My grandfather died of a heart attack just as his wife was expecting my father, the sixth of her children.
Grandfather performed in a circus, I heard, diving into a tank of water dressed like a Native American, a nugget of information I thought quite thrillingly colourful, but which my father could be sensitive about. Eccentricity was for toffs; for ordinary folk it invited ridicule.
My father knew real poverty, lived in an era when single mothers were rare, and had no choice but to leave school at 14 to support his mum. His office job lasted only weeks before one of his old teachers intervened, visiting the lawyer’s office to insist he should go to university, and arranging a bursary for him to continue his education. I often wondered what would have happened had he stayed with the dusty tomes and dusty dreams.
From my father’s story, I understood the value of education, the magic key that opens doors or slams them shut. Despite secret, wistful thoughts of being a dancer, education won because, as the last of six children, all of whom went to university, it was unthinkable not to. Education was our currency. It bought a future.
Joe Wicks is an authentic inspiration
So, the footage of the nation’s lockdown PE teacher, Joe Wicks, accepting an honorary doctorate in Westminster Cathedral from St Mary’s University, moved me.
Wicks’ parents both suffered from mental health issues. He found it hard to focus, easy to disrupt. “As a kid, people didn’t have much expectation of me,” he said tearfully, clearly overcome by the scale of both the occasion and his accomplishments.
Wicks recounted being taken on a bus to visit St Mary’s as a teenager. It was an epiphany. He looked around and saw that the bus was full of “bad boys” and asked himself a question: “Why am I on this bus?”
What he saw that day gave him a goal to aim for, opening his eyes to what became his passion in life: sport science. None of his family had been to university he said, breaking completely.
The authenticity of Wicks’ emotional acceptance speech contrasted sharply with sterile talk of education at this week’s Tory leadership debate.
Truss and Sunak did not experience educational barriers
Liz Truss repeated claims that her political motivation was her old school which, in the last debate, she said was full of children in a “red wall” seat who were failed by low expectations and scant opportunities. Never mind that, the next day, a contemporary at that same school, a journalist, accused Truss of distortion.
Their school, he wrote, was nothing like her description. Furthermore, it went from “satisfactory” under the Conservative government to “outstanding” under Labour.
It was recently pointed out in the media that a surprising number of Britain’s elite studied the same course at the same university
Sunak and Truss trotted out the word “opportunity” frequently. But, as both my father and Joe Wicks illustrate – now there’s a sentence I never expected to write – education does not exist in a vacuum. That hasn’t changed from my father’s generation to Wicks’.
My father had economic barriers. Wicks had social ones that highlight the fact that educational policy can’t stand alone. Opportunity is only opportunity if you are in a position to seize it.
Inspiration. Motivation. Widened horizons. Education is a life-changer. It’s also the weapon of the ruling class.
It was recently pointed out in the media that a surprising number of Britain’s elite studied the same course at the same university: politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford. Prime ministers, cabinet members, broadcasting chiefs, even influential journalists trudged the same route.
Rishi Sunak? PPE at Oxford. Lis Truss? Yep, PPE at Oxford – despite that “failing” school of hers.
Education should expand the world
News that the state university of Texas is to introduce a course on pop star Harry Styles invites ridicule. Yet, the detail of the course reads: “Harry Styles and the cult of celebrity: identity, the internet, and European pop culture“. What is that but sociology?
Looking at the role of Styles in changing attitudes to gender fluidity is perhaps reasonable if education reflects the evolving world around us and analyses the reasons for social change. Would Sunak and Truss pass that course?
Education should expand the world, not shrink it. In that regard, Texas is doing better than Sheffield Hallam University, which has scrapped its English literature course in a bid to offer courses that “lead to meaningful employment in six months”. Is that political “opportunity”? Because it’s educationally unfathomable.
Queer identifying historian Dr Louie Dean Valencia-Garcia will teach the world's first Harry Styles course at Texas State University in 2023, including his intersections with gender, sexuality, celebrity, fan culture and consumerism. @BurntCitrus #harrystyles pic.twitter.com/I1RdU0vF8S
— James McKenzie (@JMcKMelbourne) July 20, 2022
My father’s office job was meaningful economically, but university – including the study of English literature – expanded his career and his mind. Joe Wicks was hardly studying PPE, but has made an enormous success out of his chosen path.
Education is not simply a body of knowledge. It’s an approach, an attitude, a way of thinking, and that doesn’t just “happen” through equal access, because we don’t have equal lives.
It’s a raft, a lifebuoy and, at its best, a bridge. And no amount of bandying the word “opportunity” about, without preparing the foundations, will build that bridge.
Catherine Deveney is an award-winning investigative journalist, novelist and television presenter