Freedom News

Working class kids and the professional brick wall

Holly-Rae Smith writes on the barriers, structural and social, which she had to get past to get professional third-sector work, stressing the importance of working-class mentors — and a paid internship from Campaign Against The Arms Trade. This article first appeared in the February-March issue of Peace News as part of their working-class interviews series.

Growing up working-class erodes your confidence, almost by design. I just didn’t feel confident in any life stage, that I’d be able to excel or do well, or that anyone would actually want me as part of what they’re doing. People talk about ‘impostor syndrome’* all the time now. I do believe everyone has it, but if you’re from a disadvantaged background, it’s … it’s intense. It impacts your life daily.

I see that a lot with the working-class kids that I work with. When I was doing group work with them, people wouldn’t want to make a fool out of themselves by doing a silly warm-up. Because if they make a fool out of themselves, that’s just the end of the world. And it’s like that with everything. You get used to people expecting that you won’t be able to contribute very much.

I remember reading an article about how, if you’re working-class, learning to get by in a middle-class office is like learning another language, because you can’t express yourself in the same way, you can’t pronounce things in the same way, a lot of your cultural touch points are different. How you dress, what you’ve read, what you haven’t read, what you enjoy doing in your spare time.

You say: ‘My mum was an ironing lady’, and the only point of contact they can have with that is: ‘Oh, my parents had an ironing lady when I was a kid.’ It’s not even an internalised impostor syndrome, you’re very aware of how different you are from everyone else, all the time.

A working-class town

I grew up in Dartford, inside the M25, which is a motorway that goes around London. We always used to say: ‘Close enough to London that it’s scummy, but not far enough that it’s nice’! (laughs.) It’s just, like, a pretty rubbish working-class place. A lot of its industry got totally decimated after World War Two. Then the Bluewater shopping centre got built just outside of the M25 in 1999, and all the shops in Dartford just closed down.

My mum did odd jobs. She was an ironing lady for a really long time. She also did cleaning. Later, my mum went back to college and became a health care assistant.

My dad was a cable engineer for BT. Before that, he was in the army. All of my other family members have had those kinds of jobs. My gran worked in a telephone exchange. Granddad was a painter/decorator. They work on the market now.

We went to the Imperial War Museum and my dad was, like: ‘Oh, your great-great-granddad would have been in that horse-drawn cannon.’ Then he felt really old because they had the old tank that he used to operate when he was in Northern Ireland. The men in my family have all been in the royal artillery. It’s quite weird to be able to track your lineage through conflicts. Especially as an oppressive force.

In my mind, soldiers are mostly working-class lads who’ve got no other option. If you haven’t been raised in a town where the army are aggressively recruiting, you maybe wouldn’t understand it.

The military put so much money into indoctrinating kids into thinking that it’s all fine, selling it in a way that totally minimises all of the fucking horrible shit that goes along with it. And for the people who come out of the army, life’s so shit. Disproportionate homelessness and mental health problems and alcoholism and drug use. Recruiters never mention those bits.

I used to get very angry at university when people would be, like: ‘All soldiers are scumbags.’ Actually, it’s a system where they’re set up to fail. They are used, like a resource, as you would paper in a printer. They don’t really have a say in it, they have no other options. This is how our society is structured.

The reason why I started to turn left-wing, the thing that really sparked me was: after Tony Blair announced the invasion of Iraq, my dad got a reserves letter [saying he might be called up for the British army]. I couldn’t get in my head why any society would just send someone’s dad to die. I must have been something like 12.

Class training

School’s a bit weird in Kent because they’ve still got a state grammar school system. So, at 11, you take your 11-plus exam. I cannot emphasise how big a deal it is. The Tories like to say it helps people like me, working-class kids who they label as ‘bright’, get ahead. But, actually, it just leaves people who don’t pass that exam totally behind.

People rarely say ‘smart’ or ‘clever’ or ‘intelligent’ about working-class kids. They always say you’re ‘really bright’ because that’s what you say about people who surprise you: ‘Oh, they’re really bright! That shocked me.’ You say that about a small child or a dog. You don’t say that about young adults.

I was the only kid in my primary school who got into grammar school without external tutoring. Because my parents couldn’t afford it, they had to have a meeting with the head teacher and she was saying: ‘You’re letting your child down by not paying for tutoring.’

