Many Oxford students, especially freshers, hear the phrase, “what school did you go to?” during their first few weeks. Pre-Covid, you might have even found yourself at a bop in a friend’s college, seen someone who you know they have mutual friends with, and watch them classically proceed to bond over those who are in their shared circles. For some, university is the first time you get to meet other people who have had very different life experiences to you, and seeing this trance-like exchange of names and subsequent smiles of acknowledgement can seem extremely bizarre and even alienating.
I was fortunate enough, amongst other things, to be exposed to this strange custom from a much younger age. I was 13 when I received a scholarship to Eton College. My family even had divided opinions on whether they should let me be the first person among them to be privately educated, let alone attend a school which (unbeknownst to me at the time) induced such divisive opinions. On a CBBC documentary which I starred in, called “My Life: The Most Famous School in The World”, the words, “I never knew they’d have people like us” came out of my mother’s mouth. Her side of the family fall more on the left side of British politics! It was on Eton’s playing fields in the first week of my first year where I was introduced to the tribal ‘name-exchange’. I was aware that pupils might have come from the same prep schools (private schools for children up to year 8), but I was not aware that seemingly whole classes would arrive in groups together. So when I was asked “what school did you go to?”, I was completely baffled, left wondering how or why anyone would know or care where I was previously educated. Needless to say, by the end of that week, I was asking people what prep school they had gone to.
Fast-forward at least a year-and-a-half of learning in and out of the classroom, I was starting to get quite adept at being an Etonian. I had finally dropped the habit of calling my female teachers “Miss” instead of “Ma’am”. I had found a sport that I loved (ROWING!). I was even becoming capable of discussing high-brow topics with adults around fancy dinner tables: even laughing appropriately (not for too long or too loudly) at the witty anecdotes of dinner guests! I had also managed to control my own ‘imposter syndrome’. I became obsessed with learning subjects that had never been available to anyone I had known from my previous schools, such as Russian and Latin (which I then took for A level); and I met the most kind, hardworking, humble, encouraging, generous people, who will no doubt go on to be my life-long friends. You could even say I was proud to be an Etonian!
And then I arrive at Oxford, and quite naively, a little ostensibly quickly ‘outed’ myself as a private school kid. For significant years of my childhood this fact was celebrated: I had enjoyed opportunities that nobody I knew could have dreamt of, and all down to my own merit! I thought the whole “but I was on a scholarship” caveat would save me from the same prejudices faced by other previously privately schooled students. But, coming from the biggest, meanest and greenest (or ‘Eton-Blue-ist) of private schools, I suddenly realised that I am one of a few who have come here with lots of school friends, and I can take part in the ‘name-exchange’ ritual. That my parents didn’t fork out hundreds of thousands on my schooling didn’t really matter to most. How can I blame them? I think the adage, ‘when you rub shoulders with people, some of them rubs back on you’ can be easily applied in my case. When you are faced with the choice of being miserable or thriving in a community at age 13, you will naturally try to limit your own pain.
I find myself in a bizarre limbo. I can associate, even identify (through many fulfilling, life-changing, unforgettable and unimaginable experiences) with people from much more privileged lives to those of my parents, and even my sister (who went to the local state school), but I don’t have a Godfather in parliament, an auntie at the Daily Telegraph, or a cousin at Goldman Sachs who can help me navigate my future career. I receive all the prejudice of being an Etonian without having these sorts of connections (which, by the way, are not at all the fault of those who benefit from them).I can only be part of this group until it is me or my family who has to fork up the cash for some exotic summer exploit (which my parents have always made a concerted effort to do). At the same time, I would never in a million years trade in the opportunity I was given – it has made me who I am today.
Strangely, it even seems that those from private school backgrounds at this university got the memo not to really speak about it. I am sure someone you know is a closet private school kid. I think I missed this memo, perhaps because I am the first in my family to go to Oxbridge as well.
What some people don’t realise is that there is a significant portion of students at private school whose parents spend every spare penny (no holidays, hand-me-down clothes, second-hand books) to afford their children the best education, and then there are those people who are too rich to care what social stratum you belong to. To both these groups, where I came from did not matter AT ALL; which could explain some of my naivety on arriving here, where my education was suddenly the epitome of everything wrong with Britain in the eyes of some. Indeed, my mum, the same person who feared I might not ever be accepted into the Eton community, noted that she actually found some of the middle-class, pushy grammar school parents from my state school much more snobby than the kind-hearted and loving parents she met at Eton.
I find it weird that, to some extent re-entering the real world (although of course Oxford has a disproportionate number of private school students and clever people), I have actually become more aware of class.
One of my mum’s friends told her that I would not know the effects of going to Eton for years to come. This has only become more and more true.