Why I'm proud of my working class privilege
Guest post written by Siobhan Russell
Growing up working class is nothing to be ashamed of and it teaches you a lot - not least the value of a lot of things. However, when we talk about education, career progression and social mobility, it opens up a debate that reveals something to frown upon.
The recently broadcast BBC documentary, “How to Break into the Elite” saw Amol Rajan, (south London boy turned BBC Media Editor) shine a light on a topic that is anything but new, but sadly remains just as troubling. A third of the UK is working class and only 10% of those people work in “elite” professions. I can only speak from my own experiences insofar as this topic goes.
I come from a background that isn’t shy when it comes to hard work but I knew nobody who worked in a professional job. My mother was a single parent for many years and returned to university to qualify as a nurse when I was a teen. My grandfather worked in construction but always voiced an unwavering belief that I could be anything I wanted. So I had role models for sure, but I also saw people I knew I didn’t want to be like. I shunned the idea of university, dropping out of my law degree after only a year. I had had enough of education and could already see I wasn’t like the other candidates who were landing jobs, knew lawyers or were related to one. I didn’t have family financial backing for unpaid work experience or gap years. A series of jobs followed, each industry different to the last- construction, admin, gambling, funerals. I was floating about with no direction other than “I want better than this”.
In my early 20’s I had a child and this was like a revelation. I signed up to return to do my law degree and graduated with a 2:1 in 2011. Despite being awarded a partial scholarship to study to become a barrister, (in an interview where I felt completely ill at ease and out of my depth), I decided I wanted to be a solicitor instead. I didn’t have the money to do the necessary course and neither did my parents. My son arrived shortly after completing my degree, meaning I was even more hesitant about borrowing £12,000 to complete a course. Given that I had also experienced lots of rejections, I couldn’t see that the next step was viable at the time. Whilst pregnant with my third child in 2016, I found out that you could obtain SLC funding for a masters course. And so, I embarked on the Legal Practice Course- the endurance course for all wannabe solicitors. Through pregnancy and delivery and the devastating loss of my grandfather, I ploughed through this course and found my determination and direction again. I’m now a paralegal at a law firm I love and in an area of law I enjoy. I am yet to secure a training contract to complete my journey but I am determined to do so.
The point of all of the above, is it is not a common tale amongst people in the legal industry in its entirety. There are absolutely other parents and others who share common denominators, but to say I have met many incredibly similar to me would be a lie. There are times that I wonder if someone will realise I am an imposter and times if I wonder that I have done or said the right thing. Competition is tough in this industry and this doesn’t just apply to me or any working class individual. The difference emerges however, when we talk about “playing the game”. Networking, interview techniques and basically creating a brand out of yourself are all essential elements of success. No problem right? Well, these are things that just aren’t everyday skills handed down with a state school education.
These are things I had to bite the bullet and learn for myself. I observed people I wanted to be like. I went to court and asked them questions and watched them. I looked for opportunities to meet people that could give an insight. I did not have ready access to those people however. It took a lot of courage to go to a courtroom on my own and approach a barrister or approach firms and ask for work experience. Some people will object and say it is unfair to assume a private education means these opportunities are more readily available. Often though, this is the case because it is more likely you will have access to people who can answer these questions and fill those gaps. It is more likely your parents will be from a professional background. It is less likely that you will struggle financially. That’s just the reality of the structure. Connections and knowledge of etiquette and culture are power. Some will say any disadvantage I experienced is counteracted by the steps I took, which in effect amounts to nearly the same as others have had to. It doesn’t change the fact that there were more hoops. And what if those soft skills are missing, are not developed enough, you’re a different sort of person, you aren’t lucky enough to find out from someone what is expected? What happens then? Not to mention, that confidence, codes and fitting in can’t just be faked. The overall “polish” comes from so many factors, and every disadvantage has a corrosive effect.
If it wasn’t for the SLC funding it is unlikely I would have been able to complete my postgraduate education. Even then, it isn’t ultimately the great equaliser. Then there is my own admission that I am by no means the most disadvantaged candidate there is. Yet the fact remains that there was a huge level of detail in the documentary that resonated with me. So I can only imagine how much more acute this problem can be for other individuals. When we add gender, ethnic minority, or any other attribute we associate with the magic word “diversity”, the barriers increase.
This is not a sympathy card.
People insist that this topic is not a “thing”- I can assure them it very much is for some. We then come to the notion that someone who has had to work harder by virtue of disadvantage should be worthier of consideration for that reason alone. That is not the point and that is not the argument. A pity party is not the end goal. Rather it is opening the hatch on potential that can only be beneficial to a company if they would refuse to allow the unconscious (and sometimes very conscious) bias to cloud their judgement.
Some are handed a good hand of cards and speed through to the end goal and others aren’t and have to reshuffle them, sometimes several times for a better outcome. That is the most basic analogy that can describe the difference. Rather than debate the existence of a problem that the stats confirm we should be talking about what we are going to do about it.
About the author
Siobhan Russell is a paralegal working in the regulatory department within business advisory at ShooSmiths LLC. She completed her LLB 2008-2011 and LPC LLM 2016-2018. She is a working mum, married with 3 children aged 2, 6 and 11. Previous careers include working in the funeral trade and a brief stint in criminal defence.