Rags to riches

6th December 2013 at 00:00

There should be a statute of limitations on claiming disadvantage. Never a day goes by without someone telling you that they are from a broken home or related to a miner. These statements may be true, but everything has a sell-by date, even past socio-economic hardships. If you now enjoy a stuffed olive, any prior privation has to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Claiming disadvantage is a competitive sport enjoyed at the highest levels. In a recent radio discussion, UK politician William Hague reminded listeners, "I did go to a comprehensive school and I've become the foreign secretary." While ostensibly defending the social promise of Conservative education policy, he couldn't resist clubbing us over the head with his own personal achievement, as though entering politics after a state education is the same as tunnelling your way out of Shawshank with a plasticine fork.

There's nothing we enjoy more than showing people how we've beaten adversity. Often, to maximise our achievements, we'll exaggerate the miseries of our past. And if we haven't got any, we'll sign up to some genealogy site until we discover a distant relative who was shipped off to Australia for stealing a pea. The more comfortably off we are, the more we seek out ancestral indigence, which is why wealthy Americans all love to be Irish. We'll use anything we can to rewrite our silver-spooned story into something Dave Pelzer might have penned.

I know because I do this myself. Whenever I get into an argument about social class, I save my trump card of having been brought up in a council house until right at the end. This usually wins the kitty. In the event of a tie, I'll disclose that my mother had dentures at 36 and my father gambled the housekeeping on horses. But really these are obsolete: I reckon that your handicaps are expunged five years after you open your last tin of chopped pork. The fact that your dad was a docker or your gran had TB is as relevant as a spent conviction.

Otherwise, instead of a meritocracy we end up with an excusocracy, and we teachers know how irritating that can be. We've all come across parents who use the victim culture of an August birthday to defend their child's brattish behaviour. It's a relevant factor in the early years, but it's hardly a justification for poking their classmate with a ruler when they get to the age of 15. My youngest was born at the end of summer and I'm ashamed to say that I used this excuse, too, mopping up any academic incontinence with his ultra-absorbent month of birth. I swear that if my partner hadn't intervened I'd still be defending him now, countering complaints from his girlfriend - "Why does he never wipe the surfacesempty the binstell me he loves me?" - by pointing out that he was conceived in November.

She should cut him some slack anyway, because he's only three generations away from a man who worked down the pits.

Beverley Briggs is a secondary school teacher from County Durham, England.

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