In 2020, the University of Oxford admitted a record-high number of state-educated students. Statistics were updated, articles were written about Oxford’s commitment to access, and things were finally looking up for those looking to break into an institution notorious for elitism. Two thirds of the University’s population are now state-educated – a win that feels a little hollow with the knowledge that a staggering 93% of the UK population went to state school. Decades of underrepresentation within tertiary education can be seen reflected in society today, as the state educated make up only 33% of judges, 49% of journalists, 39% of doctors and 8 out of 26 cabinet members in the UK*.
Education has long been hailed as ‘the great equaliser’. I believe this to be true in theory, which is why it’s imperfect application to reality is so frustrating. Never have the inequalities within education in the UK been felt quite so keenly as in the year 2020. In a remote Trinity term where students were forced to digitally stream lectures and communicate virtually with professors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the disparities between each individual student’s learning conditions widened from a gap to a gulf. In a normal term, all students were receiving the same time and quality of teaching from the same professors; however, once they are removed from the university amenities that they were paying £9000 for, and made to learn from home, students can find themselves in vastly different studying environments. The lucky ones – who have fast internet speed, a quiet place to study, a big desk, a well-stocked home library, disposable income to buy the obscure reading list, university-educated parents and free time to study instead of work – will surely come out better than their peers.
A virtual Trinity accentuated the problems that many low-income students face every Oxford vacation. This isn’t the only educational inequality that’s been magnified this year; 2020 was also witness to the huge exam results fiasco. High school students were unable to take their exams, and instead given results allegedly based on the exam performance of their school in previous years. Already flawed to begin with, the system cracked entirely when straight-A students from the most deprived schools in the country received C grades and Fails, while private school students – miraculously – were relatively unaffected. After media backlash and protests, the problem was eventually rectified by giving students their predicted grades. Despite the grade changes, the ordeal highlighted the uncomfortable truth that all of us are far too aware of – if private schools didn’t give you an advantage, why would you pay for them?
This is why we need the 93% Club, a student-run society dedicated to improving the experience of state-educated students at university. The club was first set up in 2016 by state-schooled student Sophie Pender, who felt estranged from the ultra-privileged culture that she found herself surrounded by at Bristol University. Sophie’s story resonated with students across the country, and now, at time of writing, there are twenty 93% Clubs working in different universities across the UK.
As to the place of the 93% Club at Oxford, one only needs to look at the experience of applying to Oxbridge from a state school. Many schools like my own don’t offer the Oxbridge admissions tests. This meant that the hopeful applicants from our school (there were six of us that year – the biggest cohort they’d ever had) had to troop down to the local private school, to sit the test amongst the blazered shoulders of our private school peers, who had been doing practice tests with their teachers all week. The imposter syndrome has set in before you’ve even arrived. Once accepted into Oxford, the feeling intensifies as you prepare for your second Oxbridge entrance exam, this one posed by fellow students in Fresher’s week: “What school did you go to?” I remember feeling very surprised that Londoners would be intimately familiar with the inner-city state comprehensives of Glasgow, until I began to realise that they weren’t asking me where I was from and were instead assessing wealth, status and connections.
Now, most privately educated students at Oxford are lovely people who aren’t concerned with your background or education. But it’s hard not to develop a chip on your shoulder when you remember the embarrassment you felt when someone in a velvet suit, with a disgusted curl of their lip, tells you that you’re using the wrong cutlery at a formal dinner. Someone else at the table next to you is talking about caviar, to a jubilant chorus of ‘Rahhh!’. And you’re left sitting there thinking – how the fuck am I somewhere where everyone has an opinion on caviar?
There is a legitimate confidence that develops at private school that carries through to Oxford. Students who have come from elite private schools transition seamlessly into the high-falutin Oxford lifestyle, intimate with wining, dining, schmoozing, boozing, networking, white tie, black tie and ball gowns… Some of them will even go on to accept invites into secret private-school-only drinking societies, where they can socialise among an exclusive elite. Even the average private schooler from a more ordinary background tends to arrive at Oxford with a comfortable network of people that they know from school. The typical state schooler is not guaranteed this automatic network and is left to navigate the alien Oxford world on their own. This is what The 93% Club is for – we’re forming our own network so that we can decode the world around us together.
As well as social imposter syndrome, a state schooler is likely to face academic imposter syndrome whilst at Oxford. Many courses at Oxford, particularly the humanities, are still actively catered towards a student who has come through the private school system. For example, it is an institutional expectation for humanities students to arrive with some knowledge in Latin and French, and to have sound Biblical and classical literacy. State students who have come from schools that don’t have art libraries or specialist books or museums, or schools that simply didn’t offer Latin or Classics, cannot hope to pick up textual subtleties with ease in the way that tutors have become accustomed to expect. This is before we even get into the advantages that tiny class sizes, individualized learning approaches and specialist teachers can give you… our offer letters may look the same, but we have not arrived at Oxford on an equal playing field.
It’s not a coincidence that state school students always struggle in their first term compared to their private school peers. In my first hellish Michaelmas at Oxford, a peer who I did French with once asked me why it mattered that they went to private school. It mattered because they were taught French in a Francophone boarding school. It mattered because I was taught French by a weary Irishman, who as head of the languages department, was more often than not forced to run out of class to discipline kids trying to tip the vending machines over, or who were taking pingers in the school alleyways. He was a brilliant teacher who wanted us to do well – but the school was underfunded and understaffed, like so many other state schools up and down the country. Underfunding and understaffing issues at state schools can also mean that academic students who are guaranteed a solid pass in their exams are often overlooked by their school in order to prioritise struggling students. Although a good allocation of school resources, B-grade students are not pushed into getting A’s, students are not taught to expand beyond the set curriculum, and learning disabilities often go undiagnosed.
The 93% Club of course, in its essence, cannot fix a deeply segregated system of prejudice and bias, or decades of educational inequalities. But it can provide a space to reach out to other students who operate the same limbo as you. One foot in Oxford, one foot back home, not quite belonging in either. This is why this network is so important. COVID-19 permitting, maybe we’ll all go for drinks together soon to swap stories. Or maybe, we’ll do it state-school style, and drink some cans in the park.
In the academic year 2020-2021, as well as providing a network, The 93% Club Oxford will be providing soft-skill workshops, panel discussions and application workshops for state-educated students, to help them learn skills and make contacts that they may not have picked up at school.
*(statistics sourced from The 93% Club Edinburgh)