My dad was 15 when he left school without any qualifications. Regularly caned for having the wrong or dirty clothes, not concentrating in class, or sometimes not going to school. He didn’t really talk much about his own education except to say that it hadn’t really been a happy time. There was only one teacher who ever really bothered to get to know my dad and understand the “why” behind all these issues. Many years later my dad would attend that teacher’s funeral, where he sat next to Sir Michael Parkinson, another former pupil, who also remembered the teacher with fondness.

It really shouldn’t have been that difficult to understand. The child of a single parent, who was widowed the day before my dad’s 7th birthday because they couldn’t afford the necessary medical treatment needed to treat a disease rife in areas of extreme poverty, it wouldn’t take a genius to work out why my dad wasn’t always at school. He was the only son, and therefore able to do labouring jobs for cash in hand which brought money into the family, put food in their bellies and kept a roof over their heads. This was a much more pressing priority than learning how to sing in tune (he never mastered that and had a particularly special talent for clapping absolutely off beat, which could eventually get a whole crowd joining in with him).  Dad was bright enough to be able to read and write and was actually a gifted mathematician, so he could get by. Secondary school didn’t seem to have much to offer him.

Dad didn’t talk much about his early childhood, he was mostly very easy going, hardworking and very tolerant. However, there were certain things which stirred a strong temper. Mum once bought us dressing gowns for a present at Christmas and I remember the huge row which ensued. Clothes were absolutely not presents. It later transpired that every year for his joint birthday and Christmas present (his birthday was only 5 days before Christmas) he would be given a pair of shoes as a present and told to make them last. He clearly felt that any sort of clothing given as a present was a sign he couldn’t provide for his family. This was fine by me until my teenage years when all I wanted was a stonewashed denim jacket and a pair of jeans with white piping down the edges (it was the 80’s, I didn’t know any better).

After my dad died we discovered a hand written letter from the queen. My mum did some research and discovered that my grandma had been the recipient of a food parcel from the queen on the event of her coronation. The poorest families in the parish had been chosen to receive one of these. My dad had never mentioned it.

Why am I writing about this right now? I was recently reflecting on what my dad’s experience might be like had he been growing up today. Would my grandad have died if he had lived in a time when the NHS existed? It’s impossible to know, but I would suspect that he would have sought medical treatment earlier if it had been free and the outcome may have been different.  The likelihood of him getting Tuberculosis in the first place would probably have been reduced by living in a house that wasn’t a slum. A quick glance at the TB organisation’s webpage reveals:

“It’s no coincidence that the countries with the highest rates of TB are also some of the poorest and/or most unequal societies. TB is more common in countries where many people live in absolute poverty because people are more likely to:

  • live and work in poorly ventilated and overcrowded conditions, which provide ideal conditions for TB bacteria to spread
  • suffer from malnutrition and disease, which reduces resistance to TB
  • have limited access to healthcare – and just one person with untreated infectious TB can pass the illness on to 10-15 people annually.


In any society, rich or poor, TB tends to impact heavily on the poorest and most marginalised groups”.

Would my dad’s early childhood have been so blighted by poverty had we had a welfare state which could have supported them to ensure that they didn’t hide from the rent man every week and walk the streets to take in washing every weekend?

Would my grandma have gone on to later marry a man who offered financial support to her and her children at the expense of her dignity and safety, a man who beat her so regularly that she eventually ran away?

We can’t really know. But I suspect that if there had been a safety net available and a support network, my dad’s early life would have been very different.

Which brings me to where we are today. I am fortunate to work with leaders and teachers who would know that my dad’s lack of uniform, lack of concentration, scruffiness and high levels of absence would have a back story. That he wasn’t being “difficult” but was probably just hungry or tired from all the extra things he was doing to help keep the family going. I know so many heads who would have spotted my dad and known that there was a bright child who needed some support, not punishment and I’d like to think my dad’s experience of school would have been very different to the one he had. He did eventually go to night school,  after an apprenticeship and many years working as a joiner, he gained enough qualifications to become Clerk of works for Sheffield City council. Much later, when I was an adult, he went on to become a Fellow of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, which was a source of tremendous pride having taken so much hard work to get there. He was a highly regarded examiner in the RICS in his later years.

Sadly, in the uk today according to most recent figures 3.7 million children live in absolute poverty in the UK and the figure is rising. That’s not relative poverty, but a state in which individuals lack the resources necessary for subsistence. 3.7 million children living in similar conditions to my dad, some 75 years later, and even with the NHS and welfare state we know that those children’s life chances will be limited by their circumstances.  I wonder if a child leaving school now with no qualifications would be able to go on and progress in the same way as Dad eventually did. The options for adult education become more limited every year, and many basic courses require a C in English and Maths at GCSE level. When you are poor there are obstacles at every turn that some people never get to experience.

So, what’s the point of this blog? Well I suppose really it’s to make people reflect.

Many of the obstacles that were put in my dad’s way still exist to this day. No amount of cultural capital in a curriculum can overcome the impact of deep hunger and a lack of security. Our education system can sometimes put additional obstacles in the way for children who already have so many. It would be helpful if there were more people involved in the decision- making process in education who have experienced what living in poverty is like. Not for a week- long experiment for a TV programme, but the real, long term effects of grinding, unending poverty. The sheer hopelessness of never being able to see an end to the situation, of constantly playing “splat a rat” with debt, of veering from one crisis to another because you have neither the means nor the support to rise out of the pit of despair and be able to work on the long term bigger picture. Maybe then we might see some real systemic change, instead of some of the sticking plasters we are handed in the education sector.