In a way, grammar school really is just class training. They used to come down really hard on your accent and any kind of slang, things like that. It was an all-girls school, as well, so it did feel at points like a kind of finishing school to churn out middle-class young ladies.

My mum used to call me ‘Eliza Doolittle’.** At school, I couldn’t speak with an estuary accent and I was constantly being told to ‘speak properly’. But then, at home, people would be: ‘Why are you speaking like that?’ ‘That’s a long word, what does that mean? Stop trying to impress us. Stop trying to make us feel stupid. Do you think you’re better than us?’

At primary school I’d got bullied quite a lot for not having stuff, branded stuff. At the grammar school, they make sure your uniforms are identical, I think, for this reason. You do get people travelling all the way from the other side of London, really posh people, just to go to that school, and then you’ve got the local kids.

It’s a really awful system. I would like to see it demolished, actually.

Go to the moon?

At my old school, at the sixth form, you have to again apply to get back in. You have to get a certain amount of GCSEs to get in. I lost all of my friends after GCSEs and then had to make new friends, who were nearly all middle-class – and they all had a plan.

Everyone was starting to talk about going to uni. I honestly did not think I would go. But I was doing sociology A-level and I was quite good at it. My teacher was this young, working-class Indian woman, she was, like: ‘No, you’re good enough, you gotta go.’ Basically, she stood over me while I started my UCAS [Universities and Colleges Admissions Service] application.

I googled ‘where’s the best places to go in the country for sociology’ and number one was Cambridge. That wasn’t going to happen. Number two was Warwick. I took a really cursory glance at the syllabus: ‘Oh, they do loads of stuff on feminism. Oh, they do some stuff on Marx. OK, let’s put that down.’ I think my second choice was Kent, because that’s where basically everyone from Dartford ends up going: Kent or Essex, somewhere close to home.

It couldn’t have been more than half an hour that I spent on applying to university. I didn’t talk to my parents about it. My personal statement, I think I must have spent probably the break time before it was due in on it. Now, as someone who works with teenagers, trying to get them to write personal statements, I appreciate how ridiculous that is.

I was working in Bluewater in a shop at that point. I just thought I’d stay there for a bit and then maybe do a healthcare assistant course and do what my mum did and go work at Darent Valley hospital.

No-one in my family had been to uni. I’ve got a distant great-uncle who was in the civil service, but he didn’t go to uni, he worked his way up into that. My aunt worked in a shipping company. Another aunt’s a hairdresser. No one’s got middle-class jobs. No one’s done that sort of thing. Why would I be any different?

At the time, money was always an issue. There was times when I was lending money to my parents. Uni just seemed like something that middle-class people do as a jolly, like a gap year. I just didn’t entertain it as an idea. You might as well have just said: ‘Do you want to go to the moon?’ I would have been, like: ‘Oh, great, yeah.’

My grades at the time were not good enough to get into Warwick. For sociology, I got a D in my AS-level exam. My teacher thought that they’d mixed up our papers somehow but we couldn’t afford a re-count, and I couldn’t afford at that time the £40 to get my paper sent back to me. That further emphasised the point that I was just not going to uni.

But then, post-divorce, my mum was very impulsive, she was, like: ‘Well, fuck it, let’s book a hotel and you could end up at Warwick, let’s go and see it on the Open Day.’

It was the last Open Day that they had of the year. I started talking to someone who, conspicuously, no one else was talking to. I think it was because she was the only black woman in the room. Everyone else was white, professory-types. I just started speaking to her and she turned out to be Dr Cecily Jones, who was the head of first year studies and did the admissions. I was totally oblivious to who she was.

Because I didn’t care about getting in, I wasn’t putting on any pretensions, I was just talking about all kinds of mad crap. I say mad crap, just left-wing politics and all these things.

Apparently, she liked me because I got sent an offer – for much lower than the three As that you normally needed to get into Warwick. I couldn’t quite believe it really. We did a dance around the front room.

For my A-levels, I worked harder than I’ve ever done in my life. I managed to pull my D up to a B, so I got the grade. All of my middle-class friends who didn’t get into their first choices hated me for it.

Because it was so unreal to me, I was a bit oblivious to what it actually meant. Then we went to IKEA and I got to spend £90 on stuff for my room. (laughs) That was my birthday treat.

