MPhil Education student Grace Batley finds her authentic voice in academia

Grace shares the non-traditional experiences behind her passion for education

Grace Batley is an MPhil student in Education (Knowledge, Power and Politics) from Barnsley. Grace's research project targets fragmented masculinity in post-industrial towns and how this intersects with power. 

Grace headshot

Can you tell me a bit about your journey to Cambridge and MPhil study? What was your experience of school and College like? 

My journey through education as a mature student has felt like a series of deconstructing the foundations laid out by my formative schooling years. For me, schooling felt a lot like survival and less about learning: I was an undiagnosed neurodivergent student, navigating an overwhelming space with no support in place. I suppose it could be said that I fell through the net, but for me it feels I never made it in there to begin with. 

I missed months of school at a time, after what I now know to be burnouts, but at the time were pathologized. As a result, my time spent in school consisted of being sent to isolation to catch up, and being branded as ‘low ability’, which inevitably ended in me resenting school and acting up. Education began to feel like a place that people ‘like me’ did not belong. 

Coming from a working-class community it already felt as though my life path was written regardless of school and qualifications. I followed along on this path, scraped by with Cs at GCSE and went on to college to study health and social care but dropped out after a year.

What did you do next after dropping out of your Health and Social Care course? 

Despite the feelings of not belonging and resenting school, I still loved learning. This is one of the key tenets that has remained throughout my life, in spite of the experiences I've had.

I’d say there was a sense of frustration in all of this: schooling felt like an arena I couldn’t occupy despite a desire to engage in new ideas. After dropping out of college I went through many different jobs, from warehouse picking and packing, retail, and support work to (just about) make ends meet. I was searching for fulfillment to no avail. After being fired from, or having to leave, jobs due to ill health, I took time off work and signed on to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). 

While on ESA it was suggested to me that I attend a place called Northern College to do some funded short courses. It is here where I met the first educator who changed my life trajectory. 

A teacher called Roy Ledger, the first educator to tell me wholeheartedly that this was a space I deserved to take up room in. Roy encouraged me to complete an Access to HE course and taught me for the next ten months. Seeing this man show up authentically, speaking in the dialect I spoke in and challenging my narrow conceptions of what an educator looked like completely revolutionised my thinking.

Rita Pierson states “every child needs a champion” (Pierson, 2013). I would reframe that as 'every learner' - it took me until twenty to find mine.

How did you find the transition of going from your Access Course to your first undergraduate degree? 

The year after my Access Course, I started my undergraduate degree at the University of Sheffield studying International Relations and Politics. Unfortunately, on arrival, those feelings of little fish, big pond came flooding back. The jump from socially engaged education to a red brick began to feel too ambitious.

The studying of education later in life has helped me to unpick these feelings. Everything within this space reinforced the feelings learnt in school that I did not belong. Perhaps, while epistemological shifts had happened within my approach to education, the self-limiting beliefs were still too loud. 

What happened next for you after you dropped out of this degree course? 

For a few years after my university drop out, I sat in resentment, entered back into the cycle of making ends meet. Life at this stage threw some pretty big curve balls. I saw the impacts of addiction in my family and community, encountered multiple instances of grief and carried far too much for a girl in her early 20s. After finding myself in a situation where I had to access emergency housing, I felt that I had reached rock bottom. 

It was this same year that I met the second educator that changed my life, Rachel Hurding. I was made an offer to work in her school as a breakfast club assistant and dinner lady. At this point, I felt like I’d tried every other job that my qualifications would walk me into, so I was applying to anywhere that would take me. 

Tell me a bit about your experience of working as a dinner lady? What did you learn from this role? 

Being a dinner lady taught me so many valuable lessons and highlighted that they are the unsung heroes of the schooling mechanism. They occupy the least structured part of the school day, and as a result are blessed with getting to know the kids in a setting that isn’t so entrenched with power dynamics. 

It’s through working dinners that I came to see what a liberatory place education can be. Along with this, I learnt that a wet paper towel really can cure all ailments! To cut a long story short, I loved being in this educational setting and Rachel pushed me to take on new opportunities within the school. Watching Rachel’s passion for education inspired me to pull myself out of the hole I had found myself in. 

I picked myself up and dusted myself off, despite Covid-19 hitting. Over lockdown we set up an outdoor space for the children. I trained up as a Forest School Practitioner with the extra school funding left over from the PE budget during the pandemic. I was convinced when I started this job that I could never teach, absolutely not. However, when summer came round, and I was manning the allotment, these first lessons came naturally. 

Again, it is those old notions embodied from formative schooling that led me to believe that education and educators must look or act in one way, which I now know to be entirely untrue. 

How did this experience contribute to your own approach towards Education and passion for the subject? 

I was suddenly looking at education from a different standpoint, as an educator looking in. I observed the shifts in the children from being in the classroom to the outdoors, witnessed how some students were disengaged by Year 3, already embodying negative self-belief.

