Breaking the Cycle of Working class Underachievement in Education

In 2013 I became the first person in my family to pursue higher education. In 2017 I became the first to have a degree – graduating with a MEng in Mechanical Engineering. Since then I have (nearly) completed a PhD in Engineering and am currently working as a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Control Engineering department.

Unfortunately as things stand one of the greatest predictors for a person’s academic success is not their genetic capacity to learn but the academic success of their family, creating a vicious cycle which prevents social mobility and exacerbates the wealth divide. There are of course several factors at play here: from poorer access to well-structured and supervised extracurricular activities, to a parent’s inability to help children with their homework due to a lack of time or knowledge. In my own personal experience, the largest problem was my family’s complete inexperience with higher education.

The vast majority of my family left education between the ages of 14 and 16. For those growing up in a rural area with little infrastructure, education is hardly a priority. For many of the people living in these areas any career goal is limited to the local industries that the villages grew around, creating huge groups of people who all work for the same companies, doing the same jobs, for the same pay.  Truthfully there is something comforting in that; it fosters a great sense of community.

At the age of 6 my Dad and his twin brother took their first ride in my Granddad’s lorry. From this point onwards, they knew that was what they wanted to do for the rest of their lives. Both of them have enjoyed over 30 years working as lorry drivers for a handful of different companies (all within a few miles of each other). They have spent at least 25 of these years working for the same company, often moving with each other as one company closed and another opened. This was not done out of brotherly love, but was the natural progression for many of the people in the village.

I have very fond memories of being driven around in a lorry as a child, but I didn’t have the same desire to spend my life doing it. If I had wanted to follow in my family’s footsteps I would have had a fairly easy time of it, between them and their friends they knew the local industry inside out – and after spending my adolescence with them, I felt I did too. Unfortunately though, the nature of such a closed system creates a cycle which is often hard to break out of.

University was never something that was really spoken about growing up: no one I knew had been and no one really understood why someone would want to go. By many it was often described as a waste of time, with the survivalist work ethic of the working class demanding that ‘getting a proper job’ was a far greater necessity than spending 3 years reading Shakespeare or learning vector calculus. When your life is spent counting pennies, spending thousands of pounds to avoid working really doesn’t make sense.

Although graduates statistically have higher incomes over their lifetime, those that remained in the area would typically work retail or hospitality jobs which paid minimum wage and didn’t require a degree. For many of those people, such jobs were simply stop-gaps between university and the beginning of their career. After acquiring a graduate job, they would move away and their successes would only be witnessed by a few. As the benefits of a university education are not overtly apparent to the wider community, they are not sought out. Therefore, the average experience of people within these communities remains unchanged.

As a result, university was never something that really factored into my life plan. It wasn’t until 3 months before the UCAS deadline that I had a meeting with my teacher and (for the first time in my life) was told that I should consider going to university. There were so many questions that I had to find answers to.

What’s the difference between a Masters and a Bachelors? Which university should I go to? Should I take Maths or Engineering? What would happen if I took a gap year?

Unfortunately for me (and for many other first generation students), these are the sort of questions that I was never really able to find answers to. I ended up applying to the university which was closest to home, for a course that a quick internet search suggested was suited for people with the A Levels I was studying. My family and I weren’t even aware that it was a good university to get into. Such experiences are common among working class students.

For the vast majority of the friends I made at university, attending university wasn’t so much a choice but something that had been expected of them from a young age – much in the same way that becoming a lorry driver was expected of my dad. Growing up, many of my university peers had the opportunity to explore different possibilities of their futures within their familial network of graduates and working professionals. Their families had an idea of which universities were good for which courses and which careers. From a young age they had the chance to prep themselves, study the right subjects and do the right extra-curricular activities to boost their chances of being accepted onto the course they wanted.

Perhaps if some of these conversations had been more commonplace in my upbringing I would have made different choices, maybe some of them would have been better. In all honesty I consider myself quite lucky: I loved my time at university, I found a field that I was passionate about and have been incredibly fortunate with how my career has played out thus far. If it wasn’t for one passing comment from a teacher perhaps I wouldn’t have been so lucky, and I know many that weren’t.

Education is one of the most important factors for upwards mobility, it shouldn’t be left to chance.

So what can we do?

On an institutional level I would like to see careers guidance become a compulsory part of education (for all key stages). I would like to see further reductions in university fees and entry requirements for those from lower income families, alongside an information campaign in schools to make these things common knowledge. This will help to alleviate some of the financial anxieties that prevent many from applying to university and help to better reflect the inequality present in education.

On a personal level, outreach to schools and communities is incredibly important and can be very rewarding. For example, a presentation from a visiting researcher talking about their career journey can be a fantastic way to spike a young person’s curiosity and get them on the path to asking the right questions early on. Several charities actively run courses and work placements for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to help them gain insight into future career opportunities (In2science being one that I am personally involved with).

For an entire community to become mobile we don’t need everyone in that community to have a university education. What we do need is for everyone to have access to someone who has.

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