And then I went to Warwick. Totally bizarre.

Never had oysters?

All of my family couldn’t have been more proud, actually. Even now, even at Christmas, when I went and saw them, 10 years on, they’re still saying: ‘Oh, you know, first one to go to university!’ Which is quite a strange pressure! But it’s quite sweet, really.

Because I’d got a scholarship as well, I had to go to these termly dinners with some of the alumni donors. Which was humiliating, going around with your begging bowl. Just having to listen to old racist people and not being able to say anything. I was just sat there in literally borrowed clothes because I didn’t have anything posh.

Whereas my next-door neighbour, Rupa, her dad used to buy her – I’m not kidding you – a new wardrobe of clothes every term. She was: ‘Yeah! Take what you want!’

There were lots of people who had never encountered a working-class person before. Who didn’t believe they could exist at university. I had someone say: ‘Well, you’re at Warwick, so your parents must have some money.’ Or, someone honestly said: ‘You’ve never had oysters before? Did your parents abuse you?’

I had a really big falling out with one of my housemates. Her parents were in that in-between stage where they couldn’t really support her, so she had to have a job when she was at uni, but she still didn’t qualify for a maintenance grant or a scholarship. She snapped at me once: ‘Oh, not everyone’s parents can get divorced so you can just waltz into uni.’

Someone else said I was racist because I didn’t know what hummus was! (laughs) And, of course, this was a white, middle-class man telling me this! Just monstrous.

On the other hand, I had loads of really, really wonderful friends. Even they did put their foot in it sometimes.

Chavs by Owen Jones came out I think in my second year. Everyone read it and were, like: ‘Holly! You’ve got to read this! It will change your life! This is amazing!’ I told them: ‘I don’t need Owen Jones to tell me what my life’s been like up until this point.’ (laughs)

There were some solid people, for instance in the CAAT [Campaign Against Arms Trade] group. It was nice to have a group of people who, though they didn’t always understand, I kind of felt they did always have my back. I’d been left-wing at school and I’d been very vocal about it. But it was only at uni that I started doing more direct action stuff. We did an occupation around Gaza.

Then you have people who were just totally clueless. One used to moan about his dad owing him money. And then it turned out that actually that was just his way of saying that his dad was giving him his £700 allowance for the month and hadn’t paid it into his account yet!

I get so angry when people say that if you go to university you’re immediately middle class. University isn’t like a bar exam for passing into the middle classes. It doesn’t change your experiences or upbringing. That winds me up.

The last one

After uni came… crushing unemployment. (laughs) Signing on in Chatham, which is a very depressing place.

At first it was kind of cool. Everyone’s kind of enjoying the summer and that’s fine. Then, after that, everyone’s talking on Facebook: ‘Oh! Funemployment! LOL!’ You’re in it together.

Then all of my friends started to get work. They were getting entry-level jobs in charities or NGOs or doing unemployed internships. One by one, as they started getting jobs, it just became crushingly obvious that I was the last one.

I was signing on for, it must have been 18 months. Not a huge amount of time by some people’s stretch of being on the dole, but it was hard. The job centre woman looked at my CV and said: ‘Honestly, the only thing I’d change is I’d take off your degree.’ The only jobs in our area were either driving or working at the dogs.

Going to the job centre every week was the most ego-destroying experience. I think it’s probably fine if you’ve got parents you can go home to and they can support you long-term. Then signing on can be a bit of a jolly. But if that’s your main source of income, or if your parents rely on that money to be able to support you in the house, it’s a very different story, and it just wears you down.

All of my friends were: ‘Something will come up!’ They were trying to be really encouraging but it was really frustrating. All of the middle-class kids had got jobs. Either their parents pull strings for them or they’ve got internships and they’re staying at home or their parents are paying their rent.

After three years at uni, because I’d found a group of friends who respected me and knew me, I just thought: ‘Oh, nothing will be able to hold me back, going forward, because they all believe in me, and they all recognise my worth.’

Also, there are a lot of really entitled people at university who just think: ‘Oh, I’ll just get a job when I leave.’ That’s how they talk. So you start to believe it might apply to you as well.

