Kelly Glendinning on education’s role in perpetuating an archaic society

I have something of a confession to make. St Andrews was by no means my first choice of university. Instead, like quite a few of you, I was caught up in the whirlwind that was applying to Oxbridge. 

A child of two parents who had few qualifications, I attended a grammar school in Northern Ireland and had a strong academic background. This, I presumed, would be a solid enough basis on which to attempt to get into one of the most demanding educational environments the world over. That assumption was incorrect.

A teacher told me that there were four different types of students at Oxbridge: charming but harmless public school boys, ambitious ex-pupils of independent schools, old secondary school students a bit threatened by it all and the ones from Northern Ireland who just wondered what all the fuss was about.

St Andrews is, let’s face it, Oxbridge-lite but I’ll let you make up your own mind whether the same distinctions apply.

Northern Ireland is by no means perfect. The education system has its problems as does the place itself, shown by the three things it’s famous for: thirty-plus years of sectarian violence, building a ship that sank and an alcoholic footballer (The Troubles, the Titanic and George Best respectively). Yet there is most definitely not the same gap in education between rich and poor that exists in the mainland UK.

Recently, there have been two very different programmes on BBC Two demonstrating this. The first, Gareth Malone’s School for Extraordinary Boys, saw the choirmaster attempting to encourage boys in their final years at primary school to read while the second, Britain’s Youngest Boarders, gave a glimpse into the world of prep school Sunningdale which aims to get its pupils into the finest public schools in the UK.

To say there was a difference between the two schools is a massive understatement. While those privileged enough to attend Sunningdale were being versed on  handshakes and interview techniques for Eton and Harrow, boys the same age at a state primary school were struggling to read a book a week. Some could barely read out loud. Instead of a tour of Harrow, they got a trip to pick out books. The main attraction was that they were new.

It’s not surprising that this gulf in education translated into a yawning chasm between social classes. It was working class versus the wealthy, tweed versus trainers, crisp business shirts versus their football equivalent. 

The truth is that those at Sunningdale and schools like it will always be the ones to rise to the top. They are provided with every advantage and opportunity in life to further themselves, to better themselves, to realise their dreams of becoming whatever they want to be – from business leader to Prime Minister. Even a nine-year-old pupil recognised that attending the £16 000 a year prep school presented him with more chances in life. A state-schooler of a similar age confessed that his dream job was at McDonalds.

And so the vicious cycle begins. Every child is brought into the world the same as all the others yet before they’ve reached double figures their lives are being laid out in front of them, trapped or transformed by their background. 

Education is the most important tool in shaping future generations but education must be a level playing field. Fairness and equality cannot exist in a world where from infancy a section of the populace are selected, groomed and engineered into being the leaders of tomorrow by the leaders of today.

If your riposte is that this is tradition, normality, the way it has always been, I ask you to consider one thing. Pupils are falling through the cracks at state schools and an increasing number leave primary school illiterate.

This is not a socialist diatribe. The children are not data or statistics to be analysed. At eleven years old, their lives have already been mapped out.

They’re just children.

1 COMMENT

  1. Your article is indeed not a socialist diatribe. It is simply a lamentably ill-informed diatribe based on your own comfortable prejudices.

    Now, nobody in their right mind would wish to dispute the fact that the opportunity for a child to attend an expensive, independent school is a very great privilege; a privilege afforded to very few children. You are quite correct.

    Yet privilege is what you make of it.

    I do not come from an affluent background. My attendance at public school was made possible by the sacrifices of my parents, substantial contributions from charitable funds, and scholarships, which I secured based on academic merit having attending a state primary school.

    It is also an (unfortunately persistent) fallacy that public school pupils have an advantage when applying for Oxbridge. Of my year at school, a total of twenty people applied. Two got in: myself, and a very shy Chinese gentleman who nobody ever noticed but was a talented mathematician.

    I remember vividly one of my classmates who failed to gain entry to Oxford to read biology, because rather than buying the textbook he ought to have read prior to the interview, he bought muscle-building powder. “You choose books, I choose big”, he said.

    In point of fact, and contrary to your vision of public schools breeding the ‘leaders of tomorrow’, most of my contemporaries became complete failures. At least five I know of were ejected from lower-rank universities for taking drugs, dealing drugs or failing their exams. I have it on good authority that one now works as a barman of considerably ill-repute in Marrakech.

    While at Oxford, I worked hard for my degree and made some life-long friends; inspirational people, many of them from severely under-privileged backgrounds, who took nothing for granted, fought tooth and nail for their ambitions and got where they were for one reason alone: merit.

    I would question whether the same could be honestly said of our intake here in St Andrews, an institution that has – for example – virtually no published entry requirements for its international students beyond an appropriately-documented grasp of English and, one presumes, ability to pay.

    But then what do I know, darling?

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