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What’s in a name? The social inequality attached to where we go to school

Anna Fairweather discusses the social significance of having attended 'schools with names' versus state schools while at Oxford.

Before I got here, my understanding of Oxford was  limited at best. Instead of teachers and relatives passing down knowledge, I attended the occasional open day and read a book called ‘How to get into Oxbridge’. Having gleaned some idea of Oxford culture from websites like Student Room, I quickly came to understand that this is a place where, unlike school, not everyone starts on an equal footing. During the few applicant days I’d attended, I was asked the question ‘where did you go to school?’ several times, and therefore had expected this to continue when I got to Oxford. It is something I have always been afraid of, and only now, after five terms here, am I starting to understand why this is.

Oxford is already a perplexing machine for any student to navigate, but it is especially so for those who haven’t been exposed to this type of environment before. The spontaneous Latin phrases, gowns and beautiful architecture, gives the university a distinctly public-school personality. It feels like a continuation of the school years for some, and an erasure of a previous identity for others.

Personally, I believe I shouldn’t know someone’s school unless I either ask directly or ask an indirect question such as ‘how do you know them?’. Yet, I’ve found that amongst Oxford friends, schools are quite often used to describe people. Phrases like ‘oh they’re an Eton boy’ or ‘she went to St. Paul’s’ are often dropped into conversation alongside the standard ‘college, subject and hometown’. In a wider context of classism this reinforces the idea that these schools add to a person’s social standing.

My dislike of this question doesn’t stem from any shame of my background. In fact, I am very proud to have gone to my school and to have made it here despite any disadvantages I may have faced. It is instead because it identifies me as lacking something which I can never attain – a school with a ‘name’.

Of course all schools have names, but not all names are created equal; some have more ‘name’ than others. How to know whether your school is one of these? Think about whether you’d say I went to ‘… School’ or just ‘I’m from X’. Whenever I have been asked where I went to school, I’ve always just said ‘oh, you wouldn’t know it… it was just my local grammar school’. 

From time to time, this has been a shock to people as it has contradicted what they’ve assumed about me. In my first term at Oxford, quite a few people presumed I had been privately educated – I’m guessing because of how I speak and present myself. Whilst I don’t have a particularly ‘rah’ voice, I do have the privilege of speaking generically southern. It has been interesting to think about why this assumption was made; is it more appealing to some Oxford students because it would give me something in common them?

If you go to a school with a widely known ‘name’ then, whether you want it or not, people perceive it to be one of your characteristics. There is a persona matched with each of these schools, and whilst not everything on the list may be positive, the overwhelming judgment is positive. 

Now, technically, it only identifies an individual as going to one of these schools. However, it seems to me that what it does instead is identify everybody who hasn’t been to one of these schools. It’s not that there is a suggestion that going to a state school is in any way a bad thing, it’s just that it implies that going to a public school is somehow better. That it is an additional positive attribute to someone. 

When I think about it in the context of my own background, it suggests that if I was compared against someone identical to me in every respect, except that they’d been to an expensive school, then they would somehow be socially superior to me. I think this is exactly the reason why we need to stop romanticizing going to these types of schools. It continues to hold the university back from achieving any form of equality between students. 

Oxford can never truly be a fair playing field until the school that someone has been to is only considered to be a fact, and not something that has bearing on someone’s personality. Until then, public school students will continue to have the social advantage along with the educational advantages that come from attending these schools. 

My college (St Peter’s) has one of the worst state-public school ratios across the whole university. Only 55.2% of home students in the last three years’ admissions have come from state schools;  the only college which is less accessible is Christ Church, which had a 54% intake of students from state schools over the same period. The effect of this low state school intake is certainly felt by the state school students at St Peter’s, and I include myself in this. When I think about my year group and friends in Oxford, I am almost certain that I could name at least half of the schools of those who were privately educated. I don’t think I can name the school of a single state school educated one.

This is not because I have purposely tried to not learn them, but because the names of their schools are never even mentioned. This is an effect of our classist education system, that propagates the idea that our school’s names are not worth knowing. In fact, they are. I challenge anybody at Oxford reading this to think about their friends, and which of their schools you can name. 

I have no answer on how to solve the wider problem of educational inequity that this represents. However, I do feel that on an individual level we can talk less about these schools with ‘names’ and not mention them unless directly asked. On the flip side of this, make sure that if you’re aware of the schools that your privately educated friends went to, you also aren’t ignorant of the schools of your state educated friends.

For those like me who have come from one of these schools, we should proudly name our schools even when we feel like it won’t be remembered. I can start: mine is Parkstone Grammar School.

Image credit: Artwork by Ben Beechener

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