I grew up poor but my school had great expectations

A teacher explains how her own background drives her ambition for the poorest students to achieve the highest standards

‘Decisive steps’ needed to tackle child poverty

“Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible.”
– Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 
Lewis Carroll

This is a personal piece. It’s about poverty, and it’s about me.

I grew up in Birmingham in the 1980s and 1990s with my parents and my sister, and pretty much a whole ark of pets. My parents moved to Birmingham from London in the late 1960s, shortly after they were married. Before they passed away, my sister and I relished hearing their stories about life in the 1960s. Dad, a celebrated New Zealand sportsman, adept at both rugby and cricket, joined the Merchant Navy on a whim (after living in Sydney for a year – another whim) and embarked on a global jaunt for 18 months, settling in Copenhagen, and then finally in London, where he met Mum.

Mum was even more whimtastic than Dad. She did things because she wanted to, not because my parents came from well-off families (neither did), but because, from what Mum and Dad said about the 1960s, you could pretty much do loads of stuff relatively cheaply. Mum worked as a tour guide in Paris for a while. She spoke fluent French and German but had a terrible sense of direction (me too), so she lost many of her tourists, and left them wandering around by the Seine somewhere. She gadded about Spain and Italy for a bit. She auditioned for the Bluebell Girls, passed the audition, and then couldn’t decide whether to move to Las Vegas or Paris, so turned them down in the end. She was a hand model, modelling some of the most coveted photocopiers of the 1960s (!), she was a flamenco dancer, and she was a trapeze artist. Mum also worked for the Milk Marketing Board: she had a keen eye for design.

Mum and Dad met in Kensington where, in the 1960s, amazingly, you could rent a flat quite cheaply. Last year, I visited the pub where they first met on New Year’s Eve 1967. They lived in Kensington and then eloped to Cornwall to get married. Another spur-of-the-moment thing.

They moved to Birmingham in the 1970s for Dad’s work. A few years later, my sister was born. Then I was born. They joined the pub trade and ran pubs in Birmingham, including the Jester – a well-known gay bar in Birmingham city centre – and Dad was also the relief manager for the Mulberry Bush, one of the pubs bombed by the IRA. Thankfully, he was not working the night of the bombing. They continued to live an eclectic, fulfilled, happy life.

'Mum and Dad made it an adventure'

Just as I’d started primary school in the 1980s, things changed. We had to move to social housing in a very deprived part of Birmingham. To this day, my sister and I don’t know what happened, but the comfortable life we’d had vanished pretty much in an instant. Suddenly we had a 50p gas and electric meter. We had one small gas fire in the house. Other than the sitting room, the house was often very cold and we wore many layers of clothes. Our clothes were clean, but most were from jumble sales. Mum had to pawn some jewellery.

My sixth birthday present from a family friend was a haircut. My Brownie uniform was second hand, and didn’t fit properly. We were always fed, but sometimes Mum and Dad had to ask others for help. I can’t imagine how hard this must have been. There were times when Mum had to take us to the Hindu temple in Handsworth so we could eat. We had no food in the house, and Mum had two little girls, so we were kindly and generously fed without question by the lovely people at the temple. Our neighbours also gave us food. My sister and I often skipped down the road where we feasted on samosas provided by our friends’ parents. Mum and Dad always made events like this, that must have been so hard for them, an adventure. I remember this happened quite a lot, but it’s only in hindsight that I realise that it was because we were poor.

Mum and Dad left the pub trade and continued to work full-time, but there was never enough money. Dad worked in insurance and Mum ran a play centre for the children of prisoners in Birmingham Prison, and after that ran a play scheme for children from even more deprived backgrounds than us. My sister and I helped out at Mum’s work and it meant we were fed and watered, too. Mum was incredible with the children she looked after, and was adored by both the children and their parents and carers. She organised amazing trips for the children in the summer holidays, securing funding from various organisations, and it meant our little group of children from Handsworth and Lozells went on trips to places like Aston Hall, RAF Cosford, Warwick Castle. We went to Carnival in Handsworth Park and read books at Birchfield Library in Perry Barr. It was beautiful. The sense of community was palpable. Mum was so tenacious she even got Nasa to send over resources and posters from the US for the children.

'The shame of poverty'

We continued to be a family living in poverty. Shopping for clothes and toys at jumble sales became the norm. I didn’t think there was anything unusual about this at all until I started secondary school. Then, when friends asked where I had bought my jumper, I found myself lying and saying that it was from Miss Selfridge or Dorothy Perkins, when really it was from the Salvation Army down the road. As I got older, I started to feel the simmering heat of shame that poverty kindles. Mum and Dad did everything they could do stop my sister and me feeling it, but we did. When I was 14, my best friend asked me to go on holiday with her to Tenerife with her parents. I couldn’t go because we didn’t have the money. It still hurts remembering. The shame of being “hard up”, as Mum called it, lingers.

