Raising Aspirations

This is a difficult post to write. This has been in my head for years (many years) and it will be very long and incoherent so please bear with me. I may regret sharing these personal things with the world but here goes...

I've just been crying, uncontrollably, into my lunch. It wasn't the fault of my sandwich making skills. It was because I looked at a slide from a talk. Actually, it was the second time looking at it; I looked at it earlier this morning and it had me crying then too. They are only words on a screen. I know that. They made visible, in white and blue, things that have bothered me for about as long as I can remember.

The slide was shown at an Institute of Physics workshop (#raisingaspirations) that was held this morning. I only know about it because I saw some tweets from the RAS's Robert Massey. The workshop was talking about disadvantaged groups and why they don't make it into physics careers (and, presumably by extension, astronomy). The talks included data about the differences in progression for different socio-economic groups at various points through secondary school and university. In summary:


This is a big problem. It is good to have figures to back up what I've observed as I went through the system. Now for a short aside.

The very first experiment I ever remember devising involved a tooth and socio-economics. I can't have been older than about 8 and one of my baby teeth had just fallen out. Nobody else knew about it and I realised I had an opportunity to check a hypothesis. I'd become aware that there seemed to be a link between how much the Tooth Fairy left under your pillow and the income of your parents (and pocket money). Previously I had received 10p for my teeth compared to my classmates who were on 20p or 50p for similarly sized teeth. An income-link on Tooth Fairy payments wasn't mentioned by adults and seemed unfair even for a creature building a castle from children's teeth. So I put the tooth under my pillow and didn't tell anyone about it. In the morning it was still there. I decided to give it another night in case the Tooth Fairy had been busy, but it still didn't go. The Tooth Fairy was over for me. Disproven with 8 year old science.

This is a trivial, and slightly silly, example of the differences I saw growing up. There are many others which are all trivial in and of themselves.

I grew up on a council estate next to well-off areas. For comparison, my estate ranks as 10 (out of 11) for indices of multiple deprivation compared to 2 for many of my school friends. Amongst other things, that means my life expectancy at birth is several years less than them even though I attended the same schools and lived only a mile away!

I was lucky to attend a nursery (presumably paid for by the LEA) as that helps boost later life chances. I went to good schools due to the luck of living near to them. At middle school I missed out on free music lessons because my parents couldn't afford to buy an instrument. I only got as far as the recorder at primary school so can't discuss music grades like others do; it is amazing how many physicists learned an instrument to Grade something-or-other at school.

I was very lucky with my parents. Both had left school at 14 but they knew education was important and instilled in me the idea that learning was good. By the time I was 13 they weren't able to help me if I got stuck with my homework. We went to free museums and galleries, visited old buildings, and occasionally even the theatre when we got late discount (or free seat-filling) tickets from a friend of the family who worked in the box office. They encouraged me with the idea that I could go to university. We even went to a public open day at Leeds University when I was nine. By 14, I was in a single parent family.

At school I was lucky as I could make friends with middle class kids who thought it was normal to study. Many of the kids who lived on my estate didn't have the same encouragement at home as I did and thought learning was for "swots". As school went on they fell behind academically.

By A-Level I was beyond the educational experience of my immediate family. It was hard but I did well even though I was convinced the good grades must have been due to a mix up at the exam board. My neice, who is the year behind me, lived in a different area so had fewer privileges than me. Thankfully, her home environment helped counter that so she was one of the few girls in her year to get good A-Levels. In fact, she noted that those in her year at school were more likely to have a baby at 18 than an A-Level. She is now a very good teacher.

Encouraged by an A-Level teacher, I went for an open day at Cambridge University's architecture department (I was doing Physics/Maths/Art A-Levels). The admissions tutor seemed to be incredibly posh and used over-complicated language that I had no experience of. They made me feel stupid and I knew I didn't fit in. I changed subject to physics and applied to Manchester. In Manchester people seemed friendly and had northern accents (at least some). Surprisingly I got in despite having done badly at A-Level maths (dropping down two grades from my mock exam). The A in other subjects probably helped but I was convinced there must have been another mistake or that they felt sorry for me.

Since primary school I'd been building up to the pinnacle of getting to university. Once I was there I realised I didn't know what came next. I didn't know I was an "undergraduate" until a week or two into term. I was lacking the language that everyone else seemed to know (or hid it if they didn't). I needed to get the courage to ask people what a "semester", a "postgrad" and a "PhD" were whilst also trying to get my maths up to scratch.

University, even in Manchester, seemed very middle class. I knew my background was unlike other students. One of the few working class people I met was my lab partner Vicky. I'm not sure if that was chance or if the person in charge of assigning partners did it deliberately. Either way, it helped to have someone else to identify with. I always felt behind the middle class students and was still having the examiners mistakenly giving me good marks. In my final year, without any real expectation, I applied for a funded PhD place and got it. I then had to work out what this PhD thing was all about even though my actual abilities felt more at the level of a second year undergrad.

Later, I did a research postdoc but the combination of life-long imposter syndrome (both relative and absolute), feeling that I didn't quite fit in, having gone a long way beyond my socio-economic comfort zone, the shame that I got so far when others didn't, not having the sort of character needed to be an academic, and even knowing that I was benefiting from unconscious bias due to being a man and white meant I couldn't cope any longer. I'd reached the end. I resigned.

This is very "woe is me". Sorry. My examples are each tiny things in and of themselves. The point is not that I had it hard. The point is that I was very lucky. I was lucky to have a family who encouraged me. I was lucky to live in a good council house with a small garden. I was lucky to live next to a well-off area and benefit from middle class-ness by osmosis.

I have had more of a struggle than many who attend university but I also know there were many others from my background who had much more to overcome and didn't manage it. Not because of a failure in their character but because the odds were stacked against them since they were children. I'm sobbing (still) because it is so lovely to see an actual slide with many of the reasons written down. Not ignored. Not belittled. Just there. An acknowledgement.

If we want people of all races, gender identities, sexualities, and social backgrounds in the academy (hint: we should all want this) the biases need scrutiny and need to be sorted out. It isn't only the academy. Change will also have to happen in schools and society as the "pipeline" is leaking pretty much from the source.

If you got this far well done. And thank you.

Postscript: this post is about socio-economic disadvantage. As far as I can tell, the workshop also included other disadvantaged groups (and overlaps). I haven't addressed those, not because they are unimportant (they are very important), but because this was personal to me.

P.P.S. This is not a criticism of the people I've known through university. I've been lucky to meet lots of lovely people.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 20th Nov 2014 (16:20 GMT) | Permalink
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