Old School: Privately educated minorities

My school tie and scarf

In the training workshops I provide, I make specific reference to the fact I’ve been privately educated.

I do this because I feel it’s relevant to my experience, making me who I am and giving me the voice I have today.

My education is the reason I stand in front of the people I do, and that I can do so with some confidence.

I am also very clear that to give me this gift of education, for my nurse and tailor parents, was a huge financial burden, but that they did it to give me and my brother access to opportunities they learned, and felt, and experienced, would otherwise be closed off to us, as people of ethnic minority.

I wasn’t amazing at school work. I didn’t try as hard as I should have in all subjects and left with quite mediocre results (given my education) after not taking advice from those who proffered it with the best intentions and my future at heart. For shame, I squandered the academic opportunity my parents sacrificed to give me.

What I didn’t squander was the environment. My school gave me the absolute freedom to be myself. It also taught me however, how to also be a coded version of myself that would be acceptable to wider society; this was not a conscious education on behalf of my school, it simply happened by the nature of the kind of school it was, the kind of other school children I mixed with when playing competitive sport, and developing Received Pronunciation when I speak. An engrained way of being that I couldn’t help but assimilate.

When I declared in my early teens I was going to work in broadcasting, I was encouraged, and my teachers could see I would be good at it. I was definitely a confident public speaker – thanks to the public speaking and drama I was given the opportunity to do at school, and my parents paid for – and I liked to entertain. (Er, what happened there?) So, my academic results made little difference in the end as I focussed on getting relevant experience, and I studied enough to get where I needed to go. And, when my close friends campaigned for me to become the first person of visible ethnic minority to hold the Head Girlship, it cemented a self-confidence which has rarely been shaken – until recently (sadly, nothing I can write about publicly, yet).

Could I have got that in the state system? We’ll never really know. I did attend a state school until I was 10. What I do know is the smaller class size meant I had nowhere to hide when I was being a lazy student, I had to respond, giving me the academic grounding I needed to get to the university I wanted, and I met the friends that I did who have taught me so much.

So, what’s the point in telling you this?

You see, I’m not alone in this experience.

As Dr Binna Kandola reports in his book,  Racism at Work: The Danger of Indifference, “There is evidence that minority groups must pay more to obtain the same educational opportunities as their majority peers. In the UK, university candidates of Indian heritage are two and a half times more likely to come from fee-paying schools than white candidates; Chinese candidates are five times as likely. This is despite the fact that the average income of minority parents is lower than that of the population of white parents. Academic success if emphasised more in some communities than others.”

He goes on to say: “Networks are a key means…of providing…[jobs] guidance. Immigrants and children may lack both networks and understanding of the way the labour market operates. These communities place greater emphasis on formal educational qualifications. But contacts are also important and, without them, immigrants and their children are at a disadvantage. This is true in all OECD countries, as has been shown by extensive research.”

So, it disturbs me that I know of organisations that are using education data to inform policy which would discriminate against private school candidates. To do so would create another barrier, which our parents scrimped and saved to try to remove.

Socio-economic barriers in our society are real and must be addressed. There is a wider societal issue which means BAME people feel they must attend fee-paying schools to get on in life, however, to simply look at private education to collate data on it could also be another means of discriminating against BAME people.

Being privately educated is a privilege. I am privileged. That I now use my voice to try to give air to those who don’t have that privilege is my choice; it’s not an obligation. It’s for everyone to look round them to appreciate what they have and notice the inequality with those who do not have what they do.

And for those of us who attempt to forge ahead, to redress some of the societal imbalances, just for ourselves, by paying to access that privilege, don’t punish us for it.

Instead, make a difference by trying to address the original source of inequality and together we will make progress.