I’m from Barnsley in South Yorkshire and was the first in my family to do A Levels, never mind go to university. My dad worked for the council in the street light department and my mum worked in a shop when I was young, then as a cleaner. While I was growing up my parents and teachers were very encouraging, so at 16 I decided to start going to the local FE college to carry on my studies. Everyone thought I’d be daft not to.
At that point in my life Oxbridge and the Russell Group were on my radar, but looking back now I don’t know whether I actually thought they were places I would go or fit in. There’s a saying up here, though, “shy bairns get nowt” and I knew I’d never get into a top university if I never bothered applying. So when I heard about the Summer School, I thought I’d give it a go.
When I got there, I loved every second of it. I remember spending the week working towards a mock trial where everyone was assigned different roles to play. I was a witness and took it much too seriously, spending the night before the trial developing a whole persona for my character. I went all method actor, trying to get across that my character might have some issues and therefore not be the most reliable witness … but instead of dazzling everyone with my performance, everyone was in hysterics.
To this day, I’m still taken back to my time on the Summer School when I hear the opening piano riffs of ‘Everybody’s Changing’ by Keane. I stayed in one of the rooms with a piano and it became a focus for activities for the week – people would come into my room to play. There was a lad who could only play that one riff but did it with such confidence!
The “shy bairns get nowt” philosophy kicked in again and I aimed as high as I could, choosing a course called the “Double Maîtrise”. It was supposed to be two years studying law in Cambridge and then two years in Paris, with only 12 spaces on the course for Cambridge students and another 12 for students applying from Paris. Unfortunately, two years into the course the credit crunch happened and I ended up doing three years in Cambridge. That third year did give me the chance to study jurisprudence, which shaped the rest of my career. For the first time I had the chance to think about the theory behind the law and ask big questions.
After I graduated, I decided I didn’t want to practice law and instead worked as the first ever Schools Liaison Officer at Selwyn College. I spent two years visiting schools, talking to young people with a similar background to me and saying, look this is my story – you can do it too. After that I started working on specific law outreach, which made me realise that I really missed it. I applied for an LLM in International Development Law and Human Rights at Warwick and then a PhD at Durham and am now a Teaching Fellow at Newcastle University’s law school.
My main teaching and research areas are whether there is a connection between law and morality, and my current spin-offs are looking at things like whether AI and animals should have legal rights. I love the teaching side of my job; it’s really rewarding to see students from a similar background to myself come through the university and watching them grow and change as people. I’ve also fought really hard for Newcastle to do more widening participation work. In fact, I resurrected a mentoring programme between the university and one particularly deprived local school which recently won the community initiative of the year at the Northern Law Awards.
I’m perfectly happy where I am. If I could change one thing in the higher education sector, though, it would be making sure that outreach wasn’t seen as an optional extra for academics, but as essential work. There’s an entire pool of talent out there that doesn’t even know we exist and that we want them.
First of all, do it! Shy bairns get nowt, so the only way you’re guaranteed to get nothing is by not applying. Seize the opportunity with both hands. You never know, it might just change your life.