They Say Class Doesn’t Matter: But it Matters to Me.

Maybe you’ve never really thought about social class. Maybe you wouldn’t put yourself in a class bracket or maybe you’ve always been comfortable with your class, so you haven’t really considered it. Perhaps, you don’t think class matters anymore. Surely in the 21st century social class has nothing to do with a person’s ability to succeed in life if they work hard, right?

Some people say we live in this super fun, post-class world but I’m not entirely convinced. Class still has a real effect on people’s lives. In August 2017, the Department of Education published statistics that said 24% (that is less than a quarter) of students on Free School Meals (aka poorer students) entered higher education by age 19. Class is a real thing, and it has a real impact!

I am working class: financially, socially, culturally. I’m proud of that, I do not aspire to be middle class, however inevitable that may seem, and no matter how cool my middle class friends are. I haven’t come to university seeking social mobility, I’m not running away from my council estate background, I’m not looking for a nice job or even a decent wage. I’ve come to Durham so that I will be able to go back to the city I grew up in and be as equipped as possible to make a difference, because class still matters and a difference still needs to be made.

It is true that on a monetary level, I didn’t grow up with privileges other people might have had. My Mum would walk to the toy shop every week and pay in a few quid, so that she could return in December and select our Christmas presents, as there would never be money to spend at that time of year. Some of my favourite childhood memories are walking to the bakery on pay day where my Mum would buy me a chocolate bun as a special treat. Or the times I raced my brother to the shop because our parents had sent us to buy electricity for the meter and we didn’t want it to run out before we could save our playstation game. I suppose you could call me poor if you like. I did grow up with little financially, but I was not poor when it came to the values, skills, respect and love that were instilled in me.

I learnt to add up the shopping as we walked round the supermarket because we were always on a budget. I learnt to work hard because that’s what I saw my parents do, they worked shifts of long days, nights, weekends, anything to help make ends meet. I learnt to see education as fun and a privilege, because it wasn’t possible for either of my parents to complete school. Instead they went back to college as adults to get key qualifications. I can sew, because clothes were mended before new ones were bought. I was six when my parents got married, with their entire wedding done on a shoestring they asked people to bring food and drink to the reception held in our back garden instead of wedding gifts. My bridesmaid dress was a dress I’d worn for a previous family wedding, which my Mum sewed ribbon on to make it special for this occasion. During the reception I ripped my bridesmaid dress on a friends scooter; my parents laughed and told me to keep on playing.

The comprehensive secondary school I went to wasn’t great at Ofsted Reports or GCSE results but it showed a tremendous amount of care. My teachers encouraged me to apply for Cambridge even though I was terrified it wasn’t for me. At my Cambridge interviews my class mattered, the interviewer made comments like “You’re very working class aren’t you?” and “How did you get here from a school like yours?”. When Cambridge offered me a place, I turned it down because I was raised to see my class not as something I should justify or apologise for, but something which should be respected and acknowledged. I had hoped that Durham would be different, but reality hasn’t quite lived up to my hopes. It often feels like a different world here, a real bubble, and I haven’t yet worked up the courage to defend every comment that is made about my class.

When I hear people say that class doesn’t matter anymore and we’ve moved on from that, what I actually hear is that my class doesn’t matter. That my class isn’t important. But it is. It’s part of what shapes my experience. Without the Durham grant subsidising my accommodation fees, I wouldn’t be able to afford to be here. Frankly, if the University continues to raise accommodation fees, they are going to out price working class students from a place that is already intimidating enough to apply to.

I’m not even a term into my degree but my favourite moment so far has been visiting home, stopping to chat to someone on my estate and as we walked she told me she was proud I was at Durham University. That one conversation put some of the challenges in Durham into perspective. I realised being here isn’t about refraining from speaking broadly in my Yorkshire accent nor is it about trying to explain my background, it’s not about having to ask which cutlery I should use at formal nor about biting my tongue when someone makes an offensive comment about “poor lower class people” like we’re beneath them. It’s about the fact I have a degree to get, because I’m working class and proudly part of a community who cheers me on.

Emma Wilkinson

Photo taken by Emma Wilkinson in Buttershaw

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4 thoughts on “They Say Class Doesn’t Matter: But it Matters to Me.

  1. I’m intrigued about your thoughts that people say class doesn’t matter?

    I totally agree with everything else you’ve said but from where I am I see class as the primary thing that matters everywhere. Also very interested in people suggesting we’re in a post-class place. (What I would say is we are in a place with a very strong middle class. The old working vs upper class divide has become less pronounced and in place is a powerful middle class).

    I had a very middle class cosmopolitan upbringing on the outskirts of London. My dad was poor (missionary’s kid) but went to a very posh boarding school whereas my mum a poor immigrant and had a closer-to-working class background (class distinctions are a little odd when you’re an immigrant). As a result I have spent time with people who are mega upper class, very much working class and then lots and lots of middle class. I’ve seen working class individuals do well at school university and gone on to make a lot of money but still very much feel working class and have some of the trappings of the class. (For example, I’ve found my upper class friends always find policemen and women as people who help them, whereas a lot of my working class friends still feel an element of fear around them)

    But I am still shocked at the idea that people see us in a post class world.

    In fact I’d go as far to say that class issues are once against the single most important set of issues within the UK, Europe and the western world generally. Brexit, Trump, etc are all due to the ruling classes ignoring and forgetting the working classes. Teresa May’s abysmal election I think can really be reduced to arrogantly forgetting the working class despite her “Britain for all” and putting things like fox hunting on the agenda in her manifesto. (Regardless or whether or not you are pro or against it, I think we can all agree that the people who passionately want to bring it back are unlikely to be from working class backgrounds!!!!)

    I think the media’s approach to the working class has been abhorrent. It’s a mixture of trying to look after them and sort out problems on their behalf or demonise them. For example when there were a group of football hooligans who forced an individual off a train on account of his skin, it was reported like they were working class football hooligan lads but it turned out they were a bunch of bankers and the no one mentioned anything. Whilst, of course all people can do horrible things from whatever walk of life you have, there are racist individuals who are also working class for example, I’ve found the that when you get evil amongst the upper classes or upper middle classes the things those people do tend to be far more twisted and they are far more likely to get away with it (Some of the stories I heard from Oxbridge and in academia were horrific).

    I liked your comment about “poor working class people”. I have also found many of my working class friends do not want social mobility. They do however want access to education and jobs that allow you to support your family, health care, public services etc. But they want those things without having to stop being working class or “social mobility”. I think in the UK class is not about money, many of my middle class friends are actually very poor (though usually its more out of choice).

    Finally I find it confusing your comment about raising the price of accommodation fees. Perhaps they have been raising it to such highs that your loans don’t cover it? I found at university the people from poorer backgrounds did quite well and a few of them would actually send money back home to their parents because they had a lot. The fees are such that you only need to pay them back if you earn a lot after your degree. I’ve seen one guardian article that has suggested that with higher fees, more individuals from working class backgrounds have applied to university then before (though overall applications are falling) and then I’ve heard that this is false from others.

    I know a few people from a working class background who ended up going to Oxford and Cambridge. It was always a very peculiar experience for them! They also tended to band together from my understanding.

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