Cambridge & diversity

Diane Abbott: overcoming obstacles

Diane AbbottDiane Abbott read History at Newnham College (1973–76). She worked as a civil servant, race relations officer and journalist before becoming the first female black MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington in 1987. She continues to represent that constituency and has championed issues including education, black rights and civil liberties. In 2008 Diane won the Spectator ‘Parliamentary Speech of the Year’ award for her contributions on the 42-day detention debate during the passage of the Counter-Terrorism Bill.

What motivated you to apply to Cambridge?

When I was growing up I knew nothing about higher education. My parents came from rural Jamaica. I went to a grammar school though and it tended to send girls on to some form of higher education but most went to teacher training college or secretarial college. It was relatively unusual to go to Oxford or Cambridge. When I said I wanted to go Cambridge the reaction was not entirely favourable. But I was always a ‘bookie’ and in the novels I read people tended to go to Oxford or Cambridge so I thought, why not me? Nobody told me that working class or black children didn't go and on a school trip to Cambridge in my fifth form (Year 11) I was enchanted by the Colleges, architecture and the young men and women with their striped scarves.

Did you have to overcome obstacles?

When I applied to Cambridge I had to sit an entirely separate entrance exam and a Latin exam. I had actually done Latin but dropped it at A-Level so I needed to refresh my knowledge. In order to do the entrance exam in most state schools you had to stay on an extra term but when I spoke to my teacher she said: ‘I don't think you're really up to it’. I disagreed and grudgingly they put me forward for the exam.

How did you adjust to life at Cambridge?

It was extraordinary. You must remember that I went to a state school. All of my friends had gone to state school, a lot of my cousins hadn't even stayed on at sixth form and my parents had left school at 14. I had a huge sense of achievement just by setting foot in Cambridge. But I am not one of those people who says Cambridge were the best years of my life.

The very first day at Newnham we had to meet our history tutor. There were about eight or nine of us and I looked around at the other girls and I just went cold. I realised that I had nothing in common with them. It wasn't that they were white or middle class or that they went to private schools. They were all good girls who would never get into trouble. I was nothing like that. I thought: ‘Diane what have you done? You don't belong here’.

How did you overcome this?

It was difficult. I realised that a lot of the girls had some sort of social network because of their school or family friends. Coming from a state school which didn't send students to Cambridge and a working class West Indian background I didn't have that network. There were two other non-white girls and hardly any working class girls and I felt incredibly lonely. My second and third years were a lot better although I always felt like an outsider. During my time at Cambridge I met some other working class people who were academically brilliant but were simply crippled by the loneliness. Of course it is a lot easier now, but when I was at Cambridge I was the only black person in the history faculty.

What are the key lessons you have taken away from Cambridge?

When I became a parliamentary candidate in 1986 I was the first black woman to do so. There was a lot of press attention and they nearly all asked incredulously: ‘what made you do this?’ The one exception was a reporter from The Times, who observed, having herself come from a working class background and gone to Cambridge, that early success shapes the rest of your life. Going to Cambridge gave me that sense that obstacles were there to be overcome. It also gave me more confidence.

What role should higher education institutions like Cambridge play in reaching out to black communities and other diverse groups?

You have to start with the schools. I think it is very worrying some schools don't encourage children to apply to Oxford and Cambridge. Schools need to do more by making sure that the children coming through are getting the four As at A-Levels that will put them into contention and encourage children to consider going there. Teachers must not get caught up in the mythology that Oxford and Cambridge are only for posh children. I was there thirty years ago and there weren't only posh people there then. Like any institution, Cambridge also needs to make sure that its staff, both academic and non-academic, are recruited diversely and then supported.

What are the most critical things for British society to do to ensure that black communities can take their place it?

Education is the key. When black children enter school their achievements are the same as for Asian and white students; by the age of 16 this is not the case. We need to build an education system that does not allow educationalists to get away with the tacit belief that when black children fail that's all you can expect. We need an education system that works for all of our children. We need to focus on encouraging and, where necessary, incentivising teachers and educationalists to make sure all our children achieve their potential.