Bridges, Bubbles and Bias

Updated: Aug 21

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.