School privilege

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A new book, Engines of Privilege, promises to explore ‘the irrefutable link between private schools and life’s gilded path: private school to top university to top career.’ As someone who went to comprehensive school, this has been a lifelong fascination.

What difference does a school make? Why should the experience have such a lasting impact on one’s progress?

Private schools give you confidence and connections. These are two very important factors in success.

The link between power and private school

Only 7% of the UK’s population attended private, fee-paying schools. Yet people who did are over-represented in the top tiers of society. In politics, around 29% of MPs went to private schools. Whereas less than 1% of the population go to Britain’s elite universities, Oxford and Cambridge, nearly a quarter of MPs did.

The media is an even more biased landscape, with up to 51% of UK journalists having attended private schools. That figure rises to 61% in the medical industry and a staggering 74% of all judges are privately educated. 34% of CEOs were privately educated, a figure that has changed from 70% in the 1980s. Many of the stats haven’t changed much at all in that time. All of them are considerably higher than 7%.

If you attend private school, you are more likely to have a higher paying job and more likely to be making decisions that affect all of us.

Can you determine potential at 11?

For many the choice of school was governed by the ’11-plus’ exam.

Introduced in 1944, this exam determined the ability of the student and whether they should attend a grammar school or a secondary modern. Grammar schools were more academic and only the students achieving the right scores could attend them. Secondary moderns were for the rest, whose best career option was to learn a trade.

The separation of society based on background and class runs deep in the British history.

Both my parents are from working class backgrounds, and both achieved more than what was expected of them. Yet they were rarely encouraged by the system. My Dad talks of originally being sent to a secondary modern aged 11, but then when he was 13 getting upgraded to a grammar school after passing a ’13-plus’ exam. The difference was marked and it altered the direction of his life.

The actor Robert Webb describes his eleven-plus exam in memoir How Not To Be a Boy. He gets a result which is borderline, meaning he can either go to the same secondary modern as his brothers, or ‘struggle’ at the local grammar school. He writes:

[My brothers] had been sent to Gartree Secondary Modern School…And there, sadly, was where they both had to acquire a new skill: that of being ‘hard’.

Robert Webb

Seeing the experience his brothers’ had, Robert chose to go to the grammar school. He later went on to study at Cambridge where he met David Mitchell, establishing the roots of his career in acting and comedy.

Taking up less space

When I was 11, the eleven-plus exam did not apply because there were no grammar schools where I lived in Stoke-on-Trent. The options were the local comprehensive (aka secondary modern) or the local private (fee-paying) school.

I knew that the comprehensive school had a poor reputation. Its funding and exam results were far below the national average. I knew that the private school had far better results, a swimming pool and small class sizes. But the decision came down to money. My parents both worked. Their combined earnings meant that I was just outside of the eligibility range for any merit-based scholarship. They could not afford the fees.

So I went to a school where it was useful to have the skill of being ‘hard’. I wasn’t though. I was a highly sensitive, creative child who had a snowflake disposition. At my primary school, a teacher told me to keep writing and one day he could say he knew a top author. The praise stays with to this day. The precious feeling that someone believed in me. The confidence.

But in the secondary school I became quiet. It was a strategy because the threat of bullying was omnipresent. You were never far from the shout of ‘Scrap!’ and would be pushed along the corridors, carried by the mob surrounding one or more kids attacking another. The goal was to not be that kid. I decided my best chance was silence. If I didn’t speak much, didn’t stand out, take up space, pose any sort of threat or challenge, why would anyone bother punching me?

Was the quality of my education any less? There were good teachers and there were burnt out, exhausted teachers. No-one could blame them as the class sizes were far too large, often around 35 students. One or two problematic kids in every lesson would take most of the teachers’ energy to control. Learning happened mostly independently.

Despite this I worked hard and I got the grades to go to sixth form college and university. When choosing universities, I looked through the Cambridge prospectus. It had all the history, the alumni, the colleges. But it also had an early UCAS deadline and besides, it wasn’t for me. By then I knew that. People wouldn’t like my accent, the fact I didn’t know Latin, everything would show me up. So I didn’t apply.

I went to Nottingham University instead, which was the start of an adventure I don’t regret. It was years after that before I managed to shake off the desire to be quiet. Some days it’s still there. It’s impossible to know whether I would have a different path if I went to private school. Perhaps smaller class sizes and greater encouragement would have boosted my confidence. Perhaps connections would have unlocked career opportunities. But I might have encountered other problems.

In a recent column for The Sunday Times, Dolly Alderton highlighted the importance of attending private school in her career trajectory. She credits the attention she was given in small class sizes with pushing her academic performance beyond where it would have been. She also acknowledges the connections that opened doors for her in the media industry when she was starting out. It’s not an unusual story, but it’s unusual for someone to admit the unfair advantage with so much openness.

What I learned

I don’t agree with segregating children and determining access to education by the bank balances of parents. Or with using exams to determine potential at a young age, or indeed any age. The system is rigged and is holding us back. I hope more people speak out about what they learned or didn’t learn at school. Opening up the dialogue will help us determine a fairer education system.

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