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“Our motion for a cap on private school students at Bristol University was voted down”

James Fishwick

At the start of this month, the University of Bristol Students’ Union debated a new motion. It proposed an admissions cap on private school student undergraduates, a motion that was ultimately rejected.

This is the story of how that motion came to be voted down – and what was achieved through holding the debate.

Let me first explain why I support the reform of private schools, and how I came to suggest this motion.

In the summer of 2019 just before I headed to university, my friends and I were leaving a protest against Boris Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament in Leeds.

We popped into Waterstones briefly, and it was here that I saw Robert Verkaik’s books Posh Boys: How English Public Schools Ruin Britain.

I didn’t buy it there and then as I was saving for a messy fresher’s week, but I later found it in an independent bookshop in Bristol when at university.

Particularly given the actions I was witnessing from an Etonian prime minister, it struck a real chord with me.

It was Posh Boys that really developed the arguments and debate that I based the motion on. I now hold a paid role within the university on widening participation and educational equality, and several elected roles for a more inclusive and diverse community.

My main motive for the motion was to address the dire social inclusion situation Bristol University.

In 2020, the Times University social inclusion rankings Bristol ranked 113 out of 116 – pretty shocking. The ranking cited a number of inclusion issues, but class and educational background were at the forefront.

Take the following statistic: in 2019-20, 34 per cent of Bristol students had attended a private school, when the national average is 7 per cent at secondary school (while about 17 per cent study A-levels in private school).

The motion would address this by instituting a cap on the percentage of students who had attended a private school for more than one year from the age of 11 onwards.

The cap suggested was originally suggested as 7 per cent, to match the proportion educated at private schools nationally, then I faced an amendment challenge.

I wanted to keep it at 7 per cent, as it would be an impactful statement, but also I was unsure whether the 17 per cent study at A-levels is because of a increase in those who attend a private school or because the number of state school students taking the A-level route decreases due to other educational opportunities such as apprenticeships or vocational colleges.

However, the amendment challenge won, and the 7 per cent cap was changed to ‘national average’ to leave it open and malleable.

We made an exception for students from certain widening participation backgrounds, such as those students from low-income backgrounds, and attended a private school on a means-tested bursary. These students would not be included in the group who would be within the cap.

The motion received wide criticism on many university forums, but the critical posts also faced opposition from students who were very sympathetic to the cap.

In shows of support, students echoed the words of American film executive Franklin Leonard: “When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression”.

Many of these students saw this policy as a means by which to balance the books and right some wrongs in terms of class and educational privilege.

But none of the conversations were as telling about the inequalities at Bristol University than the debate itself.

During the debate, I delivered a proposition speech detailing the arguments around the socio-economic inequality, privilege and power that a private education perpetuates, and how a socially inclusive learning environment is proven to benefit all those who learn within it.

Opposition arguments espoused that the motion was about “inclusion of the state-educated by exclusion of the privately-educated” or “my parents chose for me to go”.

These arguments were concerned with self-interest rather than the bigger issue at hand.

Not once were the needs and issues of private school students from widening participation backgrounds such as low-income, disabled students or care-leavers, addressed by opposition speeches.

Speeches given failed to identify the experiences of these students, and instead focussed on their personal experiences.

Many of these speeches failed to accept the fact that their main argument – “inclusion by exclusion” – is the current situation in reverse.

That is, state-educated students being excluded by a disproportionate population of privately-educated students gaining places through various advantages.

The majority of those who spoke in opposition were more concerned with consolidating those advantages than making meaningful change.

Seeing the motion voted down didn’t surprise me.

Although this can’t be proven, I imagine that many of those who got involved in democracy and student leadership at Bristol are from a private school background, due to a sense of confidence that we know a private education often provides.

The motion was voted down 109 against to 49 in favour. However only those who attended the debate were allowed to vote on the motion, hence less than 1 per cent of Bristol students actually voted within the debate.

But we’ve achieved a lot through this motion. It showed to many others that access work in Bristol is not yet finished, and still needs a lot of work.

I hope it has lit a flame for some people.

An ideal world would see private schools nationalised, but until then policies such as an admissions cap should be considered to make the privilege of a private education obsolete.

It would serve to remove the power and influence of structures and institutions that had such well-meaning intentions, but have since then been co-opted by a fee-paying elite.

These are institutions that played massive roles in British imperialism, colonialism and the oppression of the working classes and those from marginalised groups.

Instituting a cap would be a step forward towards reducing inequalities in modern Britain, and could empower many to have proper access to the UK’s top higher education institutions.

James is a history student at the University of Bristol, originally from Huddersfield in west Yorkshire. He is from a widening participation background and is involved in education equality and social mobility work. He tweets @james_fishwick.

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