Ask Louise Howland what it feels like to be studying English at Oxford, and you’ll get a laugh and a shrug. “I still can’t believe I’m here,” she’ll say. It’s a self-effacing answer, but it hides a hard truth – the chances of someone with her background getting into a university like Oxford are incredibly slim.
Louise is one of the million pupils that our teachers have taught since we started our work. Just like all the others, she grew up in an area of high deprivation, nursing dreams of the future – in her case, of becoming a published writer. We met her at her college to talk about what it’s been like to have made it so far down such an improbable path.
What was life like before you started here?
I grew up in Leeds, and my dad was a window cleaner. I went to a school called Intake High School, which was pretty bad. And then it got converted into an academy, Leeds West Academy. And even though it improved a lot, there still wasn’t an environment, in most subjects, where being articulate was valued – in comparison to private schools, at least. But here, it’s the opposite, so I’m still adapting.
Has anyone else in your family been to university?
My cousins have, but our generation is the first to go, and I’m the first to go to Oxford. I was the first in my school to get to Oxford, in its whole history, which is over 50 years. It wasn’t that people weren’t capable. I knew people who were 100% capable, but they were afraid to apply, and they were very intimidated because of preconceptions about Oxford, that everyone would have gone to Harrow and Eton, and everyone would be really snobby and posh – you shouldn’t let that stop you, because you get here and you realise that they’re just normal people.
Why did you want to do English?
I’ve always wanted to, because my grandmother was a writer, although she never managed to get anything published. I’ve always had an interest in literature.
When did you find out that she liked to write?
As young as I can remember I’ve always known it, because she had a typewriter in the living room, and I remember seeing her type. She was a scatterbrain, typical literature lover, and she used to have papers all over the floor, old manuscripts, and the biggest Dickens collection I’ve ever seen.
Was it because of her that you were motivated to write?
Yes, she made me realise that anyone can write. You have a canon, but literature is accessible to all. And when I started to write, I found it exciting, because with literature there are no limitations – it’s completely your imagination, the one tool you need regardless of social hierarchies. Anyone can do it. And I want to do it well, so I figured Oxford isn’t a bad place to start.
What about your teachers – how have they shaped your ambition to study here?
I had a history teacher, called Mr Rand, who came to my school through Teach First. He’s one of the best teachers I’ve ever had, because he’s so inspiring. His methods are quite university-like – he introduced seminars and things like that. He’s still teaching there. He’s been there for about five years, although if you saw him teach you would think it was a lot longer, because he’s so good. And there’s also one of my English teachers, Ms McCarthy, who isn’t Teach First. She’s amazing, she’s one of my favourite people. She’s the most candid person I’ve ever met, and she would encourage wider reading and different interpretations, critical interpretations. I give her and Mr Rand, and my head of sixth form, the credit for my getting here.
Have you considered becoming a teacher yourself?
I want to be a bestselling writer (laughs) but if that doesn’t work out – which is a big, big chance – then I’ve got Teach First, and I could get into teaching.
When did you start thinking that you could actually apply to Oxford and get in?
One of my English teachers, Ms Crawford – a Teach First teacher, actually – said to me, “Oh, you’re the one that everyone says is going to go to Oxford.” And I thought, Oxford? I mean I’d always wanted to go, it had been a dream of mine, but I didn’t think I would get ever in.
How well do you think your school prepared you for it?
I suppose they prepared me the best way they could. It’s very hard to prepare someone for something if you haven’t experienced it. Mr Rand did email me and tell me how to manage my time, which is something I’ve always struggled with. But I think the best experience that I had was on Teach First’s Futures programme, when we came for a day at Oxford. It was fantastic, because we got to speak to students, to second years and first years. Only the actual students can prepare you.
You had a mentor through Futures as well. How did she help prepare you?
She gave me a list of resources, told me what university life is like – it was my first real taste of what university is like, what it entails, what courses I should look into, what careers will come out of that.
How did it feel when you got your results and knew you’d made it?
I was absolutely bewildered. I just couldn’t believe it.
And when you got here, how did it feel to meet people for whom it was so much more accessible a goal?
I think that there are fundamental flaws in the British education system. All my friends here have been to private schools, there are only two or three who haven’t. The balance is completely off. My best friend here, who went to private school, sixty people from her school have gotten into Oxford, whereas I’m the first from my school. And the good thing about Teach First is that it allows schools like mine have more good teachers. What our parents did with their lives shouldn’t affect us and shouldn’t limit our opportunities. The field should be level, but it’s not. And it’s good that Teach First is addressing it.