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Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Getting into Cambridge - Cambridge Tab

This was published by Cambridge Tab on 6th March 2011.

My week has been unusually steeped in politics. I spent a hefty gobbet of it pestering academics to sign CUSU petitions in order to protect maintenance bursaries. The thought of students from ‘non-traditional university backgrounds’ arriving in Cambridge and being unable to spend their time and others’ money with the same wanton disregard as me is despicable.

Admittedly, I’m being facetious in order to boost my authorial voice, but seriously: the cuts to bursaries are savage, and will present a huge obstacle to raising access.

Everyone knows that Cambridge is pretty intense, and this intensity extends beyond the listless cravings for validation, which see us taking blankets and toothpaste to the library. As graduation beckons, I’m starting to get the first pangs of future nostalgia and I’m beginning to see the city with alumn-eyes.

Before arriving in Cambridge, I was annoyed that I couldn’t get a job. Now, I don’t know how anybody would survive balancing paid work with study. Even this – the ability to have three years to dedicate to learning – is an absolute luxury. It didn’t feel like a luxury two hours ago, when I was embroiled in a tempestuous hissyfit in Starbucks because of my inability to develop a ‘new angle’ on the interplay between sexualities and eugenics. But, it is a luxury – one that should be accessible to anybody who loves learning.

So, what got you into Cambridge, good reader of The Tab?

Money definitely counts. A furtive glance down Trinity Street is enough to prove that most Cambridge students haven’t been dragged face-down through poverty to get here. I disagree with the idea that some social groups are intrinsically more intelligent than others. Money is no substitute for intellectual success, but it certainly acts as its catalyst.

Money can buy you financial stability in your home life, private tuition, private education (if you like that sort of thing), the entrance to cultural events, the ability to mingle in the right milieu, enriching holidays, school trips, and The Gap Yah. Of course all this stuff has a huge benefit. The point is: culture counts.

So, what got me here? It certainly wasn’t money, but I would be bullshitting to the extreme if I said I worked hard. I didn’t get here because of natural intelligence either. I think I got here because of my curiosity: priceless, but limitless, curiosity.

Curiosity can open doors for you regardless of where you come from. Mine wasn’t an Enid Blyton-like inquisitiveness, and I didn’t have any amazing rites of passage from it. I was just interested to know about different people’s lives.

Curiosity impelled the 14-year-old me to make the na├»ve and potential life-ending blunder of taking a video camera into Doncaster’s red light district in order to interview the women who were working as prostitutes. It made me ask questions. It made me enter competitions. It made me write poems and stories. It made read books.

I’m beginning to think that being successful is all about having belief in your ability, and surrendering yourselves to your passions. Most kids have stuff that fascinates them, but then they grow up, get Facebook, spend their time moping about, and start being all pubertal. Our culture is so staid and docile.

The best thing we could do to get more people to consider Cambridge is to encourage more people to cling onto their interests and passions. We need to demystify our weird university and welcome curious people, regardless of their background, with open arms. Cambridge is their turf.


  1. Hi there,
    I'm really interested in some of things you're raising here, but I'm curious - what do you think it was about your life growing up that enabled you to follow your interests, take risks, explore ideas etc? I'm not sure curiosity alone could have made you do all those things - all children are curious, aren't they?
    It's just that I'm thinking over these things at the moment - as someone who was a teacher and now works in teacher education, it's something I need to think about properly - the assumptions of teach first bother me (which is how I found your blog) and I'm just trying to work out why they bother me quite so much...
    Good luck over there anyhow and thanks for taking the time to post your thoughts.

  2. Hi Lynn, thanks for the insightful questions. Thinking about it, I did underplay literacy as an important part of the process. Growing up, we didn't have any books in the house, except for when I was 2, 3, 4 years old. This meant that by the time I got to nursery, I was already ahead on reading, and I became a competent reader quite early. Being able to read allows you to look beyond your immediate surroundings, I guess, and experience other worlds.

    If I'm going to get honest about things, I was always praised when I was little, which encouraged me to try new things. Now as an adult, I still 'rely' upon praise a little too much, but it does nonetheless give a confidence which allows you to step out of the comfort zone.

    This one is unhelpful for you as a teacher educator, but for me a turning point was becoming friends with a girl who loved learning and did have access to things like books and broadsheet newspapers at home (her dad was a teacher). This is definitely an advantage of comprehensive education which is often overlooked; the 'mingling of classes'. So she would recommend books to me and it was only when I was about 12 or 13 that I really read for leisure and got interested enough in things to be able to call it curiosity - joining an Alpha Course to talk about religion, joined a course on Practical Philosophy, got adventurous with photography and creative writing etc. Maybe something like networks of encouragement would work, from a teaching perspective - peer-led project work which allows the children to really get stuck into a topic, research it and engage with it.

