You calling me soft?

This Student Life: Spring term, week 7 at the Manchester Student House; Rachael's no spineless southerner. Seven years at a girls' boarding school has prepared her for anything life can dish out.
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UNIVERSITY IS a great leveller. Students born with a silver spoon in their mouths still have to digest lectures, regurgitate facts and pass exams. Students from working-, middle- and upper-class families all have the same access to books, facilities and libraries. But some will still end up with more debt than others.

Ian comes from a poor, working-class family in Leeds, and it gives him a certain directness. "I'm working-class and proud," he says. "I've never had a problem with it, but my brother went to Cambridge and he got a lot of stick."

Alistair, the public schoolboy of the house, gets on very well with Ian, but then he represents all the good things about being posh: good manners, an ability to deal with people, and charm. "I suppose public school taught me social skills," he says. "Whenever there are arguments in the house, I just see no need for it. We've just got the payment demand from the landlord for cleaning the house (during a particularly difficult time of tenant/owner relations) and there's some tension, but I stay well out of it."

Alistair went to Hymers College public school in Hull, and thinks it did a good job with him. "I would not have been the sort of person I am now if I hadn't gone to Hymers," he says. "It concentrates on people like me who get moderate grades and pushes them up to As and Bs. I'd been in a comprehensive school for a year before my mother took me out of there because the schooling was so bad."

So does he see himself as posh? "It wasn't a school for the super-rich," he says, "it only cost pounds 3,000 a year." Posh or not, he still had his share of trouble. "Someone once rammed me in the street because of my uniform - there was a lot of opposition to public schools. Hull was very macho, there were always street fights, like in Manchester."

Robbie reckons comp did him no harm. "People who went to comprehensive school are more down to earth, not as narrow in their opinions and less arrogant," he says. "At university here there are some real toffs who think they know everything." But he has different plans for his own children, should he have any. "It's a big advantage to go to a good school," he continues. "I'd send my kids to a private school because they'd go on to a good job. Comprehensive education is a bit of a gamble."

If anything labels you in Manchester, it's which end of the island you come from. Depending on your point of view, if you come from up north you're hard and gritty (good) or macho (bad), if you're from down south you're cultured (good) or wet (very bad).

"There's a prejudice against southerners," explains Ian, "that they're all wine-drinkers and would rather sit in a bar than go clubbing. Robbie and Dave tease Tasha because she's from London. It's a running joke that southerners can't hack it. They think London is the best city in the world, they're so narrow-minded."

And if anyone thinks Rachael is a soft-touch southerner they'd be in for a shock. She went to public school and loathed every minute of it. "There was so much hypocrisy," she explains. "One girl got caught at customs with drugs, but nothing happened to her, while another was suspended for having pink hair. Loads of people took drugs at school, but they didn't expel you for it. It was a well-known place and the school worried about it getting into the papers.

"There were so many silly regulations," she continues. "I rebelled by going down the wrong staircase, wearing the wrong shoes and smoking cigarettes."

She was hauled up in front of the headmistress countless times, about smoking, bullying and general misbehaviour, but her piece de resistance was getting the girl with pink hair reinstated. "I went around with a petition, got everyone to sign their name with a pink pen, and presented it to the teachers," she remembers proudly. So did it do her any good? "It's ingrained that rebellious streak in me," she explains. "All my old schoolfriends are the same, we've all come out knowing want we want. I kept up a fighting spirit the whole time. It made me come out of myself. You had to be extrovert, otherwise you'd just sink." Somehow, comprehensive school sounds more appealing.