Seeing everyone else get a job before me, I didn’t think: ‘Oh, it’s because they’ve got better connections.’ I didn’t think: ‘It’ll happen one day.’ I thought: ‘There is something wrong with me.’ I really did just think: ‘Silly little girl. You thought uni would make a difference. Of course, it wouldn’t make a difference. Of course, all your middle-class friends have got jobs. Of course, this was all going to happen. You should have known this was going to happen. Of course.’

In the end, I moved to Cambridge because I went to visit a friend and saw vacancies and I got a job in a bra shop. Maybe it’s a pattern, I didn’t really put a lot of thought into it.

I kind of gave up [Holly’s voice breaks a bit here] on the idea of working for an NGO or doing any kind of meaningful work.

That said, the bra shop did turn out to be awesome work in terms of a feminist-helping-women standpoint. But in terms of the job that is expected after you go to university…. All of my family had assumed that if you go to university, you’re going to get a much better job. When I didn’t, my younger cousins didn’t go to uni because ‘look at what happened to Holly’. Although my grandad never lost faith. He was always: ‘They can’t take that bit of paper away from you, Holly! No matter what! That’s your ticket!’ (laughs) Thanks, Marxist grandad.

Two interviews

I remember there was a People & Planet*** internship that came up. A paid one. One of my friends was, like: ‘Oh, you should apply for this.’

I had to go to Oxford and I just remember feeling totally humiliated. I found out afterwards they were playing ‘good cop, bad cop’. That totally threw me off. I spent the entire interview thinking: ‘Why does this person hate me?’ I thought that it was because I didn’t have the experience, I was working in a bra shop, what the fuck am I doing here?

It turned out that that was just what they were doing to make the interview process more fun – for them. I hope they’re not still doing that now, because they are good people at People & Planet.

I just remember coming back feeling utterly destroyed from that. ‘Right, I’m just going to work in a bra shop, that’s fine.’

I transferred to London. Working in Oxford Circus was the hardest I’ve ever worked. You’ve got people shouting at you all the time, spitting in your face, or crying, or somewhere in between, bossing you around. It doesn’t do much for your self-esteem.

Then the CAAT job came up, a one-year internship. Friends were all sending it to me: ‘You’ve got to apply, this is for you!’ These were my friends from uni. In a way, it was probably the connections I made at uni as opposed to my actual degree that helped.

It was the only internship I’d seen which was paid to the point where I could actually do it. I sent in my application quite late, because I didn’t really think I’d get it. Same as the university.

Then I got an interview. Again, in the story of my life, I went to the interview in a borrowed dress. Even though it was a ‘no dress code’ interview! I still borrowed a dress to go to it, because I didn’t feel I had anything nice enough. So ridiculous.

They called me back on the same day, because it was actually on my birthday that I interviewed, and they wanted me to know on my birthday.

I really couldn’t believe it.

Supporting fledglings

I still couldn’t believe it when I started working there. (laughs) I remember sitting down at my little desk and being, like: ‘This is just a two-week thing. I’m just going to have to go back to the stockroom.’ It was supposed to be a year, but they extended it a little bit for me, so I think it might have been 15 months, 18 months?

I totally loved it. I think I was the first full-time CAAT universities network co-ordinator. I couldn’t believe my luck really, just being able to go round the country and meet loads of great university groups, great anti-militarist groups. I just never thought I’d be able to do something like that and be paid for it and it be my job.

It was my job to support fledgling university groups. So I was doing training with them, doing talks. I also did a talk at a school about drones, and that was amazing, and that really opened up my love of working with children and young people. It showed that I’m quite good at it, and that’s what I’ve gone on to do since.

What was different about the internship? I didn’t get shouted at on a daily basis! (laughs) I think, without that, there’s a high probability I’d still be at Bravissimo. I might have become a manager or I might have moved to a different shop. But if it hadn’t been for that opportunity to get a paid internship I might still be sorting out soft cups, who knows?

With the charity sector and the NGO sector, it’s so grounded in the experience. So if you don’t have the time or the energy to do volunteering, or you don’t have the funds to do it for free, it’s totally inaccessible. Without that, and without the training and support that CAAT put me through, I wouldn’t have had the jobs I’ve had.

They gave me so much training, any time one came up, even if it wasn’t relevant to my role. A Photoshop training came up – they were: ‘Hey, do you want to do this?’ So then I started doing a lot of their posters and flyers for them. I re-did a load of the old resources, gave them a facelift.

