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“Private school students mocked us because they believe they attended the ‘best schools’”

Lauren E White

When I wrote a report into the way northern students at Durham University are treated with prejudice and utter contempt by other, non-northern students, particularly those from the south, I never once mentioned the issue of private schools.

In the hundreds upon hundreds of comments I have received, many people think that the issue of private schooling is lost on me. Let me tell you this: it is not.

Private education in Britain is at the heart of the social divide I have witnessed with my own eyes at Durham University, where just 10 per cent of students are from the local area – which is the lowest proportion of local students at their local university in the UK.

In 2018, the year I started studying at Durham, 40 per cent of students were from private schools. And in conversations I have had with the university executive, they are aware that even the 60 per cent of state-schooled students is not entirely reflective of the makeup of the student body.

There’s a “leafy suburban state grammar school”, it was pointed out to me, “and then a normal state school”.

But even still – 40 per cent of students at Durham attended private education. How and why is this the case when 93 per cent of students in the UK are state educated?

I am a staunch believer in eradicating private schooling in England on the principle that it is, above all else, segregationist.

Rich children are kept in stations that repeatedly give them advantages that they should not be afforded. Just because they can pay for their education does not mean that they deserve the coaching to get into Oxbridge in sixth form, or smaller classes, with three times the resources on average, that inevitably allow them to ace their exams with relative ease.

Parents who send their children to private school want them to mix with kids like theirs – it’s a side effect of that education system even if it’s not an entirely conscious decision.

Parents deliberately pay for their children to attend “the best schools”, as their offspring repeatedly put it to me from day one at Durham. 

“The best schools” in this country, then, are filled with the people who can afford it and, of course, the tiny few who are there on a bursary.

“The best schools” in this country, then, are inaccessible to those whose parents don’t have, on average, £14,000 a year to spend on education for one child – let alone multiple.

“The best schools” in this country, then, are filled with rich children whose parents don’t believe a state school is good enough for them.

What does this imply? It implies that state education – the system that educates the vast majority of children and young people in Britain – is sub-par.

So, what happens when these kids who have been educated at what they believe are “the best schools” meet kids who attend… dare I say it… a state school?

Well, exactly what I unearthed in my report. Students from private schools believe that they are the best of the best – they have been told they are such from prep school (that’s usually primary school to year 8, for those of us who are products of the state school system, by the way).

They believe that those who are different to them in their backgrounds are simply not as good, and they treat them as such.

This is all because they’ve rarely ever interacted with them before and have only heard about “the others” on the news or in conversation.

They have no idea what growing up in Britain is actually like because their schools have hidden them away from that. And their parents have explicitly paid for this to be the case.

When privately educated students get to see everyone in Britain, including those without wealth and a £500,000 house, they’re not sure how to handle it.

Many, in my own experience, can’t seem to comprehend the fact that despite my education being free, I am just as clever as they are. But to them, I can’t be. Why?

Because I didn’t go to one of “the best schools”. They still believe it gives them an edge over everyone else. 

I vividly remember a conversation I had with a student who went to a well-established private school. From this person’s year group alone, about 30 of them were studying at Durham all in the same year.

The student told me that their teachers were “obviously better” than mine because they had doctorates that mine didn’t.

I pointed out how ludicrous the statement was. Did their teachers actually care, or were they there for an easier life?

Because they certainly weren’t there to get the kids who’ve had a rough time of it the C grade they need to get to college.

Or to help them write a CV. Or a UCAS statement that would make them the first in their family to go to university.

Imagine how brilliant a teacher you have to be to deliver excellent, life-changing lessons and instruction in the state sector, where you don’t get to academically and financially select the entire student body.

At that point, I think it clicked in this person’s mind that perhaps, after all of this moulding they experienced from a young age, it was possible that their education was simply costly, rather than universally “the best” that money can buy.

And this deeply dividing narrative students of private schools are fed is why they mock and belittle students from my kind of background.

These schools have simply got to go. They have no place in a fair country.

Lauren E White is a student at Durham University.

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