I hate to write a provocatively titled article, but I have felt strongly about this for a long time and I think today is the day to express my thoughts on this matter.
Let me lay my cards on the table at this point. I went to a mixed but male dominated fee paying school in North London for five years, before moving to a comprehensive sixth form. I am not going to pretend that I haven’t had an excellent education, gleaning benefits from both of these institutions. The private school I went to engendered in me a great deal of intellectual confidence, I had great teachers in the humanities who encouraged me and to whom I will always be grateful, and I was an exceptionally happy teenager.
This changed when I moved to a comprehensive sixth form. I moved not because my parents thought they would seem more edgy at parties if none of their daughters were attending a private school, but because they could no longer afford it. I was already on a bursary, and with the financial recession they decided that it would be better for us as a family if they sent me to an (excellent) state school instead. I have often looked back quite sadly on my time at sixth form; I felt excluded as a girl who had (a been to private school and (b not been at that state school (all girls up to sixth form) all the way through. The in-groups were impenetrable. When I went to a party with my old friends from private school a few months into sixth form one of the girls who had joined that school asked me why I left; when I didn’t give a sufficient reply, she asked me what I got in my GCSE’s. Yes she was drunk. But how dare she.
That said, I think I only think of it as an unhappy time because I had been so happy for the previous five years. In reality, I had very close friends, wonderful people who were dedicated to their work with a passion I had rarely observed at my private school and with whom I remain very close, and in reaction to the social isolation I felt I developed a love of my subjects (English, History, Latin and Ancient Greek) which sustained me.
At Cambridge however, I have often felt intellectually intimidated and undervalued not by my male friends but by male academics, who in order to be where they are at their age have more often than not attended private schools. In supervisions with male academics I have felt the attention focused disproportionately on my male counterparts, notwithstanding three notable exceptions, inspiring teachers whose praise and attention has developed my confidence and with it my intelligence. When I topped my year in my essay paper for part 1A I attributed it not to the originality of my writing but to some sort of administrative error. For most of second year I considered myself deserving of a couple of 2:ii’s I got in my supervision reports and I couldn’t really believe it when I got a two firsts out of the six exams I took at the end of that year. That said, the men who have underestimated me are lovely people. This is not about kindness. It is about institutionalised sexism.
My experiences have only limitedly affected my confidence, and pity is the last thing I am asking for. They are however symptomatic of a much wider problem.
After many conversations among my male and female friends, who have gone to private schools and state schools, I have begun to sense that private schools breed a certain type of self confidence which to a certain extent is healthy, but often passes over the threshold of confidence and turns into arrogance. This is an arrogance that has led a number of young men, a disproportionate number of whom have been privately educated, to abuse my female friends and friends of my female friends emotionally and sexually. Every time I come back to London there are more stories of rape, of sexual assault, of women being treated like pieces of meat in a way that I find both unimaginable because it is absolutely unheard of in the circles I move in at my college in Cambridge and violently upsetting. Is it a coincidence that the males violating the women around me have in almost every single case been to a private school? I am convinced that it is not.
To reiterate: I have absolutely no problem with people who attended private schools. I went to one myself, and many of them – male and female – are my best friends. But the culture of private schools/state schools is hugely damaging for this country in every respect: it perpetuates a disgraceful divide in wealth, it holds back the progress of feminism and gender equality, it fuels disproportional underrepresentation of women politically and culturally, and generally it breeds an absolutely grim lack of human empathy.