I recently read a thought-provoking article on The Opinion Panel called ‘Escaping the Council Estate’ by a student who, quite rightly, pointed out the difficulties of achieving when coming from a socially ‘less desirable background’. However, despite all the issues associated with council estates and the people that live on them, I have little desire to leave.
Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t mind a 4-bed semi in a quiet cul-de-sac with a nice car—who wouldn’t? But the desire to run towards Waitrose, skinny macchiato in hand as I dust off my chav germs, strikes me as a big part of the problem. Council estates are not flea-infested hellholes that need to be escaped: they are areas of deprivation where people make ends meet, know the names of their neighbours, support one another, and survive. Council estates need successful kids to stick around long enough for some of their aspiration to rub off.
I’m not speaking as a distant social commentator. I’m from a council estate. At 15 I ran away from home with a teenage car thief, smoked lots of weed, had two kids and signed on. Typical, right? However, I’m now 30, finishing a degree in Clinical Psychology (better late than never), two intelligent teenagers at home, married to a pastor (the car thief reformed), and well on the road to gaining the experience I need to step onto a doctoral programme . . . And I still live on the council estate.
“A large proportion of our population is made up of working class families, so why on earth does society make achieving anything so difficult for us”
The majority of people I mix with through my degree and my work with the NHS don’t live on council estates, and I may have become more like them in my aspirations, attitudes and mannerisms. But this doesn’t mean I have to reject the culture I was raised in. Of course, social mobility comes hand-in-hand with educational achievement. Statistics agree that ‘council estate kids’ generally don’t perform as well educationally as their middle-class peers. They often don’t attend the same schools, or share the same family structures, postcodes and generational aspirations, so it’s no surprise that privileged kids stand a better chance in the long run.
One of the biggest hurdles between council estate kids and vocation is finance. After graduation, if they get that far, when their oh-so-generous £9,000 government loans and lectures are a distant memory, council estate kids go back to the bottom of the pile, no matter how talented or determined they are. After overcoming multiple social barriers, completing a degree without a foundation of private schooling and working a night job to pay the rent, the council estate graduate is now expected to intern for free in order to gain experience for the job they’re already doing, whilst presumably living off magic beans.
This is where the Bank of Mum and Dad would come in handy, if only mum and dad had a bank account, or, indeed, if mum or dad were even available for comment. Even at this level, the more privileged kids have a massive head start.
A large proportion of our population is made up of working-class families, so why on Earth does society make achieving anything so difficult for working-class people? Despite the recent media portrayal of the typical ‘Benefits Street’ estate, many working-class families produce happy, healthy, well-rounded members of society. Claiming that we need to ‘escape the council estate’ in order to fully integrate into society does nothing to alleviate the negative stereotypes of working-class families—it suggests that ‘working class’ is a virus that needs to be eradicated. What is needed is a change in the system that perpetuates this view.
The fundamental issue for working-class kids is not the council estate. It’s not their alcoholic neighbours, the police outside at 3am, nor their best friend who is pregnant at 15. It’s not even that they’re competing with kids who have more money, extra tuition and supportive families. The far bigger problem is a society that is structured to offer the biggest benefits and rewards to those who already have everything they need, while those who do not must work harder to catch up. Escaping the council estate won’t do much to change that.