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21 August 2020

“The teachers laughed at me”: How Miles King defied expectations to make it to Oxford

Despite his talent, the black A-level student was mocked when he said he wanted to attend a Russell Group university. 

By Emily Bootle

Miles King knew what Marxism was when he was in Year 6. “In my primary school I smashed all my exams,” he tells me over the phone. It hardly seems surprising, then, that he was offered a place to study at a grammar school in Kent – where he commuted from his home in Kidbrooke, south London – for Year 7.

What’s more surprising is what happened after that. Last week, on a highly contentious A-level results day, Miles tweeted: “Teachers laughed when I used to say I was gonna go to a Russell group in year 11, they used to come up and ask me if I was gonna pass my GCSEs. No I’m going oxford lol.” The tweet, which received 11,000 likes, was accompanied by a screenshot of his Ucas Track account, which confirmed his place at University College, Oxford, to study history.

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But Miles’ journey to university was a fraught one. He recalls a Year 7 parents’ evening when he “got slated by a few teachers”, after which his dad was so angry that Miles knew he had to try harder. But soon after that he stopped seeing his dad regularly (his parents having fallen out). His mum had a turbulent upbringing and didn’t want her son to be defined by his socio-economic background, but when he got into grammar school she grew complacent – and his motivation dropped.

It was only Miles and his mum at home, and he had to fend for himself from around the age of 13. “My only meal a day, really, was dinner, but it wasn’t very nutritious because I didn’t know how to cook,” he says. At school, Miles became attention-seeking and hyperactive. He couldn’t concentrate. His dyslexia, which went unacknowledged by most of his teachers, made it difficult for him to keep up in class. “I just couldn’t do school,” he says. “I couldn’t sit there for an hour and just read and make notes from the board – it didn’t compute with me. My confidence completely fell off. I thought, what’s the point, I can’t do this.” He started to get a reputation.

Miles became too much for his teachers to handle, which perpetuated his cycle of underachievement. “I was really good at maths – in my eleven-plus I got full marks in one of the papers,” he says. “But at the start of Year 9 they moved me down from the top set.” Though he assumed this was because of his marks in the test, he later found out it was because his behaviour was disrupting the higher-level students.

When he was in Year 10, Miles’s history teacher decided he would have to be removed from his GCSE class owing to his behaviour. But fate seemed to intervene. A new teacher, Mr Watkins, overheard the conversation and offered Miles a place in his history class, where he was placed right at the front to avoid misbehaviour. “He basically saved my life,” says Miles. “If I wasn’t in his class I wouldn’t have done history GCSE, and I wouldn’t have been able to go to Oxford.” And as his relationship with his mum became more challenging, Miles spent a lot of time alone in his room, where he’d read books and watch history documentaries. 

Miles’s home life had been worsening. Though attending a grammar school meant his friends were generally high achievers, he fell in with a different crowd near home. “When I was 14 or 15 I started to become friends with some older kids in my area who would do some very naughty stuff,” he says, “and that started to transfer into school.

He feels his mum’s nonchalance continued. She had grown up in Greenwich in south-east London on “one of the worst estates in the area”, “doing the same things”. He wasn’t disciplined at home, but at the beginning of Year 10 his mum was called into school for a meeting with the deputy head. “They sat her down and they said, ‘Miles is going to get kicked out if his attendance doesn’t go up. His attendance is at 40 per cent.’” Miles’s mum was upset in front of the teachers – but he felt she wasn’t doing anything to prevent his non-attendance. They rowed in the office, which started a string of arguments. “I said, ‘I can’t do this any more. I’m going to my dad’s.’”

Miles’s dad left home at 15 and was a successful, self-made music producer during the drum and bass era. But when Miles was a child his father had fallen into debt. He was living in a single room on a business estate when Miles moved in with him. “He made it known that I wasn’t supposed to be living there – neither of us was supposed to be living there, we could be kicked out if someone found out,” Miles tells me. “It was a single room. We had to share a bed. There was no heating. He had to use portable radiators. It was a bit crazy – but it gave me a fire in my stomach.”

