Illustrations by Rachel Prince
Introduction to the column by Jacob Reid
Let me tell you about our French teacher.
Looking at Mrs Wilson without knowing anything about her, you might guess that she teaches French. She has that… je ne sais quoi. A face that radiates warmth, a pull-along trolley that holds untold riches, and a hearty laugh that comes from a true appreciation of life.
Over the years (and despite the curriculum) she also graced us with a lifetime of wisdom. Inspired by her live-and-let-live attitude, and the happy mix of being both a divorcee and a strict Catholic, she imparted the importance of considering what people are going through and of thinking about things from their perspective. Of walking in their shoes.
This column was born with that spirit in mind. People with different backgrounds and experiences will get together and write. About their similarities, about their differences, about what they learnt from each other, about what surprised them, and, well, anything else that crops up.
by Sharon Udott
I spent most of my life going to state schools in the UK, but I was raised in Ireland and went to primary school there. Going to secondary school in the UK was a bit of a shock to me because in Ireland grammar schools don’t exist and next to no one goes to private school (about 0.21% of students in comparison to 7% of students in the UK). This meant that as an institution, state schools in Ireland care more and provide a better quality education than those in the UK which are more overtly tied to class.
I would describe my experience of state school in the UK as character building. At my school, it was hard to keep new teachers for more than a year before they left for a better paying school. The resources available to us were next to nothing and it was clear that there was a culture of ‘making do’ with what we had.
But my main issue with state schools isn’t the lack of funding or the lack of experienced teachers, it’s the environment itself. You’re presented with a system that is supposed to ensure you do the bare minimum. State schools are measured against how many students obtain at least a C grade at GCSE and A levels. With grammar schools the sentiment is that you worked hard and now you’re going to get an education that pushes you to achieve the best. There’s not much of that ethos at comprehensive schools. They have very few options for non-compulsory subjects at GCSE. For example, there was no way I was being given the option to take ancient history. I didn’t know that was a subject that existed until university. Other subjects such as Latin or Greek are also great indicators of a private education or a good grammar school.
I make this distinction as Oxford statistics group grammar schools and comprehensives together even though our experiences are very different. Comprehensive schools usually have a poorer quality of education, with our GCSE options looking like BTEC health and social care, maybe even textiles or woodwork. It’s clear that state school students are not being trained to go to top universities, they’re being given practical skills for more labour-intensive careers.
I’ve always known I was disadvantaged because I went to state school; the lack of teachers, textbooks and even classrooms (my A-level psychology classroom was burned in a fire) was the norm to me for many years. But I didn’t grasp how disadvantaged I was until I came to university. Picture those shows where they take a so-called ‘spoiled rich kid’ and place them in the home of a working-class family for a week to teach them how to be grateful. At Oxford it was the reverse: you take a working-class student and drop them into an environment catered to the middle/upper class and you teach them how to be a little envious of everything they grew up without.
by Deborah Ogunnoiki
I went to state schools my whole life. My sixth form was great, recognised as one of the best in London. I was lucky to be able to go to that school and have so many resources available to me. The same can’t be said for the two secondary schools that I attended.
I think that is what was so striking about our conversation. Across the board there were different levels of resources across our schools. Each of us from state schools had a story about not having enough textbooks, especially when the GCSEs changed, or not having teachers for certain subjects and having to teach ourselves (such was my GCSE Biology and Ancient History experience).
And for a long time, I believed that this was due to a nationwide shortage of teachers and resources for schools, and that every school in the UK was going through the same thing. Such sweet innocence! Our conversion made me fully realise that this sort of thing is unheard of in private schools. The gap in resources was very real…
This gap in resources wormed its way into our experiences in lockdown. Oli’s experience, as a student who went to a private school, was very much that of continuous teacher support in order keep them academically engaged. For us in state schools, however, life just stopped. Communication with teachers was cut off, no work was sent, no readings, our schools had simply moved on. My brother also attended a state school and following lockdown he emailed a teacher for advice, to which the teacher replied with a very blunt email telling my brother not to contact him again.
To me, these experiences we shared showed the difference in priorities between state schools and private schools. Private schools seem to be able to pay more individual attention to their students whilst at a state school there are so many students and not enough resources to give every student the attention they need. Some of our schools even prioritised students who they believed could make it academically over the rest of the cohort.
In this even more sinister way, this prioritisation perpetuated class and racial hierarchies. In Sharon’s experience, she was seen as a student who couldn’t make it to the ‘top’, so her teachers gave her less access to help and resources. I had a similar experience to this, as due to my working-class, immigrant background I was unable to secure work experience in year 10 whilst my middle class peers had no trouble. The school’s refusal to help me find work experience made me realise that I wasn’t the type of student that they wanted to help push to the top. Coming from black working-class backgrounds, Sharon and I both felt like we had to fight our schools for a chance to be recognised. Which was blatantly wrong. State schools should be encouraging students of all potentials to do the best they can do. Choosing to prioritise white British middle-class students over working-class minority ethnic students is where teachers and schools like amazing talent slip through the cracks.
Sharon and I made it to Oxford. In that sense we managed not to slip through the cracks. But we so easily could have and many of our peers do. That needs to change.
by Oliver Buckingham
Conversing and comparing; swapping shoes with another ‘type’. That is the premise of this column. I normally resent the idea that people can be whittled down to a two-word definition – ‘private school’ or ‘state school’. People are complex, and just as peers in one classroom can have vastly different life experiences, attending completely different schools is no guarantee of diverse backgrounds. If I was to judge someone based on their education, I would be a poorer character for it.
And when the pool of people is limited to Oxford students, it can be difficult to imagine that the gaps in life experience really stretch to chasms. We’re the same age, most of us went to a British school, and now we’re at Oxford (having negotiated a pandemic). That’s the basis for a lot of common ground.
But of course, there are differences. Money is one. I’m lucky enough to be a member of the former ‘type’ – the private school alumnus. It’s a cliché, but I will never be able to repay my parents for having the means – and the wish – to send me to a flash secondary and sixth form. The breadth of opportunities that became available to their pubescent offspring – both academic and extra-curricular – was astonishing: every department equipped with a crack-team of enthusiastic teachers, endless after-school clubs, a ‘performing arts centre’, vast playing fields, and yes, a shooting range. Even the lunches were delicious. I loved my school.
This is what sufficient cash can acquire, notwithstanding a small number of scholarships. And yet, one thing revealed by the wonderful chat with Sharon and Deborah is that there are some academic advantages which don’t have to come with a price tag.
Expectations – what others expect of you, and what a student expects of themselves – are crucial. Because we had the resources, the facilities and the baseline ability, my peers and I were told – and we were told, regularly – that we should be targeting top universities. Every year we watched older students do exactly that, and we would follow their example. This came with its own pressures, but it gave us the self-belief necessary to pursue academic success.
Sharon told us about encountering state-sector teachers whose low expectations of their pupils quickly translated into poor results. If few people believe you’ll do well, then why would you push yourself to find out if they’re wrong? But there’s no reason that a culture of high expectations can’t be cultivated at schools with less money. Deborah’s experience as one the beneficiaries of the acclaimed Brampton Manor sixth form – which secured 55 Oxbridge offers earlier this year – is surely proof that state schools can create the same high achieving atmosphere. Making full use of every child’s potential has to start with encouraging ambition. Aspiration doesn’t have to cost anything.