Being able to do facilitation training was really good for my confidence, which had really eroded. Any confidence that I got at uni was just totally destroyed by unemployment. So it built that up and it enabled me to go forward into a different job.

After CAAT, I did some volunteering with SCOPE while I was unemployed. Ironically, helping teenagers with disabilities find jobs. I can’t find a job but I’ll help you guys!

I went on to Girlguiding. The government was throwing money at the uniformed youth organisations to try and get working-class people of colour into leadership positions. I was working with teenagers in Hackney in north London, getting them to work with the Brownies, which was really fun.

After that, I moved onto my current job. I work with kids who have cystic fibrosis. It’s a great role, creating a programme to help empower young people.

I’m actually using quite a lot of the skills I learned at CAAT, like a lot of the facilitation skills. People with cystic fibrosis can’t meet in person because of the risk of cross-infection. Because you have to do everything digitally, you have to be a confident facilitator because you can’t read off of physical cues.


After CAAT, when I was unemployed for a couple of months, even then, as I was applying for jobs, I thought: ‘Am I going to have to go back to the shop?’ Without the additional training, and the support from the team, I’d probably still be at the shop. It was a safety net, the easier option.

Being given the internship, I felt like: ‘Oh, actually, someone’s seeing that I can do it.’ That’s powerful, because I don’t think you get that a lot when you’re from a working-class background, you get dismissed a lot. Most of the time you just feel a bit thick.

One final question…

Peace News: How could middle-class people who may be clueless make internships more class-inclusive?

Holly: Stop advertising in the Guardian! (laughs) Or at least advertise in other places as well. It depends on what age you’re going for.

If you want to get college kids involved, you can work with inclusive programmes such as National Citizens’ Service. They run four-week summer programmes for kids and they try really hard to get to the people who need it most. A four-week residential is only £50. They’re really, really keen to find people who can run workshops for them. That’s for 16-17-year-olds.

Link in with local schools. It always baffles my mind how many charities and NGOs are based in working-class areas like East London and they don’t do anything with local colleges or schools. They’re pulling in from all over the country, but they don’t even go and do a school assembly at the local comp. Kids are so switched on, and so motivated by social justice issues. People are very quick to brush off teenagers as apathetic. Actually, most of the time, they just don’t like being talked down to.

As for working-class people at uni, be up front about the fact that you’re looking for working-class people. People get really weird about talking about class. They use euphemisms and get a bit flustered.

I think if you are just quite upfront and use the terminology, just say: ‘We want more women, we want more trans people, we want more working-class people, we want more people of colour.’ Just say it explicitly. Then people will think: ‘Oh, they are looking for someone like me.’

Don’t just approach young graduates as well. Lots of passionate working-class people won’t go to university until later in life, and they won’t all get lucky and sneak into a redbrick university like I managed! Go to the old polytechnics, go to the mature student events. Give an opportunity to someone who has taken a bit longer to get to this stage.

The thing is, when you just see an advert, even if loads of people are saying: ‘This is perfect for you’, it’s really easy to go: ‘Oh no, that’s not for me’, because you’re not used to describing yourself in those ways. If the job description says you’ve got to be good at ‘networking’, people might think: ‘I don’t have many connections in the industry, that’s not me.’ But actually, when charities say: ‘We want people who are good networkers’, they just mean people who will talk to everyone and anyone.

Working-class people under-selling themselves is a really big thing. Or maybe, conversely, middle-class people over-selling themselves! (laughs) There are so many people who I work with now who just blag and bullshit their way through everything. I’m not sure what kind of advice that is for middle-class people trying to set up class-inclusive internships but it’s something to chew on!

Maybe give people the benefit of the doubt and read between the lines a little bit. They are navigating an alien world.

And pay them a living wage!

  • The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘impostor syndrome’ as: ‘The persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills.’

** Eliza Doolittle is a character in Pygmalion, a 1913 play by George Bernard Shaw which was later turned into both a musical and a film (My Fair Lady). Eliza starts as a poverty-striken working-class Cockney flower girl. She is taught how to speak, dress and behave like an upper-class woman.

*** People & Planet is an Oxford-based network of university student campaigning groups.

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