Image Credit: The 93% Club
When I am not at university I work at a nursery and pre-school and it is at this time of year that we begin introducing what is called ‘school readiness’. This means teaching those children who will be leaving the pre-school in September the necessary skills for starting infants’ school.
School readiness includes things like being able to use a knife and fork, to pull a jumper over your head and to count to ten. Which means that throughout July and August the pre-school is overrun by stressed-out four-year-olds with two arms in one sleeve, desperately trying to draw the number five the right way round.
It was this same time last year that as I was sitting with a group of ten children soon to leave for school, one of the four-year-olds announced to the others ‘I’m going to a private party’. I cut off from what I had been saying about putting your hand up to ask to go to the toilet and asked what he meant. He elaborated with ‘my school is a private party’, and I remembered he was the only child in the group going to an independent school.
The other children wanted to know what ‘private party schools’ were and as I wondered how I was going to explain the politics of this to a group of toddlers, the same little boy beat me to it; ‘a private party school means not everyone gets to go there, you have to be special.’
And if you replace the word ‘special’ with the word ‘privileged’, then he’s pretty much hit the nail on the head. Making up just 7% of the schools in the UK, fee-paying schools are fundamentally designed not to be for everyone, in fact, that is presumably their appeal.
I didn’t go to a private party school (a term I think independent schools should seriously consider using in the future) and neither did 93% of the UK population. Yet despite this, going to university from state education can often be a huge culture shock, something Caroline Manakit, the founder and president of the York branch of ‘The 93% Club’, discussed when I spoke to her earlier this week.
The 93% Club was originally founded at the University of Bristol in 2016, and the newly formed branch in York will be the eighth to be established across the country. The society aims to alleviate the impact of educational disadvantage by supporting and empowering state school educated students at university.
The society does this by creating an inclusive platform that can provide opportunities for professional development and networking, support members finding graduate employment or training, and generally provide a supportive community for state-educated students.
Now going into her second year studying Philosophy, Caroline herself attended a state-comprehensive school in Durham that OFSTED inspections had classed as requiring improvement. While many of her peers wished to pursue more vocational subjects and careers, Caroline knew she wanted to go to university and eventually become a solicitor.
The students at Caroline’s school all came from different backgrounds, had different abilities and crucially different aspirations - which meant that getting any tailored advice was hugely challenging and so following the unusual path into higher education was made all the more difficult for her.
Here at York we have a surprisingly high rate of state-school admissions for a Russell Group university at 82%, although it is not disclosed how many of those are from comprehensive-state schools rather than selective state-grammar schools. At the University of Bristol for example, where the original 93% club was founded, this figure is just 66%.
Some may assume that once you have made it into university, your previous educational background is of little relevance, but in reality, being accepted into university is just the very beginning. Caroline explained how coming from a well-off background and having attended a private school will have placed its students at a significant advantage at university in many ways.
Firstly, those who have attended private schools are far more likely to be well-practiced in what is termed the ‘soft skills’ - things like networking, application skills and interview rehearsals. All of which are of great importance when it comes to applying for graduate jobs and training. Coming from a well-off background also increases the likelihood of those students being able to work unpaid internships, travel for opportunities and to not have to work to finance their education.
Caroline acknowledged that of course, not all state schools were created equal either. There is a postcode lottery at work in this country which means that the area you live in dictates the quality of your local state schools hugely. There is also a stark contrast between state-grammar schools and state-comps, the former of which despite not being fee-paying are still selective in some way.
Ultimately, however, money gives opportunities and choices that simply aren’t available to the same extent to those in state schools regardless of their location or selection process. This is why despite only making up 7% of the population, privately educated people make up 34% of FSTE CEOs, 74% of judges, 50% of the cabinet and 32% of MPS.
That one child in the group of ten I was sat with at work last year, by virtue of being privately educated, will be statistically twice as likely to receive an offer from a Russell Group university like York, and seven times more likely to receive an offer from Oxbridge.
Those who choose to privately educate their children are in the privileged position of being able to decide that state education is not good enough for their child, but then instead of having to fight to change it can simply buy their way out of having to care.
Social mobility in this country is a problem for us all, whether you’re in the 93% or the 7%. Because if that one little boy hadn’t beaten me to mark on explaining what his private party school was, my only way of explaining the fact that one of them got to go to a private school and not the rest would be to tell them ‘life isn’t fair’. And while it’s the truth, four feels a little young to have to be finding out.
The 93% Club, however, isn’t trying to get involved in the politics behind this. Rather than trying to fundamentally change the education system, Caroline’s society is trying to help students through it best they can by offering practical solutions. For, as Caroline rightly pointed out, how can we ‘fix’ the system when everyone has different aims and views on their perfect world.
I would hope that no one’s perfect world looks like this. I hope that in the future we can have an education system that can be explained without the phrase ‘life’s not fair’. But I hope in the meantime, people and societies like Caroline and The 93% Club continue their work raising awareness of educational disadvantage and promoting social mobility, because we didn’t come this far to only come this far.
The deadline for committee applications for The 93% Club York is Saturday 18th July – details can be found on the societies social media pages or by email firstname.lastname@example.org