Erasmus – a personal anecdote reflecting a wider institutionalised ignorance in the face of inequalities

It’s hard to put into words the impact that a seemingly invisible illness has on a person where it stops them from working full time and functioning as before. I stumbled across some very old posts from nearly a decade ago from those who I was familiar with then, but not so now. “I wonder what happened to them?” A browse through their posts showed they had been in the wars so to speak, and were still emerging from difficult times.

In my case it has been almost a decade since I went into a workplace on a daily basis, working day-in-day-out with the same group of people. I won’t pretend it was a buzzing workplace – it was one where the first swipe of the axe of austerity had been swung and people were already losing their jobs. It’s hard to keep your motivation when that is happening and those at the top of your organisation are continually spinning & briefing against you – such is the life of a civil servant.

Dealing first with an acute mental health crisis in 2012 that left me in what’s turned out to be a semi-permanent state of mental exhaustion (for which the NHS has never had suitable treatment for it), followed by a suspected heart attack just before Christmas Day in 2017 (where the treatment was excellent – ever so easy to take for granted having Addenbrooke’s & Papworth in your neighbourhood) all before the age of 40 left me with more than enough time to stew over on how things could – should have been different.

On why mentoring is ever so important – something we didn’t have in pre-internet mid-1990s Cambridge

One of the things that has helped me ‘move on’ is continually reminding myself that in 1990s Cambridge we didn’t have the internet – so we had to take as the truth whatever the adults around us told us. It’s easy to forget for those of us adults who don’t have children for whatever reason, that today’s children are a social media post away from debunking something that their teacher has taught them because experts in those fields are regular social media users. How do you teach a class full of children where the children potentially know more than you do? When I did a teacher training course for adults shortly after leaving the civil service, this was a continued point of discussion.

On being the last generation of the ignorant – in that microgeneration of Xennials

I only recently stumbled across the term Xennials and it’s a term that applies to my cohort who went to primary school and secondary school when there was no internet, and went to university where internet use was the norm – and just one of many new things to get used to as part of leaving home for the first time. We had ‘an analogue childhood and a digital adulthood’. In England, ours was also the Section 28 generation where Margaret Thatcher’s Government banned the discussion of anything seen to promote ‘alternative lifestyles’ that did not conform to the Church’s teaching on family life and sex education. The House of Lords vetoed the first attempt by Labour to repeal it so Labour had to write the abolition of S28 into their 2001 manifesto to stop the Lords doing it again. It also created a massive incentive for Labour to overhaul the membership of the Lords – the longer term result being that by 2012 the Lords had a more diverse membership than the Commons.

But why would ministers, politicians and The Church want to keep us children ignorant from the world that we were growing up in and from the people that we’d meet, interact with, and have in our families? My take remains that the Conservatives in particular have not put in place the public health programmes to undo the damage that their social policies caused.

“I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger…”

Rod Stewart ft The Corrs in late 1998 if you were wondering.

I’ve lost count the number of times people have mentioned the equivalent of the above heading over the years. A few years ago I bumped into an old classmate from secondary school who like me had also struggled with mental ill health – triggered and made worse by a very poor work culture. She told me she couldn’t think of anyone from our cohort who had got to where they were because of the support they had from the educational institutions they had been through – rather it was the opposite. This would have covered the entirety of the last Conservative governments of the 20th Century, and the first term of Labour’s government from 1997.

We didn’t have the wonderful Form the Future at the time. That actually required Anne Bailey and colleagues to take some very big risks for something that really should be properly supported by government, and one that isn’t a post-code lottery across the country. i.e. there should be an FtF in every county & city.

“So, do you want to be a doctor, a teacher or a lawyer? Or a secretary or nurse?” And why that was the wrong approach.

Sound familiar?

Several years ago I ran a big workshop for Form the Future at one of the village colleges near Cambridge. Rather than getting the entire year group of new year 9 students thinking about careers, I got them thinking about life experiences they wanted to have, then getting them to plan what sort of activities, actions, courses & the like they would need to undertake in order to get those experiences. I also cautioned them that if they gave outrageous answers I would pick them to explain their thinking and collectively work through their example with the rest of the year group. Which worked out splendidly!

