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April, 08, 2014

The bright poor: escaping the council estate

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Name: Katrina Holmes
Member of: Graduate Panellist
Joined: March, 2014
Katrina's Full Profile

I’m a council estate kid. A kid that grew up around tower blocks, police raids and fights. A kid that ate little and saw a lot. I’m a twenty one year old that still feels like that council estate kid. There’s this feeling that I’m a poorer breed; a breed that should be kept in the estate and only let out after dark. After all, no one would be able to see us then. When us kids from the estate converse, there’s a quiet acknowledgement. We know hardship; it’s settled in our bones like it’s the strength waking us up every morning. We’ve seen things that other people ignore or disbelieve in; we see life in its raw, truthful state. Broken homes, broken windows, broken bones. Does that make us less worthwhile?

Photo by Cassie Stewart

Photo by Cassie Stewart

I went to a grammar school; it was Ofsted’s idea of perfection and my idea of prejudice. There’s no tell-tale sign of being from ‘that council estate’ but they’ll see things and hear things and eventually know you in a way you didn’t want them to. Your deepest secrets laid bare through Chinese whispers and playground chit chat. Other parents will be warning their children to stay away from you as though you’re a disease spreading at the rate of the bubonic plague. I’d never bunked until sixth form. The issue is, if you tell someone often enough that they’re nothing; they’ll behave like that. I would bunk so I had control over something when I had no control over anything else and for a small moment, I felt free.

Photo by Harsha K R

Photo by Harsha K R

When a council estate kid has the opportunity to go to university, it’s a tough situation. No one thinks you can do it; you don’t think you can do it. It’s a live or let die moment where you make a choice that will change your life. Teachers refuse to help you and the few that do patronise you to within an inch of your life. This was my situation. My head of year 13 said ‘you have mammoth amounts of work to do if you have the slightest hope.’ I made a choice two weeks before my International Baccalaureate exams to actually try. I knew if I didn’t and failed, there would never be a way out of the estate. There’d be babies, drugs and survival of the fittest and I was at my weakest.

Photo By HoxtonChina

Photo By HoxtonChina

I passed all seven subjects with an A* in English. When you’re studying for a degree, you feel as though you’re part of an underground revolution that’s going to rise up and take over the world with words and new-found respect. It doesn’t work out like that. I graduated last July and have been working non-stop since. There’s rent to pay, food to buy and bills that venomously stack up yet I’m closer to Mars than to a graduate job. There’s a huge, fundamental catch 22 that so many people are failing to see. Companies nod along to your degree as though it’s as easy as reciting the ABC and ask ‘what experience do you have?’ I ponder this. They want you full time unpaid; how will we survive with no parents and no help?

Photo by Mateus Felipe C.

Photo by Mateus Felipe C.

When I reluctantly say I have no internship experience, I know they’re questioning my dedication to the craft that I love. I ask, doesn’t my work ethic that continuously pushes me to a workplace that offers me nothing show more than a couple of internships? If I was to go for the same job as someone who has three internships under their literature belt, does that make them a better writer than me or does it simply show their social class? It’s a wonderful thing to get out there and grow from internships but what if you’re on the other side?

Middle-class children from middle-class families will continue to be middle-class and us council estate kids, degree or no degree, will always be second best. The catch 22 is that some people are born with the love of both parents and some people aren’t. That is the way of the world and clearly, we’re still much more privileged than a lot of other people in a lot of other places. But how can we stop being poor if companies are continuously choosing those with the greatest experience but not the greatest skill? Council estate kids aren’t envious of middle-class people; the only thing we are, some of us, is motivated not to go back to the place that took so much from us. Staff and pupils from my past said I may as well not bother. They said a council estate kid will get nowhere and I wonder now where exactly my nowhere will be?

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  1. Kristian Cormack

    First of all i would like to say that i thought your article was very well written, but having been raised on a council estate in Liverpool, i it is also packed full of cliches and only succeeds in discouraging working class people from striving to achieve success, whilst reinforcing the very stereotypes you criticize

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  2. Ibtisam Jamal

    Hmmm…This article is a great , I would just like to point that out first. However the whole ‘Middle-class children from middle-class families will continue to be middle-class and us council estate kids, degree or no degree, will always be second best. ‘ I partially agree but my disagreement is that as cliche as this sounds , life is honestly the way you make it. I for one have had first hand experience with being the first member of my family to go to university whilst even relatives and certain friends thought that I couldn’t. So I understand the whole under-dog feeling living in an under-dog world. If your willing to get something out of your degree you would deffo find a way . It might necessarily not be within the UK however it could be somewhere outside of the UK.

