"No matter how hard we work, our education is neglected by the government."Alamy Stock

Looking at the news this past week, I’ve found myself experiencing a familiar, sickening feeling. As I’m sure you know, last week 39.1% of A-Level grades were downgraded, according to careless government policy which disproportionately hurt state school students. Despite the later U-turn, the message is clear. Students like me, from underprivileged backgrounds and failing schools, are being reminded of the burden we carry daily: a painful awareness that no matter how gifted we are, no matter how hard we work, the quality of education we receive is neglected by our government.

Unfortunately, this struggle to gain educational recognition is a continuous cycle. On seeing the chaos of the A Level results scandal, I was not even remotely surprised.

Inequalities in the education system have dominated my life. Even now, I’m reluctant to talk about the dire conditions at my state high school. I cringe to describe the tiny rooms with classes of 33, the dirty, dangerously cramped hallways and the disgusting bathrooms. As a child, I was deeply ashamed of where I was educated. I knew my school was notorious for its poor standards and marked out as ‘rough’ among the other local schools. Aged twelve, I visited a private school as part of a school trip. I’d marvelled at the clean, neat classrooms. The corridors seemed so quiet and calm, so unlike the chaos I was used to. I found myself wondering, ‘Why don’t I deserve to go to a school like this?’ Years later, I still ask myself the same question. Why aren’t students like me afforded these opportunities?

"I found myself wondering, 'Why don't I deserve to go to a school like this?'"

It stings to remember the grim conditions of my school, conditions which are sadly commonplace at many non-selective state schools in England. I was lucky enough to have several exceptional teachers and later attend a fantastic state sixth form, but the pain of those earlier years is still fresh.

The recent A-Level results scandal has provided a crucial opportunity to remember that many of the barriers to higher education are emotional – a truth which is often lost, as reports on Oxbridge access focus so heavily on impersonal statistics. Right now, those of us who were failed by the education system are remembering these barriers far too keenly.


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I’m thinking of my Dad, a tough Yorkshireman, as he visited me in first year.  At one point, he became quiet. When I asked him why, he gestured to the grand buildings around us and said 'I didn’t know people like us could do something like this. Could make it here.’ My dad left school with two O-Levels, just after he turned sixteen. As a young child in Leeds, his family were so impoverished that they shared bathwater between seven children. He was brimming with pride that day, and on every visit since.

I’m thinking of the students that are currently at schools without a library, in homes without a desk or quiet kitchen table. They will study for their exams lying on their beds, exhausted after a long trip home from school on the bus. I know how they’ll have to persevere through composing a personal statement, despite having no one in their life who has attended Cambridge, or even university, to read it and give feedback.

I’m thinking of the anxious parents on Open Days, earnestly asking me if they’ll be able to afford Cambridge, desperate to give their child the education they deserve and praying they won’t have that crushing realisation that once again, they can’t afford it.

"Students at failing state schools have had the bravery to apply to an environment that is totally removed from their lives."

These experiences are just a fraction of what students are remembering as they watch this latest reminder of educational inequality unfold. The students most affected by the A-Level results scandal - those at failing state schools - have had the courage to apply to an environment that is totally removed from their lives. Not only removed but in certain quarters actively unwelcoming and hostile. We are reaching for what we know we deserve, for the quality of education we need to thrive. It is an important struggle – but it is also a struggle more emotionally exhausting than raw statistics could ever represent.

As I’ve come to terms with the fallout of A-Level results day this year, I’ve realised that I am no longer ashamed of where I come from. I am finally proud to be a person who is both educated and accomplished, and working-class. I hope that incoming students, and students like me already at Cambridge, can too have this moment of acceptance and not feel their background is something to ashamedly hide away.

Recalling these most painful moments of my life, when I felt so foolish and unworthy, I am reminded of a basic truth that needs to be repeated – now more than ever. All children and young people in this country deserve to be given a chance to receive a high-quality education. 

We deserve to have our talents recognised.

We deserve to feel accepted.

We deserve to be here.


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