Although we were poor, Mum and Dad did everything they could to make our experiences rich. No one in my family was musical. My sister and I used to snigger in Mass on a Sunday listening to Mum sing the hymns – she sounded like a croaky, out of tune bass-baritone. But Mum and Dad soon realised I was keen to find out more about music. I watched Inspector Morse with them, mainly to hear the snippets of opera that Morse loved so much. It sounded amazing to me and I wanted to know more.

Not being musical, but having heard of a few composers, Mum and Dad bought crackly second-hand tapes and LPs of any pieces by Mozart, Handel, Holst. I listened to them, trying to work out the sung French, German and Italian pronunciation, and teaching myself what I thought was the best way to conduct an orchestra after I’d learned how to beat time from a battered second-hand copy of the AB Guide to Music Theory. My favourite piece to conduct was the overture to Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Then school paid for singing lessons for me. Fast-forward a few years and my first solo operatic performance was in a production of The Magic Flute. And then, 11 years later, I was training as a lyric mezzo-soprano with the English National Opera, and with Janis Kelly teaching me, the soprano in all the Inspector Morse episodes. Beauty and triumph can sometimes emerge from exceptional difficulty.

'I never felt any different'

My sister and I went to a wonderful school. Neither of us did the 11-plus exam but instead went to a Roman Catholic girls’ comprehensive in Birmingham. We would have been labelled as "pupil premium" had it been around back then. Apart from the free school meal queue at lunch, which I avoided like the plague, my school never made me feel any different. I was never given anything easier because I was poor, nor given any less challenge, nor expected any less of. If anything, my school pushed me to know more and to do more.

The expectations were sky-high. And my sister and I rose to the challenge with relish. The school soon realised I had promise at public speaking and debating. Before I knew it I was involved in the annual public speaking competition and the debating club. I was in all the musical productions and sang at the annual carol concert at St Philip’s Cathedral. I was a school librarian. I was in the hockey team and vice-captain of the tennis team. The school funded the loan of a clarinet for me. I was rubbish as it turned out, and a far better singer, but the point is the opportunity was there.

What I didn’t know until years later was that the school funded most of a week’s trip to Germany for me when I was 14, with my grandparents paying for the rest of it, as well as school part-funding a classical tour of Greece for me when I was in the sixth-form. It was incredible. In my final year of school I became head girl.

I was pushed in lessons to achieve in a way that built my confidence and made me want to learn more. The expectation was that I would go to university, so I never thought there was any other option. School continued to be a beautiful constant while things remained difficult for us as a family. Within the same year, when I was 14, Dad was diagnosed with emphysema, and mum with multiple sclerosis. A couple of years later, with symptoms that couldn’t be attributed to Mum’s MS or her epilepsy, Mum was also diagnosed with the final part of the most unholy neuro-trinity: Parkinson’s disease.

My sister and I became carers for our parents, and they were for each other. Both Mum and Dad had to stop work but were able to remain in our little house in Lozells until a few years before they passed away. What I remember from this period of time was how determined both my parents were for my sister and me to do well despite the many challenges we faced as a family. And school and the church we went to supported us, quietly, without embarrassment and without pity. I was not labelled. I was simply Claire Stoneman.

Both my sister and I went to university – the first members of our family to do so. I stayed on an extra year to study for an MA in English literature. Mum and Dad couldn’t afford to pay for it, and neither could I, so I grafted and grafted in the last year of my BA to do as well as I could, and won the School of English bursary at the University of Leeds to pay for it. Poverty’s bite, while jagged and painful, can also make you exceptionally determined and focused.

'Expect more, not less'

And so fast-forward to today. Dad passed away in 2012, not of the emphysema that he remained stubbornly determined to resist as best he could, but of liver cancer. Mum finally succumbed to Parkinson’s in 2015 – a terribly cruel disease that robs you of so much. My sister is very successful in her line of work, and I am a deputy of academy.

This post is very personal, and it is so because it utterly underpins everything I think and believe so keenly about education. I refuse to teach children who are labelled as pupil premium in a different, "easier" way. I might need to know that they are pupil premium (but could easily argue that I don’t), I might need to give them a pen and not make a fuss about it, I might need to guide them towards opportunities that could enrich their lives – like public speaking competitions or clarinet lessons – but, if anything, I need to expect MORE of them, not less, and support them to do it.

Because if we stoke the smouldering fire of poverty with the pernicious poverty of expectation, too, then we are perpetuating a cycle of poverty; we are actively complicit in expecting less of "poor" pupils. I wasn’t "free school meals Claire Stoneman" or "poor Claire Stoneman" or "disabled parents Claire Stoneman" when I was at school, although I could have been labelled as all of them. I was simply Claire Stoneman, and great things were expected of me. I will be forever grateful to my school for that.

Claire Stoneman is deputy of academy and English teacher at Erdington Academy, Birmingham, and organiser of ResearchED Brum

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