When I first moved to London I discovered many things.
I realised, for example, that you need to take out a mortgage to afford a sandwich and that one can never quite work out which platform you need at Earls Court.
But, the most valuable lesson I learnt was that, contrary to all my prior misconceptions, state educated people were not carbon copies of Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard; something that my private school education had led me to believe.
From the age of 11 to 18, I was fortunate enough to go to an all girls boarding school, where my parents shelled out £30,000 a year for me to learn the exact same syllabus that was being taught in every other school in the county.
In hindsight, it’s probably one of the most well organised scams in history.
Paid for schools in Britain get a bad rep – billed as out-of-touch and elitist institutions that give exceptional opportunities to 7% of British children only for them to turn out as entitled snobs.
It’s not all true and one cannot judge the whole private school system on the behaviour of those who once roamed Eton and now conquer the halls of Westminster.
But, some of it is true. I’m talking about the sense that a private school education gives some pupils the sense that they, by virtue of their parents’ bank accounts, are more well mannered, more intelligent and simply, better than anyone who is not privately educated.
While at school, I developed a wholly inaccurate perception of people who were state educated. This wasn’t so much because we were taught to believe that everyone who didn’t pay for their education was a shoplifting school skiver but because we never came into contact with those our own age who went to publicf schools.
Therefore, we had nothing to contradict the narratives of the state educated that programmes such as Little Britain perpetuated.
Of course, the majority of the teachers at my school were themselves state educated and I came into contact with state educated pupils on holidays and in restaurants, but by never really interacting with anyone our own age from a different background on a day-to-day basis, I never had any means by which to challenge my beliefs of state educated pupils as being ‘other’.
Nor did I – I am embarrassed to admit – ever try to verify or discredit these views myself. I just accepted them.
I carried them into my later life. I did my A Levels and went to university armed with the opening line of ‘where did you go to school?’ and made a group of friends who were predominantly public school alumni.
Perceptions of what public school people were like were by no means endemic to my school, or my friendship group during my undergrad. It was a kind of private school folklore that all state educated people were, for want of a better word, ‘chavs’.
When I moved to London for my masters in journalism, I was apprehensive about starting my course. I gauged by the ratio of those who are privately educated to those who are state educated in the UK that I would probably be in the minority. I wasn’t sure how that would play out.
I remember a school friend once saying ‘that’s really cool!’ when I told her that I had friends who didn’t go to private school, as if I had done something truly exceptional
As I walked into the lecture hall on that first day, I immediately realised how wrong I had been for the first 22 years of my life. Everyone else in that room was, I realised, very similar to me: they wore the same high-street brands as me, chatted about the same shows on Netflix and all perceptively shared the same common interests and ambitions for the future.
All fears that I would be judged – as I had judged them for my whole life – on the basis of my education proved entirely wrong. They could not have been more welcoming. I made an instant resolution to drop every snobby assumption I ever had and quickly made friends.
The other day I had a conversation with one of my course friends in the pub and asked her about first impressions of me. ‘Sure, I recognised that you were posh from the way that you spoke, but I wasn’t going to actually judge you as a person until I got to know you,’ she said.
I am still friends with a lot of people from school; none of them are bad people at all. But, I am one of the few who is friends with people who weren’t privately educated.
I remember a school friend once saying ‘that’s really cool!’ when I told her that I had friends who didn’t go to fee-paying school, as if I had done something truly exceptional.
I feel incredibly lucky that I was fortunate enough to go to private school. The facilities and pastoral care were excellent and so were the pupil to teacher ratios in the classrooms.
However, I cannot shake the guilt that I feel for the way in which I believed and accepted elitist cultural stereotypes around people who were privately educated and never sought to challenge these.
Britain has a problem in terms of inequality of education, but this issue doesn’t just boil down to academic opportunity or access to sports fields.
The, often unspoken issue, is the problematic way in which educational segregation can lead those who are publicly educated to unjustifiably judge those who are not.
If the long term solution is to scrap private education, the short term solution is to encourage greater integration between those who are privately and state educated from a young age.
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