Despite Miles’ increased motivation, most of his teachers maintained their low faith in him and, he says, didn’t know how to deal with him. Though the school was relatively diverse racially, Miles experienced subtle biases: when he stood with other black boys they were told to disperse, whereas groups of white boys could remain.

He recalls a meeting with a sixth form teacher at which he was asked where he wanted to go to university – he wanted to stay in London and said he’d like to study history at University College. The teacher laughed, then caught himself. “He said, ‘Miles, you have to be realistic, they’re going to have certain GCSE requirements, you’re not going to be able to get in there.’”

Miles was predicted to fail all of his GCSEs. He even struggled with history. Although in class he was encouraged to discuss bigger ideas, which helped him hone his interests and ultimately get into university, he didn’t feel prepared for the exam. Eventually he scraped through, and went to a different school – a Harris Academy closer to home – for sixth form. (Ironically, Miles says, racial prejudice felt more prevalent in his new school.)

When he arrived there, he found he was ahead of most of the other students because he’d been to grammar school, and so was singled out by the teachers immediately. Living with his dad – who had never tolerated mediocrity – had instilled in him a growing desire for success. At the end of the first term he achieved ABB in his mocks, the best marks in the year. He was offered a place on the Harris Experience Programme, which pools students from all the Harris Academies to prepare them for applications to Russell Group universities.

[see also: Two government U-turns have placed many of Britain’s universities on life support]

Miles was excluded from the sixth form several times. “My old tendencies came through,” he said. But he also worked hard and was studying subjects he enjoyed – history, politics and sociology. He lost touch with the group of friends he’d had in lower school, who lived on his mum’s road. “My best friend from Year 10 is now in prison,” he tells me. I ask if he knows Miles is going to Oxford, and he doesn’t – they’ve lost touch. “It’s not something I’ve properly emotionally processed,” he says.

He applied to Oxford expecting that he wouldn’t even be interviewed. “I thought I’d aim high so if I don’t get that I’ll go down one, which would be overachieving anyway.” When he was invited to be interviewed he was so excited he ran laps around his school. “Teachers were shouting at me and I just kept ignoring them. My heart was beating so hard,” he says.

This was the major hurdle for Miles: he felt confident in the interview because he’d always been better at speaking than writing. He and one other boy in his year – who’d also applied for history – became the first in the school ever to be offered a place at Oxbridge.

Miles moved in with his aunt in north London in Year 13 because living in one room with his dad was “volatile”; he was able to motivate himself and revise throughout lockdown. But the news of the A-level results algorithm was troubling. His school averaged a D, but he was ranked first in his year. While the rest of the students were all marked down two grades, Miles was only marked down one – meaning his prediction of A*A*A* turned into AAA, and he met his offer from University College. (The other boy to have received an Oxford offer was awarded ABB and was accepted by the university.) 

[see also: The A-level debacle shows why coursework and AS-levels should never have been scrapped]

He’s unfazed by the prospect of social distancing at university. “I can’t not go,” he says. “Me going into detail about what’s going to happen next year isn’t going to change it. So I haven’t really done the research, I’m just gonna turn up.” When he talks about history he lights up – he remembers all the details of the source he was given at his Oxford interview, and recounts it passionately.

Miles’ story is an inspiring one, but there are thousands of students like him who without small nudges from fate and changes in circumstance will slip through the net. It reflects the soft bigotry of low expectations: children whose potential goes unrecognised and whose home life and socio-economic circumstances are unaddressed.

Miles has “no idea” what he wants to do after university, but it feels like he has a strong enough sense of self to wing it. He’s the first in his extended family to go to university, and they’re all excited. His dad wants him to go into the corporate world for financial security, but Miles maintains that he’s “too unserious”. “Even when I was a retail assistant I used to annoy people because I used to make jokes and muck about a lot.” He pauses and then continues, with an audible wink: “You’ll never catch me in JP Morgan.”

[see also: The universities crisis is the moment to end a decade of marketisation]

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