It would be easy to take the view that I’m against universities given some of my output in the last few weeks. So in the interests of balance here’s my counterpoint – yes, I do think that schools are pandering to an outmoded way of thinking that is designed to appease parents, patronise the less socially mobile and box tick a perceived best way forward. All of that being said, when you remove the cloying, falling over themselves needs of schools to be seen to be dragging the less fortunate through the ranks towards expensive and unnecessary degrees I actually think they are brilliant. Despite how that last sentence might appear.
I truly believe that the transformative experience of university and education has the power to materially and in every other way, open one’s eyes to new worlds of possibility and opportunity. And here’s my reason. My Grandfather, Pa. Born Leonard Roe, the youngest of 8, son of a farmer in Lincolnshire. The family had never prized education. In fact they prized fresh milk and warm, dry socks above everything else. They were not landed gentry, they weren’t ‘Farmers’ with a capital F, they were hardworking country stock with no ambitions beyond getting the cows in and out according to the weather. There was a large gap between Pa and his next eldest sibling, not least because his mother had been incarcerated in Broadmoor Mental Hospital for the criminally insane for a period of 7 years. For murdering her baby and stabbing his elder siblings. Then she was released and Pa was born. So when I say he led a some what uncharmed life marked by parochial thinking and uneasy secrets it’s not a case of litotes. He was a precocious child though and I like to imagine something of Holden Caulfield about him, not the entitlement but rather a sense of not quite belonging. He knew enough of himself to go behind his whole family’s back and get accepted on a scholarship to a prep school, several miles from his home, by lying about his age.
He flourished and later went on to get a 1st class degree and his MA from Merton College, Oxford. The first in his family to get to university and the first to forge a career in a quote, unquote profession. He became a teacher and eventually a headteacher. He even wrote one of the first plays that Sir Ian McKellen would appear in as a child, called The Bikini Contest. I don’t wish to overstate this, but in a real way how we think of Magneto and Gandalf may have been entirely a result of my Grandfather (ahem). He retired a happy old fellow surrounded by his leather bound books and Times crosswords, having sired two children, his son an Oxford and Sandhurst bound chap and my Mum who also went on to become a teacher.
In no small part, I, and as a direct consequence my children, have grown up/will grow up with an expectation of ambition and aspiration afforded by the life and opportunities presented to me by his taking himself off to a school that day. I took for granted the prizing of education and the dividends it can pay in terms of one’s life chances. What I always take away from this story is that, whilst yes, it was a different time and things were done differently, arguably the class divisions were starker and there was certainly no social mobility tsar promoting the idea of aspiration. In spite of that backdrop, Pa had the chutzpah to lie about his age, defy his family and win a place at a school that on paper he had no place at. He was ambitious and educationally curious at a time when these weren’t things that were discussed. It was for him and all those people like him that university was invented for, not an arbitrary sense that this is something that ought to be done. University should be tough, it should be demanding, intellectually rigorous and not a bung towards some diversity policy. Because what his and many other people’s journeys have demonstrated is that if you want it, you’ll go get it. My Grandfather was nothing special, the world is full of these stories. When it comes to university teachers and schools should focus on helping those kids who do have something about them, supporting those that need it to fulfil their potential when no one else will help, not trying the one size fits all approach.