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Private Schools Still Exist, and They Don't Want the Rest of Us at Their Universities

By Phoebe Jarvis

Image credit: St Giles International

In what seems to be some kind of terrible joke, the Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference (HMC) last week condemned moves towards widening university access, for fear that it will lead to discrimination against privately educated students “on the basis of the class they were born into”.

The HMC, which represents the UK’s top private schools, was responding to OfS plans to introduce contextual admissions and targets to increase the number of working-class students at the most selective universities. Considering that those born wealthy are currently six times more likely to get a place at a Russell-group university than their poorer peers, I don’t think the HMC should be shaking in their boat shoes quite yet.

Unfortunately, attempts to protect the position of wealthy students is not just misplaced concern. It is yet another example of privileged people upholding the system into which they were born; the system which guarantees them a powerful network, a future running the country, and at the very least, a well-developed sense of entitlement. If you’re sceptical of my certainty, consider this: the 7% of the UK population which is privately educated makes up 65% of our senior judges, 52% of junior ministers, and 44% of news columnists (remember that next time the Sun compares Boris Johnson to, well, an actual sun).

The HMC wants universities to continue admitting students based on merit alone. Its 2020 – have we not yet realised that working-class students face an unprecedented number of barriers to achievement? Ignoring the drastic differences in schools’ resources and class sizes which determine academic attainment, ‘soft’ skills are cultivated from an early age in private education. Activities like debating society and Model UN nurture an ability to take ownership of your opinions, no matter how well-founded, and express them with confidence. And possibly even slap them on the side of a big red bus. This ability lends itself to stronger university applications, and a much easier time when you are accepted into this inherently middle-class institution.

Of course, not all private schools offer the same experience, and there are some pretty well-rounded, selective state schools out there (you can roughly tell where these are, by googling ‘extortionately priced semi-detached houses in the home counties’). But for reference, extra-curricular activities at my high school consisted of stealing meal deals from Tesco and smoking fags behind the school fence.

Evidently, private schools don’t concern themselves too much with the realities of the rest of the country, but at least they pretend to; the schools frequently cite the small portion of less well-off students that they sponsor each year as justification for their continued existence. What is more worrying is the HMC's most recent statements, which effectively reject positive discrimination – a tried and tested way to improve the situation of underrepresented groups.

Resisting attempts to balance the proportions of private and state-school educated students at university ignores the multitude of reasons why such a stark gap still exists. Worse, it implies that such differences in opportunity are justified, making a dangerous foray into the territory of ‘rich people are genetically smarter than poor people’. That a group of educated and influential adults can openly argue along these lines is evidence of just how good wealthy people are at upholding their privilege.

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