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Taking your first steps into higher education
Taking your first steps into higher education

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2.1 Life chances and place

Social science has a long history of producing evidence to suggest that people who live in different areas have differing ‘life chances’. The term was first coined by the sociologist Max Weber (2009 [1948]), who argued that people’s life chances are influenced by their economic position.

Economic position is largely determined by employment by the extent of property ownership. People’s life chances are influenced by the social and economic benefits that they are able to access, such as salary, wealth, housing and education. These aspects of life chances are all connected. For example, our education can affect the type of job we are able to get, which in turn can affect where we are able to live, both in terms of the area and the type and quality of housing. These factors all affect our income and wealth, which ultimately shapes how much choice we have in our lives.

Activity 2 Two families living side by side

Timing: Allow approximately 45 minutes

The previous activity introduced you to the technique of scan reading which is useful for identifying the key elements in a piece of writing. This activity is an opportunity to have a go at reading a piece of writing more carefully.

Copy out the table below into your notebook and record your answers there.

  • a.Look at the title line of the article below. What do you predict this article will be about?
  • b.Now read the article more closely and make notes on the ways in which the lives of the two families differ.
Table 1
What is the article about?
Daily Lives
Prospects for the future

Go back over the article yet again, writing your notes into the table in your notebook. As you write the notes, try to change the wording so it is not the same as the words in the article.

Keep your table as we will return to it later.

Two families living side by side. But the gulf between rich and poor keeps them worlds apart

Debbie Brett wishes she could fly. It’s understandable. She’s a 36-year old single mother with four children, trapped in a fifth-floor flat on a south London council estate, complete with three smashed windows and a broken lavatory.

Leaning on the balcony, stepping over water leaking from her flat, she looks out on the prosperous greenery of the private houses stretching away for miles. She dreams of a house of her own.

On the green streets below, families drive their children to schools of their choice, take them away on holidays and plan for a future even better than their comfortable present.

Debbie knows she is invisible to the people living down there. ‘They look at me like I’m just another statistic.’ Despite the obstacles set in her way, Debbie once had ambitious dreams for herself and her children. Only a few years ago she was studying for a law degree but she had to abandon the course when her child carer –‘a friend’–wanted some money. The lack of that small sum changed her life drastically for the worse.

Now her dreams are more modest. She’d like the council’s private contractors, Acorn Housing, to answer her calls. She wants them to fix the toilet their workmen dismantled when they wrongly thought she was flooding the flat below three years ago.

Or they might fix the windows broken by her desperate teenage daughter Laura, for whom Debbie also asked vainly for help. ‘They never listened until it was too late.’ As for the windows: ‘I got a quote for £250 once, but I didn’t tell them it was the fifth floor. I’m sure it will be more when they find out.’

The result is that Debbie and her four children have no usable sitting room. They all live in her bedroom when they come home from school. They eat on her bed or the floor and watch TV. At bedtime the girls go to two small bedrooms they share. They’ve never had a holiday or been out for a meal as a family.

For those who’ve never experienced it, poverty is generally described in bare numbers of income differentials, and statistics defining the greater likelihood of falling ill or dying early. A visit to Debbie’s home gives a different picture. Poverty means the end of control over your own life. The death of hope. […]

Debbie and her girls look down from their balcony on to the large house and garden of the Confinos. Daniel is an investment banker who commutes to the City. His wife Jayne is a magistrate. Their four children, aged eight to 13, enjoy a variety of stimulating activity. The family would not make the Sunday Times rich list, but they have enough for frequent trips to their house in France and weekly outings for meals, to the theatre and other treats. […]

Zoe [eldest of the Brett children] is a beautiful and articulate young woman with obvious potential, still hanging on at college, but she has a part-time job in a shop that pays so badly it faces her already with the futility of her life. […]

Just across the road, hope is in plentiful supply among the Confinos, both parents and children. They are driven by the pursuit of happiness – not the desire for material things. They see money as a means to that end. They fill every waking minute with productive activity and/or fun. Having moved into a large house with no fewer than six bathrooms, they set about ensuring their children get the most out of life. Every afternoon after school is programmed with art, story-telling, singing classes and the like. There are computers on broadband and a dazzling array of educational toys and devices to make learning fun. […]

For Debbie, money is such a headache it stops her thinking clearly about it. She had not even done the sums on her modest income – until I asked her to. Since her partner, the father of the two youngest, left their long term relationship – a relief in some ways, admits Debbie – she now raises her children on Income Support. Like many in her state, she is prey to visiting loan sharks and finds paying 25 per cent on a loan of £100 ‘a good deal’.[…]

Next time you hear the statistics, think of her.

(Graef, 2003)


These are some of the ideas I had.

Table 2.1 Comparing the Bretts and the Confinos
  • 5th floor flat
  • 3 bedrooms (4 girls in 2 small ones)
  • no useable living room
  • council estate
  • smashed windows, broken lavatory, leaking water
  • overlooking prosperous, private houses
  • large house
  • 6 bathrooms
  • garden
  • greenery
Daily lives
  • eat on the bed
  • watch TV
  • feel invisible with no control over life and no hope
  • little money = a ‘headache’
  • meals out, theatre, treats
  • activity and fun
  • hope
  • pursue happiness
  • plenty of money
  • Debbie’s abandoned law degree (can’t afford childcare)
  • Zoe’s potential, but only ‘hanging on’ at college
  • after-school classes: art, singing, story-telling
  • computers with broadband
Prospects for the future
  • lone parenthood
  • can only dream of own house
  • Income Support
  • loan sharks
  • continuing poverty
  • badly paid job (Zoe)
  • planning for an even better future
  • choices

Notice that there is much less information in some boxes, especially on the Confino’s side. Often when you are looking at information (whether in the form of writing or numerical data in a graph or table) it is important to consider what is left out. In this case it seems the writer is letting us ‘fill in the blanks’ for the well-off Confinos, perhaps because they want to concentrate on making the poverty of the Bretts, which tends to be invisible as Debbie suggests, something you can see and have a real feeling for.

There are many differences in the lives of the two families; for now it is worth noting that one of the key differences is the very different income levels of the two families. These income differences affect many aspects of their lives and futures. For example, Debbie’s hopes of a better life for her and her family through studying for a law degree were dashed for the want of some money for childcare. This has made a difference not only to Debbie’s life, but to her future too. Having an education and a professional qualification would have enabled Debbie to improve not only her own life chances but also those of her children.

On the other hand, the Confino children are receiving a good education. ‘Parental choice’ in education means that those who can afford to transport their children easily by car are more likely to be able to exercise a choice than those who are dependent upon public transport. The Confino children more likely to continue in education until they are 18 and to attend university. Meanwhile, Zoe Brett is ‘still hanging on at college’. If Zoe does well she might go on to university, but having a part-time job means she will have less time to study. Her family’s overcrowded flat affords her little space to study, especially given the space limitations imposed by the broken windows. It is not impossible for Zoe, but it is much harder. Economic inequality is a significant influence upon education and life chances.

As the article points out, the Bretts have very little control over their lives’, and very little choice. The Confinos, by contrast, have a great deal of control and choice. They can afford to choose where their children are educated and have holidays, and they have a large house with plenty of quiet space for homework and reading. Money, or in Debbie’s case the lack of it, clearly has a significant effect on the lives of both families.