Private schools aren’t ‘losing’ places at Oxbridge, their unfair privileges are being tackled- that’s all

When you’re used to privilege, equality feels like oppression


When you’re used to privilege, equality feels like oppression. That was the immediate quote that came to mind as I saw yet more newspaper columns dedicated to bemoaning the fact that the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge have decided to admit more students from state school backgrounds.

The Times published the headline ‘We’re hurting Oxbridge in the name of equality’, while another in the Telegraph claimed that the push for greater equality was ‘class war’. I’ve always been intrigued by how when those from working class backgrounds demand equality and fairness it’s portrayed as ‘class war’, yet those with wealth and power protecting their own interests, excluding people from working class backgrounds, isn’t portrayed as ‘class war’.

What’s even more intriguing is how there’s an assumption in so many newspaper columns that private schools deserve an ‘automatic hold’ on private school places. Why are so many columnists keen to claim private schools are ‘losing places’, as though their wealth and privilege means they should be guaranteed a certain amount of access? Why aren’t we framing the thousands of state school students who come from poor and low-income backgrounds as ‘losing out on places’, or is the default position that places at Oxbridge are the preserve of the better off?

The fact that so many columnists are willing to whip up a moral panic about private school kids missing out on places at Oxbridge but remain silent on the socially segregated nature of our education system, is also a reflection of just how socially exclusive our media is. According to one Labour Force Survey it’s the second most socially exclusive profession in the country.

Just 7% of Brits are privately educated, yet according to one Sutton Trust report from 2019, they make up 65% of senior judges, as well as 59% of civil service permanent secretaries. Another study found that some 51% of leading journalists and 80% of editors are privately educated. So much for a private school elite being discriminated against.

Between 2015-2020 state school intake has increased from 62.3% to 70% at Cambridge and from 55.6% to 68.7% at Oxford. The greater push towards a more proportional and representative intake has led to private school columnists now whipping up a moral panic, despite the fact that they’re still overrepresented at Oxbridge.

More recently, Cambridge Professor David Abulafia, who writes for the Spectator and Mail, claimed that white private school boys are now the new disadvantaged, because they are now longer getting into Oxbridge at the same disproportionate rate they used to.

One of the complaints in the article was that only 48 Etonians got into Oxbridge last year.  That’s roughly the total number of students on free school meals who get in every year, except we don’t see the same level of outrage and dedicated columns fuming at the injustice of the poorest children being locked out of universities in the pages of the Times and the Telegraph.

Nadhim Zahawi, the secretary of state for education, has now also come out to defend private schools, claiming that Britain should be proud of its private schools, and not ‘tilt the system’ to ensure more from state schools go to Oxbridge. He says it should be based on merit alone and that the focus needs to be on improving state schools.

We’ve seen several versions of this line trotted out for decades. We’re a meritocracy and all state school students need to do is work harder. Yet meritocracy doesn’t operate in a vacuum, it’s influenced by factors such as wealth, class, type of school attended, family connections, to pretend otherwise is to bury your head in the sand. We also need to understand how merit is judged and for far too many, being able to dress and speak a certain way and enjoy shared cultural tastes, are not markers of merit but rather of class.

Zahawi would also do well to remember that under the last 12 years of Tory rule, education budgets have been slashed, with the IFS reporting that the average private school pupil had £6,500 – or 91.5% more – spent on them during the 2020-2021 academic year than the average peer at a state school. Meanwhile, the most deprived secondary schools in England saw a 14% real-terms fall in spending per pupil between 2009–10 and 2019–20, compared with a 9% drop for the least deprived schools. That’s not levelling up, nor is it a level playing field and nor are we a meritocracy.

The truth of the matter is that Britain has one of the worst social mobility rates in the developed world, meaning that where you are born and who to has more of an impact on how far you can get in life than it would in most comparable nations.

Education was supposed to be a great social leveller, yet private schools play a fundamental role in perpetuating inequalities for generations, hoarding opportunities for a privileged few to the detriment of others. A socially segregated education system continues to erode the social cohesion we all value and has contributed to growing divisions in society – a society in which so many feel like they don’t have an equal shot in life.

Nobody sends their children to a private school just for the education, they also know it will open up networks and opportunities that the poorest and most disadvantaged don’t have, which have nothing to do with merit. Such unfair privileges need tackling. I can already hear the shouts of those who claim that all we need to do is ‘improve state schools’, yet even when students from working class backgrounds go on to achieve the same degree result from the same university as their more affluent peers, they still go on to earn less and are less likely to be found in senior positions within elitist occupations.

Research by the Social Mobility Commission showed that people from working class backgrounds who get a professional job are paid an average of £6,800 (17%) less each year than colleagues from more affluent backgrounds.

It’s time to stop pretending we’re a meritocracy. Far too many people personalise criticisms of private schools and the lack of social mobility in our country. This isn’t a personal attack or about you as a person, it’s about tackling institutions and structures that perpetuate inequality and bestow unfair advantages to the detriment of others.

This is about equality. Tackling the inequalities perpetuated by private schools are part of that fight towards a more equal and just society.  

Basit Mahmood is editor of Left Foot Forward

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