Thursday, 15 May 2014

Fresh Eyes: The Surprising Result of a Privilege Check

I'm privileged. I'm a white male born in a rich part of a rich country to parents whose employment was as stable as their relationship. I went to a state school but by virtue of academic selection it was able to pretend convincingly to be a private one. To those thinking perhaps this Buckinghamshire grammar school was an engine of social mobility, I should point out that when I arrived at Oxford University one of the things that struck me was its social and ethnic diversity.

At Oxford, I met people who'd been to comprehensives for the first time and I learned that they'd faced hostility from less successful pupils to a far greater degree than I had. I think this was due to the degree of inequality; underachievers at my school got Cs or in rare cases Ds, at their schools the lowest grades were Fs, Gs and Us. Perhaps because of this none of them were as positive about school as I was; they were happier to have left. I loved school, but I couldn't tell if this was because it was a more equal society or because it was full of rich, privileged boys like me.

My journey continued when I went to work in Central Foundation Girls School, a comprehensive in Tower Hamlets. I made tea for SMT meetings and the Head's lunch; on my CV it says 'School Butler' though I was really more of a footman. Later I became Exams Officer, a sideways move, and in my three and half years at Central I met a new group for the first time: working class people who weren't succeeding academically. I volunteered for break and lunch duty because most of day was spent with SIMS, a boring colleague, and I was intrigued by the pupils, especially those who were unlike any people I'd ever met before.

Schools are great places to work because they're full of people who choose to spend their lives improving the lives of others and conversations down the pub after work frequently turned to how the school could be improved. Although all the teachers wanted kids to succeed regardless of background, few of them expected that to happen. Paradoxically, it seemed to me that those who cared the most about the poor kids were the most convinced that they were victims of their circumstances. Those same kids whom I met didn't strike me as victims at all, they seemed intelligent and purposeful.

I blogged in an earlier piece why I think those children made a rational choice to fail in education. Here I want to take issue with the concept of 'check your privilege' which seems to want to confine opinions about groups of people to members of those groups – black people should talk about race, gay people homosexuality, poor people class. I'm absolutely not saying my opinions about working class kids are more valid than anyone else's, only that they're valid. I want to live in an equal society with no class distinctions so becoming the change I want to see means having the right to discuss anyone, regardless of their background. I came to the unusual opinion that the curriculum, not bad teaching or crippling poverty is responsible for the achievement gap because, not in spite, of my unusually privileged upbringing.

So by all means let's check our privilege, but let's not be checked by it.

No comments:

Post a Comment