    Overall all I am trying to say is that everyone will have their time , it might not necessarily be right now but it will sure as hell come . On the other hand for the mean time just continuously work hard and continue to pursue whatever career/dream job you desire.

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  3. A.N.

    If you want to get into the literature trade, you have pretty much always had to work for free, or work for yourself (and have another job on the side to pay the bills) to start with. That’s the problem with an industry where there are so many more people who want to do it and have the skills than there are jobs for.

    It is still possible for graduates with decent work ethics to get graduate jobs without doing the internship thing – you just need to not be fussy about what it is that you do. No business owes you a job, especially not a good one. Do I think that long-term unpaid internships are morally wrong – yes (most of them are illegal too). Do I think that companies shouldn’t do whatever they can that is legal to get the employees they think will be best for their business – no.

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  4. Lazaro

    Craig is indeed a fool. If you have a rich daddy you’ll be doing lots of internships that boost your CV, get to know lot’s of well connected people who will help you out in the future, and maybe your daddy is well connected as well to get an old friend put a good word for you for that good position coming up. I’ve seen that too many times. And one more thing. I was always top of my class, but when I turned 18, I had to go to work to help pay the bills. Now I’m 32 and I’m finishing my 1st year at Uni. Still one of the best in my year but I had to do 12 years of retail jobs and still I am a waiter part-time. Now come on and tell me we all have the same opportunities Craig….

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  5. stephen

    Hi Katrina. I’ve read your predicament. I am 39 now and after years of homelessness and addiction I am a mature student studying in my final year at London Metropolitan Uni. I was also a boy that grew up in a council house, went to Grammar school (it wasn’t my fault i passed the 11+ !! ) .but I never passed my gcses. So I am about to get a BSc in audio systems having come from not much really. I think Craig is being arrogant. I agree with David Reynolds. The current government and media machine combine to only make things worse.

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  6. David Reynolds

    The UK media today demonize people on benefits. They label them as lazy scroungers, parasites on society and of little or no worth. This creates stigma and consequent prejudice. This in turn has an adverse effect on those being stigmatized. This article is a prime example of this in action, an example echoed across the country.

    There are many ways people who have been labelled as worthless lazy scroungers or worse parasites deal with this. Some will go along with the way others perceive them, they do what is expected of them. To quote the author “if you tell someone often enough that they’re nothing; they’ll behave like that”. Others such as the author of this article fight the label in various ways. It is a fight though because they are battling against preconceptions, an expectation of failure. To quote the head of year 13: “you have mammoth amounts of work to do if you have the slightest hope.”

    One might expect such stigma would be left behind once in University but by then the individual has lived with it so long it still has an effect on how they act. Young people entering University are entering a new environment and their experience up to then will determine how they cope. This in turn will affect how they form social bonds and with whom. It will also affect how others perceive them. In this way the stigma can be subtly carried over.

    There can be no doubt that a broad base of experience is beneficial in general but it will benefit some more than others. Broadly speaking those better able to cope with the experiences will tend to develop faster than those less able.

    “Council estate kids” have a harder time succeeding because of the stigma placed upon them by society through the media. It may well be harder today because of the Government’s “austerity” measures. Regardless of professed intent the “austerity” measures serve largely to punish people for being poor and bearing the label placed upon them by society.

