‘I didn’t choose to go to private school’ and other things privileged people must stop saying

‘I didn’t choose to go to private school’ and other things privileged people must stop saying,

As a working class Oxbridge graduate I am often cited as proof that inequality doesn’t exist – but that’s missing the point (Picture: Getty)

As someone from a less than privileged background, I feel passionately that we need to address the rampant inequality in the UK.

It’s not right that if you went to private school, grew up in an affluent area and have parents with connections you’re more likely to succeed in life.

When talking about these issues to people who have benefitted from structural inequalities, I hear the same responses over and over again: ‘I didn’t choose what school I went to,’ or ‘I can’t change my background.’

It is of course true that people are not responsible for which part of the country they are born in or the type of school they are sent to. Yet this immediate defensive reaction seems to be born out of the belief that discussing inequality is a personal attack on those privileged members of our society.

Rather than seeking to understand and critically reflect upon how inequality of opportunity has played a major role in their success – even if it’s not the only contributing factor – I have found many are very keen to absolve themselves of all responsibility for helping people less privileged than them access the same opportunities.

Our society’s systemic inequality means that talented children from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds cannot rise to the top despite having the ability to do so. Talking about this is not an attack on any one individual, just as discussing male privilege is not a personal attack on all individual men.

Overcoming this defensiveness is the first step we must take in the fight to break the link between background and achievement.

Without those at the top recognising that factors such as the type of school they went to, the profession of their parents and their home environment played a major part in their success, it is difficult to have an honest conversation about how to improve social mobility. And it’s not something we can rely on the government here: only last week education secretary Damian Hind admitted that the social mobility watchdog would remain dormant for at least 10 months, after four members resigned in protest at the lack of progress on the issue.

That’s 10 months of inaction to tackle the growing injustice that means children who attend schools in disadvantaged towns like my own will continue to lag behind their better off peers despite their potential.

These inequalities have life-long implications: I’ve had friends who have had to get into crippling debt to undertake unpaid internships, just so they can compete in the jobs market with those whose family can subsidise them.

People will often quote specific examples of people who have – against all odds – achieved success in prominent professions or public service, despite having come from a disadvantaged background. I myself am sometimes used as such a case study, being a working class Oxbridge graduate – the first in my family to go to university.

But just because some people get lucky, it doesn’t mean social mobility does exist. Had it not been for a teacher who went beyond his working hours to encourage me to stretch myself, it would never have occurred to me to apply to those universities.

Without the Aim Higher programme, which was designed to get students from underrepresented backgrounds to think about university, and Educational Maintenance Allowance that allowed me to support myself through college, I can’t have imagined progressing into further education. Both schemes have since been scrapped by the government.

The suggestion that everyone is on an even playing field just because some of us got lucky is absurd. According to recent reports, privately educated people still dominate in the fields of law, politics, medicine and journalism.

To improve social mobility we have to be able to have an honest conversation about how privilege works, without the defensive reactions that seek to absolve responsibility.  

We need to dismantle the barriers that allow those from privileged backgrounds to remain at the top, such as unpaid internships, the privileges of a private education and generous laws around inheritance.

Most of all those at the top need to recognise that to achieve a more equal and meritocratic society, they may have to be more honest about the role privilege played in getting them to where they are.

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