Posh and poor: What it’s like being on benefits at private school
Living on benefits during one of the biggest austerity drives in history wasn’t easy
For my entire education prior to university I attended an all girls private school. Sounds cushy I know, one of the many bastions of privilege where the wealthy and aspirational send their little darlings to be educated. As is true of many commodities in a capitalist society (and education is definitely one) it tends to be better if you pay for it. Even so, it is still a bizarre microcosm to be inside, it is always made clear to you that it is an immense privilege to be attending, as school that is likely to give you a disproportionate advantage over your state educated counterparts in terms of grades achieves and university places. It’s not a great secret that people privately educate their children in order to give them the best education that money can buy. Literally.
Initially I was most certainly one of those ‘little darlings’, I had been privately educated all through primary school, I had passed my eleven plus and got into a grammar school (I’m from Kent, we still have grammar schools- by which I mean selective state schools, not private schools that retain the name grammar) and I still got to go to a very academic independent all girls school. This may sound fairly dull at this point, but things became somewhat complicated when my mum had a breakdown during my GCSEs and my parents split up. I am only going to touch on this for a moment (for the sake of context) but when the financial freight train ran to a halt things unravelled.
Things were in limbo for some time after that, until eight months later my mum filed for divorce, which is when things got really hard. The divorce was not amicable, and financial support became minimal and erratic.
My mother is a smart and resourceful woman; she has a medical degree and is probably the most masterful navigator of the welfare system that I have ever met. She had been very ill (and realistically still was at this point so was not able to go back to work) so, she did what she had to, got all the requisite paperwork and advice from the council and did the one thing that the middle class hoards judge and abhor, claimed money from the state.
Living on benefits during one of the biggest austerity drives in history is not exactly easy, especially with four children to clothe and feed, so if you think that the welfare state gives anyone who is too lazy to work free handouts to live as carefree as George Osborne on his day off then I can say with absolute confidence that you have no idea. You get the bare minimum that is necessary to keep afloat, and even then it is still extremely difficult. Naturally, luxury wasn’t exactly a priority whilst on austerity drive. Fair warning: if you ever have this kind of budget, you will end up eating a lot of rice and pasta. Unimaginatively my siblings and I dubbed our Spartan diet ‘rice and shit’. Shit being whatever was in the cupboard or fridge to supplement the rice. Basically it’s like having a student lifestyle before you get to uni, except without the alcohol and other proclivities.
However, I digress. If you take this context of anxiety and uncertainty and place it in an environment where very few if any of your peers will have had those kinds of experiences, it will give you a renewed perspective of firstly how lucky you are if your school has kept you enrolled, essentially on a charitable basis (as I was) and secondly that living with that level of stress toughens you up, which is by no means a bad thing. Perhaps hindsight has made me a cynic, but it made the whole experience very hollow for me. I got a great education and the grades to prove it, but school seemed like a results factory.
I haven’t mentioned how great some of the teachers were and I am eternally grateful for the support I was given, yet when it came to other students, it felt like there was a complete lack of understanding in regards to the outside world. This was probably linked to the pressure to achieve, a factor that was symptomatic of the financial investment that parents were making in their children’s future, (emotional breakdowns over getting a B instead of an A* were frequent) and this focus on being a high achiever did, to a certain extent pigeonhole people’s perspective. There was a definite assumption that everyone was wealthy, because everyone else was.
I was talking to a friend of mine who was in a similar predicament (as in she and her family were struggling too) while we were at school together, and she had some amusing anecdotes, the most pointed of which was ‘when Jane* was crying because she got two horses for her birthday and one was the wrong colour at the same time my dad stole 20 quid I got for my birthday to buy alcohol. They do live in a ‘different world’ and those worlds rarely collide, but when your family cannot pay the electricity bill, and can barely afford to pay for food it kind of makes you judge those who are swanning around shouting about which designer bag they should get.
Obviously money was tight, so in order to save for university, I was working at my local convenience store at the weekends, while also doing a paper round every morning. Admittedly, seventeen is a little bit too old to be doing a paper round, and when most people envisage it, they think you cycle around a cul-de-sac and throw the newspapers in the vague direction of the houses they are intended for. This is England, where it’s wet for most of the year, and the job was full of complaining old people and awful pay (£3.89 an hour). The hours weren’t much better, from 5am to midday every Saturday and Sunday (I am not a morning person) but I did meet lots of interesting people who came from outside the bubble of middle class comfort I inhabited during school hours.
You also get to know who the local alcoholics were, as on the dot of 8am every Saturday and 10am every Sunday (when licensing hours begin) they would come and buy their vodka or Frosty Jack’s or whatever substance they needed to get through their day. A similar thing can be said for smokers, scratch card and lottery enthusiasts, who, like the drinkers, all had their regular ‘order’. It is certainly an education in people, who they are, and what makes them tick, as it reveals how diverse and variable people’s lives can be in an ordinary town in the southeast of England.
Though living on benefits isn’t exactly fun, it was definitely a better preparation for university and adult life than planning holidays to Zante at the expense of the bank of mum and dad. I would imagine it is quite a shock when you leave this cocoon, as living on a student budget is far easier when you have been doing so for years. If you’re reading this and you were the kind of brat who threw hissy fits about handbags and horses then know this: we (the poor kids you went to school with) will judge you, so hard.
And if you still don’t get it there is an analogy that might help (one of the most accurate things that I have ever read about living on the breadline) that comes from Caitlin Moran, who says that it is like ‘having four per cent battery left on your phone: that’s what it feels like to be poor’. When you have that all day every day, it opens your eyes to what life is really like. But ultimately it teaches you to stand on your own two feet, to save yourself.