“If you’re a Tory or went to private school, you can fuck off.”
These were the words from a fellow student at my first freshers week social. I had arrived at university from a private boarding school, and quickly decided that I’d best keep this fact on the down-low.
Just 7 percent of the UK population are educated privately, and a private education comes with many privileges. Class sizes are smaller, technology and facilities are often more advanced, and there is a focus on developing student self-confidence. A 2019 report into elitism by the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission showed that the workforce of prestigious public bodies including the civil service, courts, the House of Lords and Foreign Office are dominated by private school alumni. The media also has some of the highest numbers of privately educated employees – 44 percent of newspaper columnists went to private school.
Alongside these advantages, some who attended fee-paying schools say their background results in hostility from their peers.
Harper*, 22, remembers telling her university course mates which school she went to when asked, and being met with the reaction: “Of course you went to private school. We could guess – even the snacks you eat are Tory.” After that, she decided to keep her education a secret. Thirty-year-old Sienna* recalls meeting people in the smoking area of nightclubs and telling them that she went to an all-girls private boarding school. “It quite regularly caused people to use homophobic language towards me,” she says, adding that she also decided to keep her private education under the radar.
Such attitudes towards the privately educated occur in the workplace, too. Saurav Dutt, 38, says that when he started a government job, his colleagues mocked him about his schooling, saying: “You think you’re too good to answer the phone, don’t you?” Dutt also remembers being told: “You should dumb down the way you talk. You don’t want to sound like the bastard step-child of Salman Rushdie, he went to private school too.”
Ethan*, 24, has been working for an ambulance service throughout the pandemic. He says he tries to dismiss any comments about his education from colleagues. Still, they do add to the shame he sometimes feels.
“I want to be proud of my school – it undoubtedly made me who I am today – but I end up feeling ashamed, as the general opinion is that I’ve had a silver spoon in my mouth and have not worked for anything in my life,” he says. “I am, by many, made to feel ashamed, not proud.”
On this feeling of shame, 20-year-old Grace* remembers a cast mate in a play she had just started teasing her about her private education on a bus. He unexpectedly fired unnecessary questions at her about her schooling and political leaning. She felt uncomfortable and wanted to get off the bus as soon as she could. A few months later, their paths crossed again, and Grace found out that he had, in fact, also gone to a private school. She guesses that he was “embarrassed or ashamed of his past”.
While everyone has the right to study or work without harassment, a private education often means a better chance of attending university or getting a job. Research from the Centre for Social Justice shows that almost half of the schools that teach the 20 percent most privileged have dedicated “university advisors” employed to prepare students for admissions. The UCL Institute of Education has also found that privately educated pupils earn 35 percent more than state-educated pupils by the age of 25.
Gabrielle Dixon says that her state high school did very little to prepare students for university. “What we did after school was barely discussed,” she says. “In today’s job market, hard work isn’t enough. Young people need luck, often in the form of contacts, rent money, and being able to afford to work unpaid internships. Working class people just don’t have that.”
This inequality is the source of many people’s unease towards private education. Mishti Ali, 19, is also state-educated and a student at Cambridge University, where many of her peers went to private school.
“One thing they have, that I never will, is a complete confidence and sense of entitlement,” Ali says. “They come across as witty, worldly and cultured – all things that others don’t. They can get work experience with parent’s friends simply because they all come from the same world.”
But Poppy*, a 22-year-old who went to private school, would disagree with this assessment. She says that she got into an argument with her university housemates when they said “all Tory wankers go to private schools”, and that it was “so unfair that you got a better education just because your parents could afford to send you there”.
Private school fees average at over £30,000 per year per student for boarding, in contrast with the average annual UK salary of £38,600. Despite this, Poppy argues that she comes from a relatively ordinary background. “My parents gave up on holidays abroad, going for nice meals, and took out a second mortgage so that they could send my brother and I to private school,” she says. “I felt attacked.”
Poppy also points out that, like any child, she had no choice about which school she went to. “My parents put me in this education at seven years old,” she says. “I couldn’t have possibly had a say.”
Philip Sykes and Åse Anderson of the British School of Etiquette provide training in British manners for both social and corporate settings. They say that the “hyper-confidence” of those who are privately educated can be viewed negatively by some.
“Perhaps there is a certain level of confidence you gain when you go to private school, due to smaller class sizes enabling more focus on the pupil, instilling a confidence that they will be heard,” says Sykes, who himself attended private school after his father took out a loan to cover the fees. “When people don’t feel confident, they can sometimes project a negative point of view onto someone else who does.”
Money and confidence aside, the main source of hostility towards private schools is surely down to the fact that they contribute to ongoing class divides in the UK. Two-thirds of Boris Johnson’s cabinet are privately educated, and Britain’s most influential people are over five times more likely to have been to a fee-paying school than the general population. This divide has been worsened by the pandemic, with the Social Mobility Commission suggesting that the educational divide between state and private education is “widening by the day”, with 74 percent of “private school pupils having full days of learning”, contrasting with 38 percent of state-educated.
So, what should someone do when at the receiving end of hostility about their private education? Sykes says they should “definitely not lie”, but instead “acknowledge their privileged position without bragging”.
He adds: “Treat others how you would like them to treat you.”
*Names have been changed