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.
Photo taken by Emma Wilkinson in Buttershaw