Bridges, Bubbles and Bias

Updated: Nov 26, 2020

“When I was a child, if I had a problem I could not solve, I would not eat for three days until I had done it. You … You are not like that” Berated by my Russian Physics teacher, I couldn’t help but wonder what justified the £30,000 fees charged for this education. I thought back to my previous state grammar, where Ms De Silva spent two unpaid evenings a week discussing my latest writing, and doubted my move to a school where the advice was the ‘deprive yourself of basic needs’ variety. After undergoing the icy culture shock of Founders Day; Colours; Dining Halls, the question gnawed at the back of my mind … Was it worth it?

Almost certainly yes - thanks to a heavily classist society. Private school alumni make up 74% of judges, 71% of top military officers, 51% of leading journalists, 32% of MPs … the list goes on. But the general thought of why ‘Yes’ is heavily affected by the school you attended. Attempts to cut through, to see exactly what is behind the disproportionate success of the privately educated, are made more difficult by the trammelling into different educational paths that rarely overlap. Few move from state to private; fewer still from state to ‘Bubble’ school (as the elite London private school cabal is known). My own move was a quirk of fate - a throwing my hat into the ring for interview practice and, upon receipt of a scholarship, many hours convincing my heavily left-wing father that the opportunity to trade the rural surbub for the inner city was too good a one to waste. I arrived the only new state-educated student, to a year that had just topped the national GCSE table.

Returning to the local pub, I couldn’t help but notice a difference in tone as my friends from home discussed the inhabitants of the new world I had been invited to be a part of. It was as if they were speaking of Mallory Towers characters - cartoons flitting between lacrosse, rowing and debating. There was a grain of truth in it. My new friends did spend their time doing activities that were pretty alien from the ones we did at home. But some Bubbleites returned from lacrosse training to a home of divorce, abuse or illness.

Looking round my form of 12, Bea and Emily self harmed, Cara was anorexic, Beth’s parents were unhappily divorcing, and anxiety and depression were taken to be par for the course. The most distressing was being stood in a yawning atrium, in the most expensive street in my area, listening to the echoes of ‘useless rat’, ‘piece of shit’, ‘pathetic, pointless scum’ from the tongue of a friends guardian (I refuse to call her a mother).

My home friends abstraction away from this reality is not uncommon. I was guilty of it myself. Upon finishing our exams, one girl treated me to a night out in Mayfair. As 12 bottles of Dom Perignon champagne were sashayed to the private table, imagining problems in this surreal capitalist utopia seemed an error 404. I forgot the grandparent she had lost, the mothers escapes to Bali, the eerie coolness of her father. We are constantly told an additional purchase will make us happier - so surely, if you can purchase anything, you cannot be unhappy? It’s not the case. Private schools aren’t a silver bullet, and the difference in outcomes is not because a private education is accompanied by a life that is entirely rosy.

Yet it didn’t seem that the girls at my new school were any wiser in this regard. I left a politics discussion on ‘should private schools should be abolished’ almost in tears at the caricatures of my schools, my background I had heard. Receiving my Oxford offer was marred by snide insinuations about needing to up their state school intake. Teachers attributed my work ethic, essay style, and presentation to the school I had come from, rather than take me at face value, a privileged afforded to Bubble residents proper. Even the well-intentioned — the girl convinced I was an Inspiration who had Risen out of Adversity to join the Promised Land — made me feel like a civilised barbarian, brought in from the cold. None of them seemed to understand that the teaching I’d received hadn’t been radically different. My new peers were no more intelligent, amusing, kind or any one of the myriad traits that can make up a person. A science lesson is remarkably similar whether in a 1970’s classroom or state of the art lab.

Why, in a school with 98% A*’s, did such a lazy tale become accepted wisdom? I’m inclined to think it is classic snake oil salesmanship. A parent with two children attending from the age of 4 may spend over half a million in after tax income at a private school. This eye-watering expenditure occurrence requires the construction of a narrative, and retaining customers means deploring your competitors - the state sector. It requires the Othering of the state educated, the belief in a privilege, in being special, which occurs in myriad ingenious ways. Take sport. There are exclusive Independent School Leagues - so every student seems to reach a national final (when a league only permits entrants from 7% of schools, victory is hardly ‘National’). Or how lacrosse, rowing, shooting and the like aren’t played by most people — so it’s far easier to advance rapidly upward through the ranks.

I am not so naive as to think that private schools do not make any difference. Surveys of educational outcomes, exam result league tables, even turning on the television all serve to put paid to that illusion. However, the difference private schools make is rooted, not in a life experience that is radically smoother than the other 93% of the country, nor in an educational that is significantly better. The main disparities derive from social capital, and exam technique. Neither of these elements reflect on individuals as people - it’s not like people stipulate ‘extensive knowledge of AQA keywords’ on their preferences for an ideal partner.

