Many independent schools, like Wellington, share architectural similarity with Cambridge colleges

When my brother came to visit Cambridge earlier this term, someone asked him where he was from. “I go to college in Winchester,” was his innocuous reply. True, but what he meant was the Sixth Form comprehensive in the city, not the Winchester College which will spring to the mind of most people. I explained this to him. “Maybe I want people to think I went to a private school,” he replied, half-jokingly. But this got me thinking about the assumptions we make about the private-state divide, and the way in which my perceptions have shifted since arriving at this University.

I think we’re all sometimes guilty of playing the school-type-judgements game, no matter what our alma mater is. It’s fun to work out who’s posher than they pretend to be, and who is less so. You can while away a pleasant twenty minutes figuring out who knows who from the private school network, and you can giggle over those who conform to the stereotypes a bit too exactly. I’d like to assume it’s this kind of good-humoured ‘fun’ that a recent Tab article directed its criticism at. “Nobody cares, we’re all at Cambridge now”, writes the journalist on the private-state divide. But as much as I’d love to agree with the writer that the school you went to before Cambridge is “totally irrelevant”, this simply isn’t the case.

Like most forms of privilege, this is a divide far easier to perceive when one is in the position of disadvantage. While we all get the same opportunities at Cambridge, are taught in the same way, and graduate with the same degree, this does not mean that once you get to Cambridge past inequalities are ironed away as you have reached the same benchmark of securing a place. They persist in subtle, nuanced ways. And this article isn’t an attempt at private-school bashing, or ‘pity me I went to a comp’, but rather a statement of some things I have experienced since starting here, about which I want to start a dialogue.

Let’s start by considering how things work academically. It goes without saying that privately-educated students generally receive a rounder, broader education which gives them a head start here when it comes to tackling the degree content. In an arts degree like mine (English), this becomes obvious the minute allusions to classical literature are brought into conversation. It is also a given that students from public schools are usually used to working harder. A few friends from particularly good schools have told me that first term at Cambridge was less work than they were expected to do at school. For me, and many others, last Michaelmas was a massive culture shock; for the first term I was really stretched academically, particularly in being expected to cope with such a large volume of work.

But more important are, I believe, the psychological differences. Those who are privately-educated are much more used to the kind of small-group teaching on which Cambridge focuses. Apart from the obvious differences this produces at the interview stage (a whole other can of worms), this creates students who are much more confident in an academic setting. I spent my first term at Cambridge silent in seminars, preparing one ‘good’ point to say in a quiet voice while staring at my notes. Those who have been educated so as to be more comfortable in this environment would say lots more, and this made them sound cleverer to me, and so the cycle of silencing was self-perpetuated.

Those who have been to ‘good’ schools tend to have higher expectations for the education they receive here as they are used to the much smaller class sizes and more attentive teaching. Anecdotally I have found my privately-educated friends to be better at asking for explanations and further help, which does ultimately have an academic impact. These subtle factors build to a significant picture: in the 2016 Cambridge exams, 26.4 per cent of those educated in independent schools were awarded a First, compared to only 21.5 per cent of students who went to comprehensive schools.

I do not think most – if any – societies or activities here are inherently biased towards selecting private-school students, or deliberately exclude the state-educated. But it seems to me there is an access problem caused by state-school students often lacking the confidence, the self-assertion to apply for things. A lack of prior experience (of acting, or rowing etc.) is often cited as a reason for the skew, but I haven’t found this to be the case. Often experience isn’t a prerequisite, but rather a willingness to put yourself out there, which isn’t so readily taught in schools where apathy is the prevailing attitude to extra-curricular activities. In the first term here, those who went to schools with a high level of succession to Oxbridge knew what was going on, what to get involved with and who to talk to about it. That initial bravado and network translates statistically. In November 2012, Varsity reported that one in the last nine editors of the newspaper had been state-educated, with similar statistics at The Tab. This is pretty shocking when you consider that the just under 40 per cent of Cambridge students are privately-educated.

A quick poll of the current Varsity team reveals a more nuanced picture, with 11 respondents being privately-educated in some form, 12 attending a grammar school at some point, and the remaining 15 being educated entirely at comprehensive schools. This is much more consistent with the student population here. What this survey was more interesting in revealing was the nuances needed to the tripartite classification: many of the journalists had been to different types of schools throughout their secondary education, or were keen to explain that they attended a private school only on a bursary. Because of this, any objective analysis is complicated, and statistics difficult to obtain.

A propensity toward academic and extra-curricular achievement while at Cambridge, combined with more extensive networks, contribute to skew graduate job prospects in favour of the privately-educated, despite the fact that we all attend the same University. A 2014 investigation by the Institute of Fiscal Studies found a six per cent pay gap between those who attended a fee-paying school and those who did not but who studied the same subject at the same university and got the same job afterwards.

Clearly there is a problem here, but it is grounded in the subtleties of the attitudes and character private schools build, rather than in any sort of conscious bias or discrimination, and thus it becomes extremely difficult to disentangle. I’m not writing this article because I know the answers to the issues, and, indeed, it may be that these are problems which will always exist while there is any kind of disparity in the provision of education. But I want to open up this debate rather than close it down: let’s talk 

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