The State-Private School Divide: Reflections on Elitism at University
*I am mindful that this article should in no way appear that I am appropriating or claiming a working-class upbringing. My parents and I form a modern middle-class household: three recycling, cat-owning Guardian readers who are all proudly state school educated and devoutly left-wing. Yet my imposter syndrome still suffices. And so, with a mixture of my own low academic achievement as a child due to home troubles and a weakened advantage point from my disreputable schooling background, this piece had to be written. *
Entering my final year at Edinburgh University, I find myself being followed by a life-long insecurity which refuses to subside.
You could say that I have a chip on my shoulder regarding the intellectual and social ranking of certain groups in relation to others within University education. Attending a Russel-group, I wouldn’t be blamed for perceiving my time at Edinburgh like an elite game in which class, money and privileged educational backgrounds are propelled off of each other like a violent match of croquet. Just like cannabis, private and grammar school education form a gateway drug to prestigious Universities like Edinburgh. Once enrolled, the upper-classes can experience a range of University delicacies, such as ceilidhs, cocaine, and getting a first in every single one of their essays because their English lit A-level teacher was an Oxbridge graduate with specialist knowledge of Shakespearean sonnets.
Am I embittered? Perhaps. Maybe I have every reason to be. Living and learning side by side with friends and students whose educational career is practically parallel to mine not only provided a ‘how the other half live’ moment, but also a deep-seated enragement at how lacking in basic fairness our school systems truly are. The systems which, by calculated design, determine who will get to attend Universities like Edinburgh, and who will just miss the mark, unable to make a vital C grade in Maths and move onto higher education to study what they love. And like this, the state/private education divide denies unlucky pockets of young people the opportunities elites benefit from. They lower self-esteem in a game which equates academic success with self-worth on the systematic leaderboard, all entirely irrespective of the individual’s hard work or lack thereof, fed by life’s silver spoon.
To allow for context, the secondary education I received was from West Yorkshire’s Calder High School, whose Ofsted reports proclaimed a downwards trajectory from ‘inadequate’ to under threat of ‘Special measures’; a term applied to schools who fail to provide an acceptable level of teaching, house poor facilities and lack the leadership capacity within their own management to ensure improvements. Hence, outside authority is brought in and a regiment of reform is enacted, supposedly.
It is also worth noting that whilst stating the facts, I won’t shit on my ex-school simply because I managed to break the mould, so to speak. I am proud to have gone to a humble, northern comprehensive which in spite of its low grades and obscene student behavior, granted a handful of brilliant teachers whose lessons were riveting and in whose subjects I enjoyed and excelled. The absence of selectivity equipped me with an inclusive, informed and realistic world view, a mindset that is invaluable for feeling any kind of empathy in our current Tory landscape of class-based bigotry and austerity cuts.
Yet despite all this pride, I am still perplexed by a vision of my intrusion within University spaces, and other’s entitlement to it, as though they were meant to be there and I’m not. During lectures and tutorials I am still waiting for the tutor to stop still in their line of thought and point their accusatory finger at me, outing me as a fraud who knows fuck all about Kafka (the latter of which is probably true).
Sadly, I have had a number of people underestimate me in this way, both friends and even Sixth Form tutors who stressed the unlikelihood of me ever getting into a place like Edinburgh. Causing me to still believe that after 3 years, I was let in by mistake, by a technical malfunction. Day to day, my imposter syndrome adds new levels to my anxiety, including panic attacks and a perpetual resistance to speak in class for fear of being horrendously wrong. I am Governed by my returning nightmare of being discovered as less than, or lower than, outrageously clever people from beautiful southern Secondary schools.
Or, maybe I am just envious because I never got to be Head Girl.