Disclosure: Please don’t bombard me with counterexamples! These are, by necessity, generalisations - no one is suggesting they are true for everyone. I’m conscious a rather acerbic tone (apologies, writing on a hangover), coupled with a sensitive subject is a potent mix. One thing I’m hoping is that, if you agree with the half of this writing that reflects your background, you can take it on faith that I am right about the other. I’d be intrigued to hear any thoughts or different experiences.

On that note, a friend made the insightful point that it is the case that private school families do tend to be rosier sending me statistics on divorce, alcoholism and the like. My point was not to say that the two are equivalent. I intended only to say that the full gamut of human experience - all the colours and textures of human experience, the full spectrum of emotion is present in both - the darker shades don’t discriminate on the basis of your fees.

Note: Rewrote this from the Aug 15 version below

I attended two very different schools.

The first was a standard, run of the mill grammar. This school is better than many others — 4 people in my year attend Oxford, and only 2.6% of students are on a pupil premium. On the ‘Privileged School Scale’, these comments can only reflect the top 10%.

My sixth form ranked first in the country for GCSEs (2016). I attended on a half scholarship, reducing the fees from the stratospheric £7000 to the merely exorbitant £3500. A term. Living alone made this £3500 real and solidified the scale of this sum from an abstract number into a concrete reality (alongside a new-found appreciation of my parents' sacrifices).

Very few people cross the bridge from state to private. Fewer go from state to ‘Bubble Schools’ (the ‘technical’ term for the cabal of elite London private schools). Fewer still do this in Sixth Form. Moving gave me an insight most lack. Friendships from each silo gives comprehension of the preconceptions each ‘side’ holds against the other. I am limited to comparison of privileged and hyper-privileged. However, the exponential nature of the change money has on education means the difference between the 10% and the 0.01% renders the experience of one almost unimaginable for the other.

The result? Lazy heuristics dominate discourse on all sides.

The most significant fallacy I have found state school students commit when discussing those in private education is reducing them to a single dimension. Private schools are not filled with Malory Towers characters. Money insulates, but is not Kevlar. Bubble students may return from lacrosse training to a home of divorce, abuse and instability. Depression, anxiety, self-harm, anorexia were significantly more prevalent at the school I attended for sixth form than the one prior, and a comparable level to a nearby girls grammar. I stood in a yawning atrium, on the most expensive street in my area, and in the early hours of the morning listened to a seemingly eternal tirade of berating of ‘useless rat’, ‘piece of shit’, ‘pathetic, pointless scum’ echoing, lashing from the tongue of an unimaginably vile guardian of one of my friends (I refuse to call her a mother).

In my first year, I was particularly guilty of these trivialisations. Previously, Bubble Schools had been the Other. ‘Grounds’ not fields; ‘Dining Halls’ not canteens; ‘Games’ not PE. Odd, archaic rituals — Founders Days; Drill; Procession. In my introduction to a pretty alien environment, it seemed natural that these aggrandising terms extended to the occupants of the places that they demarcated.

I had a friend with Gucci trainers, Prada jeans and Swiss holidays, who could spend thousands on a night out. When she was upset, I shut my ears, thinking, blithely “You’re simply not allowed to be sad when there is the option of some Chanel to cheer you up”. Not proud of it, but true. I think a little sign of quite how insidious capitalist messaging is. Advertisements constantly promise we are simply one purchase from happiness, so, the logic appeared, if you can purchase anything, you cannot be unhappy. My mistake dawned on me over the year. Family dynamics, health scares, unavailable parents, disability, grief, loss — these are the lot of humanity as a whole. It’s a febrile trap, to see a direct correlation between money and happiness, with the oligarchs on cloud nine, but nonetheless, an illusion. It's one that is a tendency a lot of people slip into when discussing children at private schools, but private schools are not a silver bullet.

Whisper it. Private school kids have feelings too.

The flipside of this was some of the breath-taking ignorance I experienced in the Bubble. As far as I’m aware, only two of us in the year came from state schools. I study PPE at Oxford, at the college with the highest applicants: place ratio. The other girl studies Economics at Cambridge, ranking 7th in her year. I’m aware how vain the previous two sentences look. I include them to provide an objective indicator to show how ridiculous some of the treatment I received was. We were, indisputably, smart.

Yet some of the condescension, doubt, and awe-inspiring ignorance beggared belief. Comments such as ‘Oxford need to uptake their state school intake’ snidely insinuated I did not receive my offer on merit. Teachers attributed my work ethic, essay style, and presentation to the school I had come from, rather than take me at face value, a privileged afforded to those In The Bubble. Even the well-intentioned — the girl who made it out that I was an Inspiration who had Risen out of Adversity to join the Promised Land — made me feel like a civilised barbarian, brought in from the cold.

It also reveals a lack of appreciation of a simple fact.

