My name is Jacob Lewis and my story took over A-level results day 2015. I opened my results at approximately 8.30am (cue high-fives and bear hugs with the Principal) and by that evening I was everywhere; newspapers, TV, radio - but why? Is it because the nation was shocked that someone could possibly achieve four A*s in their A-levels? Unlikely; the feat is unusual but not unheard of; this, after all, is why we have Oxbridge.
Could it possibly be because I'm Welsh? Wales has the lowest rate of Oxbridge acceptances as a region than any part of the UK mainland after all. No, I think what really shocked people was that I accomplished this while being, for all intents and purposes, homeless during the academic year. While this doesn't mean I did my homework in a shop doorway or had to sleep under a bridge, my story gained attention because I studied in a state of destitution yet still managed to achieve what many parents pay tens of thousands of pounds for their kids to accomplish - earn a place at elite educational institution and all the perks that go with it. However, if me being poorer than a sunhat salesman in the Antarctic yet still achieving my potential was enough to cause a media storm (and seriously, all you have to do right now is put my name into Google) then this serves to show how ingrained the knowledge is of the inextricable correlation between wealth and educational achievement. In fairness, highlighting this link is hardly revolutionary; this link has sustained the private schooling industry for years. It is the effect of this link on the fates of those at the other end of the economic stratum that I think needs to give rise to a serious discussion.
Should we consign our economically deprived students to a perpetual expectation of mediocrity based on their class (which, in the context of educational achievement, unfortunately still has more than one meaning) and content ourselves with applauding those who buck the trend while neglecting a chronic and serious problem? My result on 13 August was an exception to a long-established rule that the poorer you are the worse you do - while on the contrary some will use this achievement as an example of social mobility, I contend that it highlights a lack of social mobility or else my story would have possessed the newsworthiness of a worm farm. If everyone from a poor background did what I did, there would be nothing special in my achievement. Does the implication of the role that money plays in shaping the futures of our students not make anyone else deeply uncomfortable; does anyone disagree that education be about merit and not money?
Poverty is endemic in the Welsh Valleys where I studied and perhaps this is further evidence as to why Wales is consistently outperformed by other UK regions with a clear link between prosperity and prospects. In every media appearance, every interview I have given, I have ensured that I have thanked Coleg y Cymoedd explicitly and unreservedly for the significant support - financial and otherwise - they gave me last year without which I would never have even graduated, let alone got into Cambridge.
They gave me free meals when I had nothing to eat, subsidised my travel to interviews and campus and they lent me everything from Weetabix to a laptop. As you can imagine, this had a hugely significant bearing on my performance come exam time - do you see what impact financial support can have on learners and how those who are deprived this support are therefore never going to achieve parity with those who do not endure such deprivation, high-profile exceptions aside? Of course mitigating the worst effects of poverty doesn't guarantee Further Education students a place in Cambridge, but it's certainly a start.
This brings me to the point I really want to make. My story, wider implications on social mobility aside, shows the value of having a College Hardship Fund - the impact it had on me is there for the entire world to see. Coleg y Cymoedd was inundated with messages of support and people literally offering to give me money in the aftermath of results day but rather than accept all these generous offers I have put my name to a new hardship fund and have set up a fundraising page in order to try and have more money available to help struggling students who merit financial support - this page can be found at www.flendr.com/jacob-lewis-and-the-hardship-fund . Flendr's founder has also agreed not to charge us a penny to use their platform to raise money - highly commendable and I'm extremely grateful.
Whatever your views on the points I have raised, this story, this article, is about far more than me and the wonderful College I had the privilege to attend. Funding is being cut year-on-year in further education meaning that not only is there less money to be spent on teaching, the Financial Contingency Fund which I benefitted from (which is a percentage of the total College budget) will also fall accordingly meaning that there is less money to help the least fortunate. In comparison to those at University, Further Education students are massively under-funded as it is and cutting this budget further, including the vital lifeline that is the FCF, will only further inhibit social mobility in the region and stifle growth and innovation. My fund will never reverse this effect but I'll be damned if I won't at least try.