Dear state school pupils with aspirations to go on to higher education

I am sorry, for I have failed you. You may be blaming tuition fees, or unpaid internships, or the loss of EMA for ruining your prospects, but actually it’s me and others of my ilk. For I, a fellow state school pupil, had opportunities, great opportunities, and I wasted them, and now everyone thinks you’re rubbish as a result.

We are led to believe that this country is run by a cabal of Oxbridge graduates who dominate politics, law, business and the media — and it is. All the same, I am an Oxbridge graduate. I’ve done both the Ox (BA) and the –bridge (PhD). So really I ought to be pretty damn powerful, with lots and lots of money. Alas, I’m not. I’ve always assumed it’s because, from a position of privilege, I’ve been able to make choices and money and power weren’t my priorities. Turns out I got it wrong. It’s because of the school I went to. I mean, it wasn’t a bad school. It was actually a pretty nice grammar school but still, it was hardly Cheltenham Ladies College, and that matters, you see. That’s why I lack the “soft skills” necessary to succeed. It’s also why everyone thinks that you do, too.

According to a headline in the Observer, state-educated students are “failing to reach job potential” and doing “less well after college”. How do we know this? Because a study by the charity upReach shows that they outperform privately educated students when it comes to getting degrees yet find it harder to secure a “professional job” and earn less when they finally get one. Hmph. That’s annoying, isn’t it? Still, it seems they’ve only got themselves (and their useless background) to blame.

Henry Morris, founder of upReach, “claims that a key reason for the stark difference in outcomes lies in role models, networks and opportunities to pick up “soft skills”, such as problem solving and teamwork, enjoyed by pupils from more affluent backgrounds”. Thankfully Morris was educated at a public school hence he has no such issues with solving problems. Hence he’s set up a partnership between his charity and ”the law firm Clifford Chance, the accountancy firms KPMG, Accenture and Deloitte, and Exeter University” – i.e., if you discount the institute of learning, a load of firms in which people “do well” i.e. make lots of money, something which, as we have established, state school pupils are crap at doing.

Morris argues that it’s about “realising professional potential”:

It isn’t about guaranteeing them jobs, but ensuring that when they go into interviews, for example, they have the knowledge, the soft skills, the networks, the experience.

In short, it’s partly about being permitted (temporarily) to breathe the same air as old Etonian whizzkids, and partly about being taught to be less fuckwitted. After all, as upReach notes, “undergraduates from less privileged backgrounds tend to lack and struggle to build […] non-academic capabilities” such as communication, teamwork and organisational skills. I don’t know how Morris knows all this, but he claims to have “noticed at university how socioeconomic background can affect people’s employment”. I have to say, I might have only gone to pleb school, but I’ve been vaguely aware of this since watching coverage of the Miners’ Strike on TV when I was nine. Still, Morris no doubt knows it in a better way than I do. 

While philosophically I might have issues with helping a minority of state school pupils earn masses more than most other people, I suppose it is better, just about, than having only public school pupils gaining access to the trough. All the same, I have real issues with the way in which Morris is going about this and the way it’s being reported. First, people don’t necessarily “reach their full potential” as thinkers, workers and useful members of society merely by earning the most (ask any teacher or academic). Second, in a country with a horrendous gap between rich and poor, might it not be possible to suggest ex-public school pupils are being over-rewarded following their less than illustrious academic careers (and often even less impressive careers in business and banking)? Third, what are these “soft skills” of which we speak? Don’t they seem a bit, well, vague? Don’t they seem like precisely the kind of thing which lets discrimination in by the back door?

Employers like to employ people who are like them, whether or not they admit it to themselves. The ways in which subjective criteria are assessed can shift without the assessor even noticing. Unconscious bias and implicit associations distort the opportunities open to different groups. They then become self-fulfilling prophecies; I know state school pupils are not so good at “teamwork” because a newspaper report has just told me so. If I were a manager (which I’m not – sorry) I’d think twice before employing one of them over a nice, work-ready ex-public school graduate.

So yeah, state school pupils, I’m sorry. Looks like those of us who went before you have messed it all up by being “less good” than we should have been. Still, you might be lucky. You might get onto one of Morris’s schemes. That’s providing the ex-public schoolboy likes you enough.