Mine was one of the last generations to have the doctor/teacher/lawyer approach. The only difference in the 1990s was a slightly longer list of careers, and a primitive computer programme interpreting our answers to some questions to come up with the least suitable career options. Commissioned officer in the armed forces? With an anxiety disorder? I don’t think so!

Prior to starting university I had no idea what Erasmus was, nor did I have a clue about the existence of the Civil Service

I could have gone on the Erasmus scheme had I been caught by the right people at the open event I popped my head into in my first year of university in early 2000. The problem was that all of the people assigned to look out for my interests made it clear that they didn’t have time for me – or anyone else. Their research interests took priority. And as with school and college, my personal tutors changed every year in my three years there. So there was no one actively looking out for my interests at a time my mental health was really beginning to struggle. Being in the second year of students having to pay upfront fees inevitably made me hate the institution – even though quitting and going home wasn’t an option.

From my recollection, no one really sat me down and went through the essentials of Erasmus – for example how it would align with my courses, how I would fund it, how I would find accommodation and so on. It was a room of enthusiastic but poorly briefed students telling a cohort of English students brought up on a diet of Euro-sceptic news outlets about this EU-funded scheme.

With hindsight, of course I should have gone on it. Strangely enough it was at a Model UN conference run by Harvard that I found out about this new world of international courses and summer schools that at sixth form college we simply were not told about – perhaps because the single careers tutor they had there didn’t know about it or was so overworked with the hundreds of students he was responsible for. Recall we’re talking about a UK public sector after 18 years of Conservative cuts. If you think the state of things are bad now, think of another decade or so of cuts and you’ll get to a similar point.

Every additional application form is an additional barrier

For example grant application forms for people from poorer families. Ditto means testing – something that comes up lots in social policy literature in the 20th Century in the run up to establishing the Welfare State after WWII.

In the case of missing out on Erasmus, I know it’s too late for me. I’m old enough now to feel the painful regrets of missed opportunities that were the result of my own lack of knowledge of what was available. “If I hadn’t seen such riches, I could live with being poor” – recognise the lyrics? Interestingly, I don’t feel nearly as much regret or anger for the more informed choices that I made after I graduated. Even the ones that resulted in painful lessons learnt.

When it comes to dealing with inequalities, how can state secondary schools compete with the best that the private sector offers when students from the latter are doing work experience at, for example top opinion polling firms, while the students at the former may not even know what an opinion poll is, let alone the companies that carry them out? (I’m only picking on Ben Page who I regard very highly because that’s one of the examples that comes to mind. And as he says here, social mobility inevitably involves some moving downwards. Just don’t expect families of the wealthy or the connected to take that as a given if they can help it. As with wages in economics, the downward movement is ‘sticky’)

Focusing too much on one thing is a bad thing

The mindset we were brought up with at school was that you focused on one subject that defined what career you went down. That was the only context the academic subjects were presented to us in.

  • History -> History teacher or work in a museum
  • Music – > Music teacher and maybe playing in a local orchestra
  • Foreign language -> Foreign language teacher or translator
  • Sports -> Must stay fit but can’t do too much of it lest it gets in the way of your studies!
  • Maths -> Maths teacher or lecturer at university

You can see how mind-numbing the whole thing becomes in that mindset. But that was all too many of us knew. The concept of learning a subject *for the love of it* was not even on the menu. Again with hindsight looking at what many went on to achieve, the system and the adults within it *underestimated* the potential that the children & students had. What was limiting too many of them and us was that collectively the adults were underinvesting in them. The Conservatives have made that same mistake again – not just with Erasmus but the past decade of cuts to public services. And yet they’ll plead poverty of finances while at the same time recklessly handing out lucrative contracts to their cronies without the essential clauses, checks, and balances the system needs to prevent the blatant corruption being carried out by Johnson and his ministers.

The depressing thing is that the uncritical media are selling the scrapping of Erasmus as a means of saving the Exchequer money while at the same time giving the Prime Minister and his ministers an easy ride over things like the Intelligence & Security Committee Report, CV19 tests that didn’t work, and more. What’s worse for the UK’s reputation is that the rest of the world is noticing – and taking far more notice than the UK media is – especially the sycophantic print press. The failure to call out the Prime Minister over the breaking of his reassurance on Erasmus to Parliament in Jan 2020 speaks volumes.

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