. Edexcel’s Maths paper this summer asked a 5-mark question involving the Circle and Stalls in a theatre. A nervous 15-year-old who had never been to theatre would have neither hope, nor clue.

My Lake District Scrabble game is a small sample from which I should neither make assumptions nor draw conclusions, but please indulge my paranoia for a moment while I ask,

What if..?

What if I shouldn’t have been there, playing that game with those people? Those people who played Scrabble as a child, coached by their parents? What if I shouldn’t be in this social circle at all? Should I have moved from working-class to middle-class? What else is missing from my cultural capital that might mean I don’t belong here? Should I wait to find out? Are my friends even the right friends?

Which brings me full-circle to Sonia Blandford’s excellent book. Sonia argues that true social mobility is enabled by ensuring that people from disadvantaged backgrounds have the opportunity to stay, and prosper, where they are if they choose; it is about ensuring that equal opportunities are available to everyone, whatever they do and wherever they live, not about moving from one perceived class to another.

In terms of success, I don’t think I am now any more or less successful than most of my family – we have all done OK. Social mobility is not about creating opportunities to lift people out of one class and into another. We need to be more intelligent than that.


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