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  7. Ratstjohn

    I too am a ‘council kid’ though my estate wasn’t as tough as Katrina’s. My family life though was very difficult and unhappy as both parents drank and there were many frightening ‘domestics’, as they were called then. we were also very poor and by today’s standards ‘deprived’. Not much help for the kids of the family either except to whisk them off in the middle of the night, when things got really bad to a children’s home with strict rules and no TLC and where you could be ‘stood in the corner’ at 5 years old for not being able to tie your shoe-laces….. I could go on and on about all the disadvantages and setbacks I faced as a child and teenager but instead I want to say how proud I am of myself for continually aiming high and getting my degree and postgad quals along the way – even though I only achieved my higher quals as a mature student. I’ve also had to subsidise myself along the way and take jobs of all varieties to help with the family finances and this was hard at times but I count it as well-earned experience and a massive confidence booster along with, as Sharif points out, a way to improve my people skills. Yes, we all have stories to tell and not many of us have had a perfect childhood. However, the fact that I have
    had to strive much harder to achieve a professional career I enjoy makes me value this more highly and it is also a real ego boost.
    So, Katrina, be very proud of yourself and your accomplishments and look into other ways/options that you can achieve your dreams other than Internships. Always have a plan B ( and maybe a C and a D)!
    It will be tougher all-round for you and your contemporary graduate friends to achieve your ambitions because the competition is so much more intense and it is now becoming more popular (and easier in some ways) to get into university than it was when I was a student. This has, of course, been largely driven by the economic recession and the lack of work and training opportunities for school leavers , many of whom then decide to follow the university route rather than just become unemployed. This in turn has led to greater competition in the ‘Job Market’ and so fuelled the demand for employees with ever increasing levels of qualifications, even for entry onto some fairly low-level career paths. It may be that the new and more numerous apprenticeship schemes being introduced will make a positive difference over time by providing greater opportunities for career building.
    So, to sum up, it’s a tough world out there but as a ‘council kid’ Katrina, you’ve got the guts and the grit to come out fighting!

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  8. sharif

    I come from rough neighbourhood. I have never done internships. I did try to apply for them but never had luck due to competition. I started my career through JSA work employment programme. It was a charity where I used my own initiative to kick start my career. And that is what people have to do. No company will employ you without good interpersonal skills. If you lack that then experience is the next thing and that does not mean internships in top firms. It could be anything. My friend graduated with 3rd and got better job before me with no experience. I had to wait 4 years. Experience is not everything.

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  9. Elizabeth

    I come from a council house background, and in my early childhood my parents were unemployed. I have a first class degree not and work full time as a software developer and am about to buy my first house. Luckily I didn’t need an internship as I wouldn’t have have been able to work for free as my parents relied on rent and keep from me. I think with companies that want people to work for free, coming from such a background, it would be very difficult to do so. I am not sure if employers choose to do this to lock out these people, but more because they want free labour in exchange for training/experience? More of a lack of thought than a deliberate attack on the poor?

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  10. katrina

    The point isn’t that employers care…of course they couldn’t care less. The point is that they do care about internships and people who have less family support/their situation is ‘difficult’ have to work full time which leaves no time for internships. Its not a blame game. Also, grammar school and university aren’t ‘given’ to people, they’re something you strive for and work for so you make it an opportunity for yourself. Of course a lot of people get jobs over other people because quite simply they are just better for the job but some companoes completely disregard candidates if they have no internship experience hence the catch 22. I’m not going to debate class or spcial upbringing but the point was not that employers care about either of those things.

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  11. sharif

    I second Craigs comment. It’s all about the person. Getting employed has nothing to do with background. It’s how you come across/approach/communicate to people and what kind of peers you keep in your socialising circle.

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  12. Craig

    What a load of rubbish! Background, home life and the rest is of little importance to employers, they want the best people for the best jobs. The glass ceiling isn’t about your postcode, it’s more to do with you trying to make it as a young professional in a tough industry. Anybody middle class, upper class or any other class would find it difficult, if you had argued that your life circumstances had held you back, stopped you from being able to complete other internships, or that high tutions fees and the prospect of debt was scaring off some of the brightest people from attending university that would have had more gavitas.

    I serverly doubt your upbringing has any bearing on your job prospects now, having worked in an inner city school I understand that the poorest in society often go to the worst schools, this immediately limits their chance of success and their ability to ‘get on’ later in life but from your piece it sounds like you attended a grammar school and university, you were given the best opportunities, many are not. These are the ones who the system locks in to poverty.

    With a mentality that blames others, it’s not me, it’s my upbringing, I’m afraid you will continue to struggle. I’m sure there will be many stories and anecdotes that tell of graduates struggling to get a foothold in the jobs market, I doubt if many will refer to their home life as an excuse. Maybe the more difficult question to answer is, what am I missing? What do others offer that I don’t? These are the difficult questions though, much easier to blame others.

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