The teacher who really showed my dad some compassion was the technical drawing and woodwork teacher. I doubt my dad would have gone on to the apprenticeship he did, had it not been for that teacher’s interest and belief in him. He suggested the apprenticeship and made contact with the joiner who took dad on. That set him on a pathway to success, a more torturous pathway than many have to tread, but he got there in the end. One teacher recognising that a pupil isn’t bad through and through, but might be having a difficult time, taking the time to get to know them and showing some belief in them, makes all the difference. Some things never change.

19 responses to “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose”

  1. Helen Salmon avatar
    Helen Salmon

    I found this personal story very moving. Schools have to be beacons of hope for poor children. I have recently read Alan Johnson’s autobiography about growing up poor in London. His sister Linda brought him up after their mother died. The current fad that punish children for poor uniform or for being scruffy don’t see the individual. Teachers need all their pupils to shrive and succeed.

  2. Kathryn Solly avatar
    Kathryn Solly

    Some reminisce of my father’s journey. Beautiful story of a horrible political situation that goes on. Well done Ruth. X

  3. Mig Bernard avatar
    Mig Bernard

    A very timely reminder of how poverty and hardship prevent so many opportunities. So glad schools more and more recognise the barriers to education which are beyond the classroom. Your dad sounds amazing and has handed down so much to you. I think you do amazing stuff.

    1. Ruth Swailes avatar
      Ruth Swailes

      Thank you, you’re very kind.

  4. Wendy Parkins avatar
    Wendy Parkins

    Thank you Ruth, this could have been my dad too. Too many decision makers and edu ‘spokespeaple ‘ come from privileged backgrounds, so It’s impossible for them to really understand the emotional impact of poverty .

  5. Karen Morris avatar
    Karen Morris

    Hi Ruth I was really moved by your blog. I’ve been talking to my trainee teachers about their understanding of children’s home circumstances this week. They need to know how children’s domestic experiences affect their young lives. The focus of the session was recognising, as NQTs, the crucial importance of parents and their challenges. If it is ok I’ll be sharing your blog with the other half of the group next Thursday. It encapsulates the situation perfectly.
    Thank you so much.

    1. Ruth Swailes avatar
      Ruth Swailes

      Please feel free to share Karen, I would be honoured if you did.

    2. Ruth Swailes avatar
      Ruth Swailes

      Please feel free to share Karen, I would be honoured if you did.

  6. Sean Warren avatar
    Sean Warren

    Hi Ruth. TY, really connected with your account. I had a similar start to life re poverty, family circumstances and could point to 2 teachers who believed in me. Touching on your second theme, I became a teacher who eventually accepted an empathetic stance over a warped sense of professionalism. If of interest I document my experience in: All the best, Sean

    1. Ruth Swailes avatar
      Ruth Swailes

      Thanks, I’ll check it out!

  7. Nick corston avatar
    Nick corston

    A lovely read. Thank you for sharing this.

    I’m sure you learned a lot from your dad, not least his equivalent of ‘non illigitimi carborundum”

    Take care. You are his legacy. An inspiration. Never stop being so.

  8. Ruth Swailes avatar
    Ruth Swailes

    Thankyou Nick, that’s very kind of you to say so.

  9. Ruth Swailes avatar
    Ruth Swailes

    Thankyou Nick, that’s very kind of you to say so.

  10. Ruth Swailes avatar
    Ruth Swailes

    Thankyou Nick, that’s very kind of you to say so.

  11. Ruth Swailes avatar
    Ruth Swailes

    Thankyou Nick, that’s very kind of you to say so.

  12. Ann Bell avatar
    Ann Bell

    Very similar to my fathers experiences. He also did an apprenticeship in joinery and after the war became a loss adjuster. He ended up as managing director of a fairly large company but was always concerned by his poor writing skills. I too worry zbpit our current focus on exams and paper qualifications forming barriers to those who already have a harder road to take.

  13. Sean Barnett avatar
    Sean Barnett

    This really moved me. We’ve known each other for years and you’ve always spoken so proudly about your dad and what he achieved, but I wasn’t aware of all the details of his upbringing and the obstacles he eventually overcame. A fantastic story which is worthy of a book ????

  14. Donna Mawbey avatar
    Donna Mawbey

    Similar tale to my own dear father, abandoned by an alcoholic mother after his father had already left. Had already won a scholarship to Wyggeston boys grammar. He worked as a painter and decorator to keep himself and a younger brother (13 and 11) with a roof over their heads and food in their bellies for two years until their mother returned propped up by the Salvation Army. He was treated brutally by the school for absences, lack of equipment etc who knew nothing of their homelife. He was later very successful and became managing director of a large industrial painting firm. Awful to think some seventy years later children are relying on charities to put food in bellies and clothes on their backs.

  15. Kate J avatar
    Kate J

    Ruth – thank you.

    For those who have always known a welfare state this reminder is so important.

    I have shared it. I know you won’t mind.

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