After two long and, surprisingly smooth running, train journeys down to Exeter I couldn’t help feeling a buzz of nostalgia staying in the Holland House Halls of residence. The room was almost a carbon copy of the room I spent my first year in at University of Chester studying Drama and Theatre Studies. I suppose the only difference was my now 34yr old neck could not quite handle an alien pillow, whereas I seem to remember as a nimble 19 yr. old I could have fallen asleep on a washing line. I digress.
Like many people at the age of 19 I had no clear direction in terms of a career, but I was blessed with having a passion for a subject. For the first time in my educational journey, I found myself learning for the sake, and joy, of learning. My course had no exams, only performances, essays and assessments. Prior to this I, like many, had felt the pressures of revising for 2hr tests supposedly designed to designate my worth in the hierarchy of academia. How refreshing it was so feel free.
I specifically use the word ‘free’ to describe my time at university as this was the same word Robert Halfon used whilst addressing us at the NEON conference. He too spoke of his feelings of nostalgia when stepping onto Streatham campus and how University was the most enjoyable time of his life.
Which brings me to why I felt an overwhelming urge to open my laptop on my day off and relay mine (and I am sure many other’s) feelings of frustration when hearing him say this.
Was it the halls of residence pillow causing a twinge in my neck or was it the physical cringe when he was so unaware of his contradicting messages when addressing his already unimpressed audience? His feeble attempt to be one of the people ‘I too come from a working-class background’ was instantly discredited when he followed that by ‘but I went to an independent school’ and ‘my father gave me no choice but to go to university’. The lack of awareness that it is the independent schools and the encouraging parents that elevate one student above another almost sent my neck into spasm.
As a project officer I have the absolute privilege of working daily with the young people we are here to support. My natural drive has not necessarily come from data (but please, to the data-based colleagues out there, I know the importance of this!) but from personal experience. In fact, I don’t know many project officers that do this job without a personal drive to ensure young people do not miss out of the opportunities we were not privy to.
As someone from a working-class background, raised by a single parent and spending the first 10 years of my life living with a parent with addiction, needless to say the odds were never in my favour (I feel we’re entitled to now compare our educational system to the Hunger Games). Although it was certainly not conscious efforts from my mum, I was raised to be concerned about money, that the decisions I make about my future will affect me in the long-term and above anything else I must pursue stability. Taking risks and following dreams was not an option for me, we had no safety net to fall upon.
And, unfortunately, like so many of the students I work with, this is a repeated storyline 20+ years later.
As an impartial adviser I will always educate young people on the benefits of vocational courses, apprenticeships, and the new introduction of T-Levels. Because they are also a wonderful option. But the all-too-well-known, long-term battle is getting through to the young people they deserve a spot at university.
How dare Robert Halfon sit there and express how joyous his time at university was and how free he felt and then explain that for the disadvantaged students there’s some really incredible vocational choices out there for them. How dare Robert Halfon say how free he felt at university when I speak to 13-year-olds that are making plans for their future so they can financially support the rest of their family. How dare Robert Halfon say how free he felt free at university and have the severe lack of awareness young people are raised with no safety net, there is simply no room for feeling free.
Do excuse my cringeworthy analogy here but in the world of theatre it takes all talents and skills to run a show. The set designers, prop makers, lighting and sound technicians, runners, someone to sell the tickets and so on. There is also, of course, the ‘stars of the show’ the ones in the spotlight, their faces on the posters and signing the autographs.
How dare Robert Halfon have his moment in the spotlight and have the ‘best time of his life’ but expect the working-class, unrepresented future generations spend their career only ever behind the curtain.
Some of the main themes that came up during the conference was the severe concern for young people’s mental health and wellbeing, the long-term effects of the pandemic and the crippling anxiety and worries students have, particularly the fear of failure. Don’t these young people deserve to feel free, experience joy and be able to learn for the sake, and love of learning?
My creative arts course gave me 3 years of freedom, joy, making friends for life, meeting my husband, the confidence to seek support for mental health, the ability to rebuild family relationships through having incredible support systems and (bear with whilst I blow my own trumpet) the most employable and transferable skills you could want. It also has given me the well-earned audacity to then go on to study a master’s degree and describe myself as ‘academic’.
It’s time the narrative changes, no one should be born with their pathway already laid out for them, everyone deserves the chance to audition and be the main character.
Jessica Newton, Project Officer, Higher Horizons