On education: from primary school to university

I’ve been in education for, I think, thirteen years. I can’t exactly recall my earliest years, but I do remember being in school when I was six years old. I do, also, have hazy memories of a nursery and a sandpit. But for the sake of this piece, let’s just say I’ve been in education from the age of six, minus the three-ish years (I think it was three?) I was working in crappy minimum-wage jobs. Regardless, I am now twenty-two, just starting my second year at university, studying English Literature with Creative Writing, and I’m happier than I’ve been in a really long time.

I’ll be talking about my experience in school and how this impacted my stance on education, and how I decided to come back to it in 2018/2019; essentially my entire educational journey.

Grab a cup of tea and get comfortable, this is a long read.

I’ve come to realise the motivation to continue studying is fleeting, entwined with the pressures of being perfect and fulfilling positive expectations. In secondary school, my mental health was at its worst, combined with having to revise for over twenty exams, none having the course material I’ve really needed to utilise at any point in my (current) adult life. The education system is built on memorisation, rather than intelligence, measuring a student’s ability to correctly retain and remember information. This remains the case in all the years following secondary education.

My experience at Lister Community School, in Newham, was both positive and negative. Though, the negatives weren’t in any way related to the education I received, but rather with my own mental health, personal issues and on-and-off bullying from ‘friends’, who, at the time, were the only girls I’d hang out with. In my early years at the school, I hated every minute of it. I’d dread going into school because of them, even though their taunts and stupid comments weren’t an every day occurrence. I just wasn’t sure which day would be the day I’d have to force a smile onto my face and deal with it.

Aside from this, year eight was the year I came forward about my assault to the school protection officer. This was also the year I first started counselling.

It was while I was attending Lister that I first began writing fiction, falling in love with words and the power they possessed. My English teacher in year 7, 10 and 11, Mr Hindes, was the first teacher I truly admired. To this day, he is still quite possibly the best teacher I’ve had, and remembering his method of teaching, the kind of person he was (kind, understanding and patient), always reignited my love of literature and writing in the moments I’d lost passion for it. There are always some teachers who change your life, helping you to believe in yourself and fuelling your love for education and continuing to study, especially within the subject they teach.

I’m so glad that it was him who continued to be my teacher through my GCSE’s, pushing me to believe in myself more, especially when I was so surprised by my A in English Language. Alongside him, my tutor for the first four years, Ms Dawson, was beyond amazing–she’s someone I greatly admire and wish she’d stayed til I completed year 11. While I’ve blocked out most of my school memories, the ones that stick out above all the others, are the moments I was able to talk to her, whether it was about books, Ludovico Einaudi, sexuality or literally anything.

It’s safe to say that Mr Hindes and Ms Dawson are the teachers who will always stay with me, for being the kind of teachers we should all have–the ones who care and do their best to be the best for the students.

It’s no secret that Lister Community School is in one of the three poorest boroughs in London, in between Tower Hamlets and Hackney, so to have such amazing teachers in a school slowly climbing up the ranks and becoming far better than it used to be, thanks to Anthony Wilson, the Headteacher, was life-changing. Many teachers, from what I remember when studying Sociology, treat their students like rubbish, in poorer boroughs, bringing about a cycle of deprivation.

A lot of the students in my year weren’t entirely fond of Mr Wilson because of the changes he made to the school: the uniform, the Housing system, the stricter rules (it’s a lot stricter now from when I was there–it’s a lot harder to bunk lol. Not that you should bunk)–but looking back, he’s actually changed the school into something so much better, somewhat removing it from the negative reputation it had for years.

So what was my motivation during secondary school?

My teachers, and wanting to get into sixth form. Usually, people say to apply to more than one sixth form or college right? I applied to one. Don’t make that same mistake!

Not that I didn’t get in, because I did–I studied Creative Writing, Psychology and History, but the following summer, I switched to Childcare, like I mentioned here (and this turned out to be the biggest mistake I made.) During my first year at sixth form, I remember feeling constantly stressed out and dreading the exams–I’d be skiving off lessons to chill in the park, have takeout and listen to music, or go watch films. I’d put off revising until the last minute, a pattern that followed me from my GCSE’s. My depression and anxiety skyrocketed until I felt like I wanted to drop out and no longer study, which is the decision I made late 2015.

Until 2018, I worked in jobs I hated, not knowing where I wanted to go with my life. It was then I decided to go back to studying and opted for the Access to HE Diploma in Health and Social Care. This was, I think, one of the best choices I made for myself, as it lead me to volunteer with the Citizens Advice Bureau, have something else to do alongside my retail job, and generally just keep busy. The course lasted 9 months, following which I opted to study Psychology with Counselling Skills at university, but later changed to the course I’m doing now: English Literature with Creative Writing.

Coming to this decision was amazing. I won’t lie, at first I was terrified of applying, seeing as I hadn’t done anything English Literature related since my GCSE’s, and universities generally want an A Level in the subject.

But, I assume, because of my personal statement being a testament to my love for English Literature, and by extension, reading and writing, the university gave me an unconditional offer the day after my submission on UCAS. Seeing this, straight away, made me scream and tell literally everyone I know–it was the happiest and lightest I’d felt in so long. Finally choosing to do a subject that I’d been in love with since I was eleven years old was like a dream come true.

I got into the course, despite not having studied the subject since GCSE’s (and honestly, what I realised is that GCSE’s don’t really mean much, past A Levels–though that’s not to say you shouldn’t try your absolute best during it, because you should. But not receiving A*s/9’s, won’t be the end of your academic career, this I can promise you.) Honestly, if I was able to get into uni without the common route in academia: GCSE’s followed by A Levels, without a break in between, then you can too.

My three year break from education, despite feeling like an outsider for not following society’s timeline of progression, was so necessary. I needed it to motivate me to a) get back into education and b) continue with my education despite any hurdles or adversities. My motivation now is remembering how I felt during those three years, when all I had to do was work menial jobs (though retail does require a lot of patience and determination to stay in the role)–because it’s when I remember that I realise I shouldn’t take education for granted, when so many other’s don’t have access to it. This, of course, is a personal thing–I am in no way saying a university-level education is a requirement for success, because it really isn’t. But for me personally, I feel like I need this.

Going from primary school to secondary school to sixth form to university is one long, exhausting journey. I’m friends with people who followed that timeline exactly and afterwards, their paths ventured into so many different directions, whether it was getting that forever job, working in a role not at all related to their degree, studying more, or starting a business or being a stay-at-home mum. Other people I know went down a different route after sixth form.

The point is, educational motivation varies from person to person, and the impact school can have on one’s mental health can last for a really long time. For me, I needed a break from it to get that motivation back. Staying in school for over a decade is really long. So I’m more than happy that I got to experience a few years without it, to get a taste of what life without education was like. In a lot of ways, I feel like those three years have prepared me for what I will inevitably come to upon graduation: job searches, interviews, rejected applications, before finally being given a position.

(Speaking of, I actually need a job now. lol, but really though, i do.)

–Sumaiya, x

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