People do not pay £20,000 of after-tax income a year for nothing. Some girls attend for 14 years. £280,000. A 5 bedroom house in Leicester. To justify this vast expense, there needs to be a sense that you are paying for something. How is this done? By constant reiterations that you are special, that this is a world-class education, and to make the value shine all the brighter, that the world of State Schools is one you are privileged not to be in.

Brutal honesty? In terms of the quality of teaching between the two schools (admittedly, a rather small, ad hoc sample of 2 schools, 6 subjects), two subjects were comparable (English and Politics), two better at my previous school (Physics and Maths), and two significantly better at sixth form (Philosophy and Spanish). Comparing between these two private schools, I would say that your £20,000 does buy an advantage, but far less than the academic benefits spending that sum on, say, tutoring would confer. Private school students, I’m sorry, what you say does not differ much in terms of the quality of its content to those at state schools.*

What it does give you is the confidence to say it. This is not an unmitigated virtue. A lot of stories circulate of “rags”-to-riches rises of people from ordinary schools. Partly, this is due to the audience— a manifestation of our love of a Cinderella tale. But I think there is a grain of truth. I believe when bright people from state schools put themselves forward they will do disproportionately well. There is a humility - a recognition that ultimately, you are a single individual and that there is a large possibility that you are wrong - that I think is far more common outside of the Bubble. Possibly the result of a reduction of institutionalised praise, or a willingness to gently laugh at individual idiosyncrasies, exacerbating that (oh so British) reluctance to take yourself too seriously.

This is something reams of the Bubble Children lacked. When you are constantly told that you are special (due to the aforementioned necessity), it permeates — in some cases rather too much. A lot of this confidence is unfounded. Take sport — there are exclusive Independent School Leagues meaning every student seemed to have reached a national final. (Unpleasant disclosure: when a league only permits entrants from 7% of schools, victory is hardly ‘National’). Or the fact that lacrosse, rowing, shooting and the like aren’t played by most people — so it’s far easier to advance rapidly upward through the ranks.**

This is all a (rather convoluted) way of saying that the biggest illusion many private school students have is a quiet, (often not consciously acknowledged) belief they are more competent than those from state schools. It’s just not true. A large amount of what £280,000 buys is social capital. This is valuable, and is responsible for a significant amount of the egregious disparity in outcomes between state and private schools; the horrendous determinism a postcode can confer (a fact illustrated all too well in this A Level fiasco). But social capital doesn’t make you better. It gives opportunities, but these, if not received on merit do not confer superiority. Happening to know someone who has an uncle at a major bank/ lets you know about an application round/ navigates you through the upper echelons of society are arbitrary twists of fortune, quirks of fate. They do not reflect on you as a person.

Contrary to what is, in myriad of different ways, subtly communicated in these schools, a very small percentage of who you are as a person is a consequence of the school you attend. The sheer heterogeneity, diversity of opinions, thought, personalities and more in any year of any school should attest to that.

Whisper it. The main thing the fees bought is a network.

Hearing the discussions of adapted gradings, I've seen both of these beliefs rear their ugly heads. Of course, these are not universal. What I've described are tendencies, albeit pernicious ones, and discussion would be far more constructive were they acknowledged, and efforts made to consciously address them.

*Of course, there is the difference with exam results. I struggle with answering this without an inconsistency in my argument of the following form:

1: People from Private Schools tend to do better 2: Teaching is of a comparable standard 3: Private school students are not inherently better.

So where does the difference come from? I think my best explanation is from ‘no value add’ teaching. So possible things like knowing quirks of examination papers, or greater time spent (so value per minute is constant) are what allows this difference. But I don’t think that fact contributes to (3). Savvy exam board choices does not make a better individual. If people were Top Trumps, private schools would act as a multiplier only on the columns of confidence, social capital, and exam technique. The important things - wisdom, empathy, honesty and the like, would remain untouched.

**I appreciate the irony that I too play a pretty private school dominated sport.

Disclosure: These are 'mode' observations. They are generalisations. They are not true for everyone. (Please don’t bite my head off!). I'm also aware this is a contentious topic - we are proud of our backgrounds, of where we come from and this is a sensitive subject. One thing I'm hoping however, is if you belong to one 'silo', and agree with me on one point, I hope you consider it likely that I am right concerning the other.

Very aware people will disagree with me on this (also conscious of the rather acerbic tone throughout - apologies, writing on a hangover). Happy to talk things through - would be intrigued to hear comments, and would like to reiterate that this is based on a grand sample size of 1.

On that note, a friend raised an interesting point concerning the relative statistics of instability between state and private schools - that brute data shows this instability is more prevalent in state schools.

I agree with this, and, as a clarificatory note, intended simply to say that it is present - that the balance of colours and textures of human experience may differ in weighting, but both environments contain the full spectrum of emotions, even if in different guises.

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