As early as I can remember during my time at Oxford, I have always felt on the back foot with my own subject. At interview, my tutor smiled at me as we finished the literature discussion, and gently let me know we’d have a five-minute conversation in French. My heart already pounding, I thought it would race out of my chest when he asked me to tell him about my travels in France. How do you answer a question correctly when you’ve never really spoken in French to another person before, much less been to the actual country itself?
This is something that surprises my southern friends every time. The shocked and almost pitiful looks on their faces when I tell them, no, I’ve not actually been to the country that I spend my time studying, apart from a trip when I was three that I can’t even remember. For them, London is French through and through: as the city with the third-largest population of French nationals, why wouldn’t it be? There are French bookshops and crèches throughout the city, with convenient travel links from the capital that will take you to the city of lights in less than an hour. One of my friends even drives to Calais ‘to pick up good wine’. For her, it’s a day trip; for me, it’s a dream.
I realise that this may come off as a rant, but it’s something I’ve found is a truly Northern and socioeconomically motivated reality. With the advent of online shopping and google, I’d managed to cobble together some knowledge of France in time for my application through films, books and online news, but I’d never really attained what for many Southerners is normality: actually experiencing it for myself. My family never went to France on the grounds of it being ‘too expensive’, ‘too rude’, ‘too posh’, ‘too foreign’. My extended family don’t actually tell people what I study – and why would they? It’s a foreign language, for foreign people, far, far away from my hometown of ex-miners and millworkers. You don’t need languages; you need a wage. For them, people go to university to become doctors or lawyers, not wasting money on a bloody language degree.
When I first started to register an interest in my subject at secondary school, I distinctly remember coming out of a classroom, and having a bunch of lads yell “frog” at me down the hallway. People saw me as ‘too good’ for them because I dared to like the language and culture of another country. It was worse than moving to London; it was a renunciation of my heritage, my local area, my culture. And for kids whose only knowledge of France is posh people who go skiing, eat unpronounceable cheese and shop in fancy Parisian boutiques, I can hardly blame them.
The majority of kids where I come from don’t learn languages – they grow up, go into paid jobs and go on holiday to English-speaking resorts. I know this makes me sound like a snob, but I don’t look down on them, it’s just a common thing. It’s what my parents did, and their parents before them, when they could afford it. This, combined with a government going through Brexit and underfunding in the arts, means that being a languages teacher can be painful. From kids that refuse to even sit quietly in lessons to full-on bullying (all but one of my high school French teachers left the room crying every lesson), it’s no wonder that few kids pick languages at GCSE, or even make any progress in them. In 2016, 65% of pupils in Inner London took a language GCSE compared to just 43% in the North East.
When you look at the statistics, the inequalities are evident. In 2016, the north received £5,700 per secondary school pupil: £100 less than the English average and £1,300 less than London. This manifests in results: in the North-East in 2019, 16.4% of students got grades 7-9 at GCSE, compared to 25.7% in London. When you consider ‘cultural capital’ – things like museum visits, language exchanges and ski trips – not only is it generally more expensive to do this in the North, but greater levels of deprivation and negative attitudes towards language learning mean that they’re less likely to happen.
Underfunding is only fuel for the fire: in my supposedly ‘languages’ sixth form college, we couldn’t afford heating in the department, never mind textbooks. My teachers poured their heart and soul into their students’ progress, but we all already knew that our knowledge was far behind that of private schools; those who could afford tutoring and regular holidays to France, or who had parents who had the kind of education that lets you use fancy words like ‘vis à vis’ or ‘viognier’.
I’d like to say I’m making up for lost time at uni, but I’m sure that many people will agree with me when I say the boundaries are only exaggerated by Oxford’s prolific inequalities. Access problems do not stop after admission. Tutors expect a base knowledge of the country of focus’s geography, regional foods and culture. Heaven forbid you admit to not being very with it on where Roquefort comes from. One tutor, after asking the class whether we’d been skiing in the Alps over Christmas, was shocked to learn I’d never been to France, that I needed to go ‘immediately’, and has not stopped telling my class about it whenever she feels it’s convenient – adding tinder to the fire of my impostor syndrome.
I can’t count the amount of times I’ve sat in lectures or speaking classes, or even coming out of a tutorial, and wanted to cry because I just feel so lost and inadequate – getting to the point where I started to have panic attacks during classes because there was so much pressure not to mess up, to show you deserve your place at the uni and that you’re not just another pity admission.
Whilst I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t focus on cultural knowledge during my studies, I’ve always felt that I need to rush to improve my language skills to match that of my peers, to overcome my shyness due to, well, never really using my language skills in front of anyone before. Modern Languages has the third smallest intake of state school students across Oxford courses: just over 50% of language students.* How are you supposed to compete with people actually living in France? Or students who have spent every summer and Christmas in France? Who could afford a gap year to improve their language skills? How could 15-year-old me, sat in a class busy bullying the teacher, with my second hand grammar book, desperately trying to learn the material in time for my GCSES, ever match up to that?
Whilst it’s also a problem for those in the South, a greater proportion of Northern students will identify with my experience. There is an expectation of cultural capital and opportunity at Oxford, ingrained into the course and the minds of the tutors, that certain backgrounds simply can’t provide. Whilst they expect us to read Voltaire and Proust without problem, or even know who these people are, many of us are left in the dark, feeling inadequate and shocked even that our non-language student peers have such a great knowledge of a subject we’re supposed to be great at. When your friends doing PPE and History and Physics seem to have a better knowledge of French culture and geography than you do, how are you supposed to walk around this city with your head held high, feeling like you belong?
A change in expectations is needed: not of passion, or hard work, or ability, which working-class Northern students have in abundance. But in the expectation of what’s available to us and a real adjustment by tutors to their current student population, in all its brilliant diversity, rather than an assumed student population and experience.
*Annual Admissions Statistical Report 2020, p. 17
**A young person from London/South East is 57% more likely to go to a top university than their Northern counterpart.
**In 2015, a pupil from a disadvantaged background was 41% more likely to get 5 A*-Cs in London than in the North of England.