It’s easy to be self-righteous and smug when you don’t live on a council estate. The truth is, our approach to education won't change until people who have faced true disadvantages have a place in the discussionby Kiran Samrai / January 23, 2019 / Leave a comment
A broken and unequal schooling system is the product of many sins. Private schools are one of those sins. Successive government funding cuts to state schools are another. And it is possible to believe in both of these things at the same time—especially if you grew up with your gas and electric on the meter.
In this week’s news cycle, online trolls and old establishment media alike have lost their figurative rag over Hasan Patel: 16-year-old socialist, loud critic of private school elitism, and now, Eton scholarship holder. From a Leyton council estate and son of two immigrant parents, he has been the target of a heavily racialised Twitter witch-hunt, in which adults are flinging around terms like “class traitor” and “champagne socialist” at a child. The Times waded in with a smug headline euphemistically identifying Hasan as a hypocrite. Times readers retweeted it, likely having not even read it, with equal smugness.
It’s easy to be self-righteous and smug when you don’t live on a council estate. Not all politicos are held to the same puritanical standard. The charge of hypocrisy is not regularly flung with this level of vitriol at the numerous high-profile commentators on the left who went to famous private schools. In the case of white excellence, the process of how someone becomes excellent is obscured. That process is one of the right dinner table conversations, being surrounded by the right ideas, and—most commonly—being sent to the best schools and universities.
Equipped with the metaphorical tools of political battle, of debate and rhetoric, we can wage war. So, what does it mean when we refuse to equip young brown kids in this same way? When not only right-wing commentators but white people on the left brand a 16-year-old a hypocrite for seeking access to the type of opportunities they benefitted from, they are gatekeeping access to a political discourse. It is almost as if they do not want the wrong people to rise up and change how politics works.
East London is not Shoreditch or Columbia Road. East London is Newham, Ilford, Hackney, Tower Hamlets. The people who built that East London are being systematically impoverished, by gentrification—sorry, “regeneration”—and by successive cuts to local authority funding. Brampton Manor Academy School has been in the news recently for being the exemplary East London state school; 41 kids into Oxbridge, most of whom are BAME; a huge feat and undeniable win for all involved.
But we must be careful not to extrapolate outwards from Brampton Manor; all is not well, educationally speaking, in East right now. Newham is predicted to lose £611 per student in educational funding by 2020. Teachers are having to do more with less, and communities are cracking under the pressure. Brampton Manor may look like a beacon in the darkness, but due to oversubscription, competition for sixth form places is 10:1—more competitive than some Oxbridge courses. That’s 10 young, bright, capable Newham kids fighting for one, increasingly defunded, school place. How does that look like an educational solution to anybody?
Class is defined by one’s material conditions; it’s not an identity. Class is not confusing; it is perfecting the art of avoiding the bailiff at the door, of understanding how to make 5 different meals out of a tin of beans, of predicting, with clairvoyant accuracy, how long you can get away with leaving your rent unpaid before you get served a section 21 eviction notice. And when you realise that’s what it is, you also see that given the choice, none of us would choose to live like that.
It is not possible to be a class traitor. You cannot ‘betray’ conditions that have been inflicted upon you. If we get frank about class and admit that ‘working class’ is largely a euphemism for “worse off than most people” or “alienated from one’s labour,” we may uncover that there isn’t much there to stay pedantically loyal to. Socialist politics are instinctive for many working-class people; socialism is a structural way out, a fundamental overhaul in the way we live, a redistribution of resource for the many. It’s also not our current political reality—but one we are slowly acquiring the means to strive towards.
I’ll be upfront about my stake in this conversation: I am an East London girl, state-educated for most of my life. I was born in a council flat, raised by a single mother, as close to a Jeremy Kyle byline that the voyeuristic liberal gaze requires me to be. In Year 9 of secondary school, I won a full scholarship to a private school. The classes were small, the teachers were not overworked or underpaid; when a student was troubled, they noticed, and they had the resources to intervene. I got the pastoral and emotional support I needed; they even paid for me to go to therapy. These are the invisible support networks that elite educational spaces are able to provide to a select few, and that comprehensives, increasingly, can no longer afford to. It’s no wonder that the privately educated-elite continue to dominate top jobs in almost every field.
If I had not taken that scholarship, I wouldn’t be writing this article. I wouldn’t have the same words. I wouldn’t have time; my education has meant that I can get higher paid jobs than I used to, so I can afford to sit around and think about class and education in abstract ways. When you live in the grip of mortality—when you’re hustling to put a tenner on your gas meter only for a fiver of it to instantly disappear on an ancient debt recovery plan—you don’t have time to write articles about funding cuts to education. This is how communities become systematically impoverished: by being too overwhelmed by the need for survival such that there is simply no space to do political work. Hasan has found a way to carve that space out for himself, even if it’s through the flawed model of private-school scholarships. They are not a political solution, but they might just be the means to one.