    It combines well with the naivety of youth, as my friend and I discovered when we set out, aged 14, to film a documentary in the red light district about exploitation of women. Formative experiences :P

    I'm really interested to hear your concerns about Teach First; I'm sure others in my position, about to start it, may have some similar concerns too.


  3. Hi there,

    I'm beginning to work something out here - we're going to meet in a face to face situation relatively soon I think! I'm based at the IoE (I specialise in ICT and New Media in the Primary Dept) and will be involved in the Teach First summer school. That's why I'm trying to get my head around it all - I want to get a real understanding of what's involved.

    I think my concerns are probably centred around the labelling of schools as being 'challenging' and the role of Teach First in making a difference. I'm not sure the idea of 'challenging circumstances' captures the complexity of life in London schools where there are a vast range of resources to draw on from within the school community - just having children and parents/carers from such diverse backgrounds makes the classroom an incredibly rich environment to work in. I'm not saying there aren't issues around social justice and the reproduction of inequalities, there are, but I'm uncomfortable if a deficit model of schools is being used without placing those challenges within a wider context (I'm not sure that is what Teach First is doing, it was an initial concern of mine though).

    I was also troubled by the expectations being placed on participants in the scheme; I've been trying to work out if they're realistic and trying to think through what will be most helpful to support you all in that summer school. Discovering your blog has filled me with much joy though - your insights are thought provoking and you seem to have a very realistic understanding of both big and small issues in education. I think your idea of networks of encouragement is a very good one, especially if they can draw on resources/ideas/interests from outside school. Have you come across the Reggio Emilia approach from Italy - it's worth having a look at.

    Anyway, good luck with your finals (I can't work out what you're studying - PPS? I did Arch and Anth - a long time ago now!) and I look forward to meeting you and your cohort of Teach Firsters in June...


  4. Very valid concerns - I can definitely relate to what you are saying about the defecit model, and I would hope that Teach First are wise enough to acknowledge the massive impact that even subtle differences between areas can make. I'd bet this is even more the case in London where affluence exists so close to poverty.

    I'm really excited to find out where I am placed in London, as it will all be new to me. If I get a KS2 class (fingers crossed!) I'm liking the idea of the kids being my tourguides to their community and putting together some activities tying in literacy with citizenship. It'll be good for the kids and genuinely insightful for me as a Yorkshireman cast adrift in the Big Smoke :P

    I'm not sure about the expectations placed on us really; I guess it will affect people in different ways. It certainly seems high octane and I only feel quite comfortable with it because I've got a lot of experience with kids - for those participants who don't have that, it must seem like a pretty daunting and risky move. When I've been doing my placement for Teach First I've had to explain to a lot of primary teachers what Teach First is and my explanation has boiled down to "It's a hybrid of a university PGCE and an on-the-job training." I guess that's the way I see it. If I hadn't have been able to do Teach First I was going to apply to IoE for the PGCE anyway.

    I think a lot of the controversy and some of the disquiet about Teach First among teacher educators relates more to TFs recruitment which follows the model of leading graduate employers (really corporate etc). When it gets to the actual training itself, and those who gain places, it really isn't that different from most other education training routes. That's my view anyway; I might not be following the party line there :P I'm keen to teach, First or otherwise.

    Oh my, thanks for the timely good luck for exams - got my timetable this week and am starting to feel the strain. PPS is the current carnation of Social and Political Sciences - I did Social Anthropology in first year and it seemed very good for the brain. Mostly impractical but a nice exercise in intellectual gymnastics.

    See you in the summer,

  5. Hi there,
    Just to say having a (brief) chat with you here has been really useful - I think you're right you know, I think one of the main issues from my end has been the marketing. The Teach First message is very clear and works well, but there's a danger it implies that a) teachers in 'challenging' schools are in dire need of being rescued and b) other routes into teaching aren't all that. Which I guess is the thing that got to me because I'm well aware that the schools we work with and the students on our Primary PGCE are pretty amazing. But yes, it's marketing and recruitment, i think I should bear that in mind....

    On the organisational side of things, I do wish the 'summer school' was split so that we got to see a bit more of you all collectively around January time, but you do come back in periodically, so I guess I'll have to see what that feels like. Anyway, great idea about children being tour guides (that could easily be KS1 as well you know with some tweaking) and see you in a couple of months...