I saw how the classroom as a space was loud enough to silence some children when they felt they didn’t have the right tools to navigate it. Most importantly, I observed first-hand the complex interplay between class and education.

The passion I already had for learning meant I started researching and reading around some of the seminal works surrounding education. The fire in my belly that started at Northern was reignited and I finally felt like I found my place in academia. For me, education is central to the ways in which we navigate the world and for students from communities like mine, we are failed time and time again by an institution that is supposed to support us. 

After your work within a school setting, you decided to return to undergraduate study, but this time at Sheffield Hallam University. What encouraged you to make this move and how did you find the transition to higher education this time around? 

Seeing these failings first hand affirmed that I no longer wanted to be a bystander. I returned to university at age 25, to study Education with Autism, Disability and SEN at Sheffield Hallam. Studying education gave me a new lens to conceptualise my own experiences, but also the ability to bounce these back into theory.

It felt as though all I had learnt up until now made sense: it all slotted into place, even the rough, lived realities. Initially, I was met with the same internal discomfort in becoming a student, but the fire didn’t die out, wasn’t incinerated. 

Instead, I was met with educators passionately advocating for students like me to find their voice. I was blessed to have educators paving the way in challenging traditional schooling methods and confronting normative understandings of disability. We deep dived into the multifaceted experiences of others and the ways in which intersectionality shapes this. While studying I found my niches in the field. Along with class, I began to explore queer theory, feminist critique, and post-colonial legacies.

You talk about never imagining yourself as somebody who might study at Cambridge. Why was this and how did you find your MPhil Course? 

I wasn't confronted with the idea that I could be a Cambridge student until I accidentally stumbled on this course whilst scrolling through master's courses online. I thought I’d set the distance filter to only show Universities in South Yorkshire but fortunately I hadn't. I saw the title 'Knowledge, Power and Politics' and felt like someone had written the course for me. 

When I spotted the master's was at Cambridge, I chuckled to myself and shut the laptop. 

At work the next day my manager at the time challenged me when I said I wouldn’t apply (thank you Janet!). I went on to reel off all the reasons I would have no chance of getting in, she bounced it back and said, ‘well what if you do?’. I had a preconceived idea of what it meant to be a ‘Cambridge Student’, but in turn was creating a narrative in my own head.

I was convinced I didn’t tick any of the boxes, had far too rogue of a lived experience, hadn’t done well in my formative studies, didn’t go to a Russell group for undergrad, and came from a place so extensively underrepresented in the admissions. 

What would you say to students who might look at Cambridge and feel the same? 

The reality is, if you find your passion for education at a later stage in life and thrive in that, what you have to say is equally as important as the other voices in the room.

Along with this, if you are from an underrepresented background, don’t let it discourage you from applying. It can feel really intimidating navigating those first few weeks and learning how to occupy space here, but you just have to step into it. Wolfson is a great space for this, which is the reason I applied here. It is refreshing to see a College in Cambridge advocating for the different journeys one can take through education. Our schooling histories should not define the paths we decide to take later in life. 

Can you tell me a bit about your own MPhil research project? Why is your topic important to you?

My research delves into the intricate landscape of masculinity within post-industrial towns, in areas of community collapse. It explores the repercussions of neoliberal individualism and the loss of the ‘working class hero’ mentality. When compiled with 40 years of increasing deprivation, it evaluates the ways the social and cultural norms in Barnsley have become out of sync. Focusing on how gender norms are experienced, reproduced, and manifested in power imbalances, it establishes the ways in which men navigate the performance of masculinity. 

Grounded in a compassionate inquiry, the study seeks to understand the fears and sense of powerlessness intertwined with the performance of masculinity. From this, the work explores the experiences of white-working class men and the links with violence, misogyny, and the othering of marginalised groups as a response to fear.

Through an exploration of lad culture, working-class cultural arenas, and the complexities of animosity prevalent in areas of deprivation, this research unravels the multifaceted dynamics shaping identities. 

What are your goals for the future? Do you have any idea where your MPhil might take you? 

If I’ve learnt anything over the past ten years, it’s that it’s impossible to guess the trajectory of your life path, so I’m not sure I can say where I’d like to be in the future. While stumbling on this course was accidental, I have been blessed to experience the world of Cambridge and as a result I know for sure that I don’t feel done with education yet. Education will always be central to the ways in which I navigate the world and I hope to carry this through to study a PhD. Cambridge and Wolfson have opened doors I could have never imagined a year ago and I’m excited to see where this journey takes me. 

Read more

This article is part of the 2024 Postgraduate Student Profile Series.

To mark International Women's Day 2024, Grace spoke at the Women of Wolfson event, titled 'Different Paths to Success'. You can read more about this event and our inspiring female panelists on the event page

You can learn more about the funding available at Wolfson and how to apply to study for a postgraduate course at Cambridge University as a Wolfson College student on our website. 

You can also watch our postgraduate video to find out more about the social and academic environment at Wolfson.

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