If I wanted to, I could trawl through my life story and spin you the full Margaret Thatcher, grocer’s daughter narrative. Family breakdown, financial hardship, scholarship girl done good. But frankly, I’d be taking the piss. Because the thing is, I’ve had it easy since my first day of school.
I went to what is joyously referred to as a ‘minor public school’ – big on rugby, big on God, not exactly academic, but very cuddly and lovely. And I’m a firm believer that this fact alone trumps any other difficulties that I have had to overcome.
There is a temptation to focus on achievement in exams as the only thing that separates state and public schools, but I believe that the problem goes much deeper than that. From as early as six, teachers picked up on my academic ability, and I was offered opportunities to expand my education beyond the curriculum. When I was fourteen, it was suggested to me that I was the type of person who might consider applying to Oxbridge, and I began having weekly one-on-one informal classes with a teacher who gave up his free time unbidden to do so. Would he have been able to make this sacrifice had he been teaching classes of 30? I imagine not.
Thanks to small class sizes and high teacher to pupil ratios in general, adults have been listening to me and respecting me as an equal for far longer than I have deserved it – if indeed I ever have. Consequently, when I arrived for my interview at Cambridge, I was not a nervous wreck. I felt entitled to argue with the world-class academic who greeted me; I knew how to engage with him, charm him, how to make him want to teach me.
From fourteen, I was learning how to behave at formal dinners, how to wear black tie, subconsciously storing facts about golf, opera and rugby that I would later trot out to potential employers, surprising even myself. Of course, confidence and comfort with the establishment are traits that any state educated person can pick up. But to have them systematically instilled in you since childhood, without even noticing? That’s quite something.
Moreover, there are layers of privilege within privilege. Now, I often find myself introducing friends at parties, only to be told that they have known each other for years. Those who have attended Eton, Harrow, St Paul’s or Downe House arrive at Oxbridge with a social network already in place.
And I have no right to get pissed off about it, since when I go out into the world of work, I will experience the exact same privilege. The Oxbridge old boys’ club will open up its arms to me. I will know people working in important jobs, and even if I don’t know them I will have a rich pool of conversational resources to draw upon: oh, you went to Pembroke in the 80s? Do you remember Dr. A? Yes the pond is still there. Yes we still jump in it sometimes. No way? The Granta is my favourite pub too! May Week. Formal. Buttery. Plodge. Exams. Societies. Punting. Rinse, repeat.
Shared experience, shared cultural identity. I won’t realise I’m selling myself, they won’t even realise why they’re buying it. But people hire in their own like, they hire people who they get on with, people who are ‘their people’. I walk away with the job.
I do not regret my education – far from it. I acknowledge that some of the personality traits that I am most proud of – my confidence, my ability to talk to anyone – are a direct result of it. What is a disgrace is not that I was given these opportunities, but that so many people are not.
Of course, it isn’t all rosy at the top. I was lucky to go to the cuddliest, most inoffensive of schools. Anecdotally, I could repeat friends’ stories about girls arriving at Westminster for sixth form only to be ranked by the boys from most to least attractive, or about homophobic abuse at Eton. I could tell you about the Winchester boy who swears down that many of his contemporaries are incapable of seeing women as anything other than objects to be desired or victims to be protected. Public school can, and does, fuck people up. But for all but the most vulnerable, it also gives them an unshakable confidence, a confidence of the kind that you would want to say that money can’t buy.
So what do I propose we do about it? I don’t see anything structural changing anytime soon, and I’m not sure what sort of change would actually help. In the meantime, I would urge those who have benefited from the system currently in place to acknowledge their privilege. Yes, your success may be down to your personality. But your personality was not formed in a vacuum. Since an early age, you have been trained to succeed in a system that was created by people like you, for people like you. And when we consider our political leanings, it is worth bearing in mind that when it comes to social mobility, you can move a lot faster if you come screaming out of your mother’s womb driving a Mercedes.