Skip to main content

There has to be a way out of poverty

The cost of going to university is in danger of bringing back education by postcode, says Jennifer Baker.

I love the idea that students from deprived areas are getting the chance to go to top universities in Scotland. It's like going back to a golden time which started somewhere in the late 1940s and early 1950s when students from all backgrounds were encouraged to go on to higher education. They were given the means to do it in the way of student grants which were realistic and prevented the crippling worry and debt that students are now subject to.

Those were the heady days of education for all. We took it as a right and I listened with horror to stories from my father who was at university in the 1930s, funded completely by my grandparents.

But it didn't last long. By the time my children went to university in the 1990s, the circle had completed the full revolution with the cost hidden behind student loans and the like; postcode education was back again. It happened insidiously and was upon us before we realised it. A broad Glesca accent became rare in the cloisters of the university except, perhaps, among lecturers and professors of a certain age.

I want to hear those accents again, but the positive discrimination policy being exercised now needs to be re-examined because it could backfire drastically.

A few years ago, I carried out in-depth research to examine the transition between school and university. I was working with sixth-year students and teachers and first-year undergraduates and lecturers. The findings were alarming. My research revealed that students are poorly served when it comes to the transition from school to university. Even those students from middle-class backgrounds experience problems. They have been eased through other educational transitions in their lives from pre-five onwards, but the biggest transition they will probably experience is neglected.

The students I interviewed were not to blame for their lack of knowledge.

They made it clear to me that they desperately needed information and ideas on how to prepare themselves for their new life. Most of them didn't know the difference between a lecture and a seminar.

The idea of "marking up" Higher papers from schools in deprived areas may spring from a profoundly altruistic motive, but I cannot see how it will help in the human drama played every year by new undergraduates. Social relationships are well defined within educational institutions. Members will be identified by accent and even appearance, and the idea that poor pupils have an easy route to university will prevail.

So, how are the kids who are already suffering from a feeling of inferiority going to cope among all the rich kids from Newton Mearns and Bearsden? The obvious answer is that, in the main, they won't. There will be the occasional survivor but, for the majority of students from deprived backgrounds, this may create more problems than it solves.

I started my teaching career in St Mary's Calton in the east end of Glasgow. No child in my class had an inside loo. The tenements were running with damp and were rat-infested. This wasn't the 19th century - it was just a blink of time ago. But expectations were high. Little allowance was made academically for poverty. The school pioneered new mathematical strategies.

Excellent drama productions were performed under the strict direction of the hugely energetic headteacher, Brother Casimir.

Much later, when directing plays myself, I used to quote him: "No one will say that this production is good for kids. They will go away saying that they've had a great night out." In other words, all pupils were expected to perform to the very best of their ability - and they did.

Brother Casimir applied the same principles in the classrooms and we all had to adhere to them, which we did with a will. A huge proportion of the children from that primary school in one of the most deprived areas of Glasgow at that time went on to St Mungo's and from there to universities everywhere, including Oxbridge.

I don't look back, however, through roseate mists of time. There were huge problems arising from the desperate poverty and neglect experienced by some of the children, but what was important was that they were shown that there was a way out - for some at least.

If the powers that be want to make a difference, then they can open that door again. Throw money at deprived areas. Employ excellent teachers and allow them to teach, which means employing others better qualified than teachers to deal with guidance and discipline. Pay them lots of money because it is harder than teaching in the leafy suburbs.

Be truthful, get real and children will emerge well-educated and ready for university education. What's more important, they will be proud of their achievements and will not spend their university career and life afterwards trying to hide their roots.

Jennifer Baker is a writer and supply teacher.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you