Page last updated at 10:18 GMT, Tuesday, 13 January 2009

'It takes stamina to overcome the barriers'

By Anna-Louise Taylor
BBC News

As the government announces plans to improve poorer children's chances of social mobility, we spoke to two talented people who have succeeded despite financial and social disadvantages.


Katrina Ffrench, 24, is a Cambridge social and political science student, but she did not do very well at school, as she had dyslexia.

She left school in Tooting Bec, south London, at 16 having gained several GCSEs, the highest qualification anyone had ever obtained in her family.

Two years later she left home and began working in Harrods and Waitrose, before training to be a beauty therapist.

But she needed "something to pass the time" and decided to study her A-levels at 19.

I was what you might call a 'turbulent teenager', I was able but not willing to work.

It was only when I looked back through some old school reports, I saw they (teachers) had written 'has potential' and I realised my whole life I'd been wasting time and I could do something else.

Katrina Ffrench

The government should have more extra-curricular activities in state schools... and also bring back the option of learning a foreign language in state schools

Katrina Ffrench

I worked in establishments like in Waitrose and Harrods where middle class people shopped - there was a lot of snobbery, and middle class people in there didn't even look at you when they were talking to you and they talked at you, like you were stupid.

I resented the positions I had, and I realised I could do much more.

I am from a very working class family and a state school - knowledge makes all the difference, to help people get into private institutions.

No-one in my family ever even uttered Oxbridge, it seemed it was out of my league for someone who went to state school, was from a single-parent family.

I picked Cambridge as I wanted to go to the best, but it was very daunting even applying.

I couldn't turn around and talk to my mum about Karl Marx, she was the perfect mum, but she didn't know how to help me apply for Cambridge or where to go.

It is easy to compare lifestyles with those who are privately educated, but it's a completely different ball game, they have so much assumed knowledge.

When I found I could get a student loan, it was perfect for me, as even though I end up with a lot of debt, it was the best kind of debt, as it was for my education and it allowed me to go to university.

I finish in June and am looking at working with disruptive children, but I am keeping my options open and also keeping some civil service jobs in the pipeline.

The government should have more extra-curricular activities in state schools, listen to students more, have regional student bodies and also bring back the option of learning a foreign language in state schools.


Dr Mak, 24, works at Milton Keynes Hospital in Buckinghamshire, a position he got after attending London's Imperial College.

He went to the Bluecoat School, a state school in Liverpool, and has fought substantial financial difficulties to become a doctor.

Dr Matthew Mak
The government needs to offer a lot more financial bursaries to break down the barriers for people from lower socio-economic groups
Dr Matthew Mak

No-one in my family or extended family went to university.

They (my parents) were proud, but they were wary of how much it would cost in London, as rent there was so expensive.

They find it difficult to understand, as they are from a completely different background, they are immigrants from Hong Kong, and they own a takeaway shop.

Because I am from a low income family, I had to get the maximum student loan... the maximum London living allowance, and I also had the maximum overdraft I could get, credit cards, and I applied for grants from medical school and for grants from charities.

In the early years I had time for a part-time job, in the medical school bar, but then once I was doing my clinical studies, I had to give that up, which made it even harder.

It was very obvious I wasn't privately educated to start with, when I got to university the majority of people there were privately educated.

They would say, 'oh I went to St Paul's', 'I went to Winchester' and would all know each other, and I grew up in Liverpool.

At the end of the day it takes a lot of stamina to get through it all, if you have a lot of barriers, class, background, financial, but it is worth it.

The government needs to offer a lot more financial bursaries to breakdown the barriers for people from lower socio-economic groups, to create more opportunities for them.

And they (young people) need to keep being ambitious.

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