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Writing on the Filing Cabinets: A State School Student’s Response to Emma Duncan

I’m a proud East Londoner. I’m proud of the area I’m from and the family members who made their homes there. Growing up in Ilford (London Borough of Redbridge), I attended a local state comprehensive (non-selective) secondary school with an A Level A*-A rate (a commonly used metric to measure a school’s academic success) of 13.2% when I completed my GCSEs in 2018. For sixth form, I moved (due to funding issues) to another state comprehensive with a slightly better A Level A*-A rate of around 28% for my subjects when I joined in 2018. I never took private academic tuition across my entire school career. I do want to stress that, across both secondary and sixth form, every member of staff I encountered were doing the best they could in the context of the school’s location (and the issues that came with it), underfunding, etc, and deserve significant praise. At both secondary school and sixth form, I achieved the highest academic results in my year, and would go on to become the only student from either establishment to secure a place at Oxford in 2020 (a year with zero Oxbridge offers was not uncommon for either school), also becoming a member of the first generation in my family to attend university. Since starting here, I have joined numerous access and outreach initiatives, culminating in my appointment as President of the Oxford 93% Club (the university’s society for state-schooled students).

Emma Duncan, a columnist at The Times, attended Buckinghamshire’s Wycombe Abbey private school before coming to Oxford. Non-boarding fees at Wycombe Abbey sit at £30,000+ per year – and the 2018 A Level A*-A grade? 84%. Average class size currently sits around 12 pupils. My older brother, who attended the same secondary school as me, recalls a friend having to write standing up on a filing cabinet during History lessons because there were no available desks (class sizes regularly topped 30).

Duncan recently penned an article in The Times titled ‘We’re hurting Oxbridge in the name of equality’. As President of Oxford’s state-schooled society, my eyebrows immediately lifted, but I nevertheless picked up a copy and read it with an open mind. Unfortunately, Duncan’s arguments have failed to hold up for me (or for the numerous other state-schooled students here I have discussed it with, and have a duty to represent). This piece is a response to Duncan’s article.

I consider it pertinent to address first why I contrast our educational backgrounds. It is not, as perhaps expected, to initiate any conversations regarding wealth – my immediate family, although coming from a long lineage of working-class Cockneys, is financially stable, and for all I know Duncan could have been on a full scholarship to Wycombe Abbey. Instead, I am comparing our backgrounds to highlight a much simpler point – Duncan does not have the lived experience to speak as authoritatively as she attempts to throughout her article.

Duncan begins with a few questionable points – firstly, by lamenting the 76% target the government has set for state school admissions to Oxbridge. As my society’s name implies (93% of UK students attend state schools), even this goal is far from matching the real-world reality. She goes on to argue that “favouring a state school pupil with worse marks in her entrance exam than a grammar-school boy who may have worked harder is also unfair”. It is worth noting that grammar schools still come under the ‘state school’ label – we should be careful with such statements. She claims soon afterwards that “not all private school pupils are rich”. Although there are certainly exceptions (I personally know a handful), a 2021 TES report found that only 1% of private school students are on full scholarships, and still only 3% are on a 75-99% reduction. The other problem with this argument is the fact that, regardless of whether a student is on a full scholarship or paying full fees, they are still receiving the educational advantages of attending a private school. Duncan ignores this point and reiterates this argument in numerous guises throughout the article.

This is not to say that Duncan does not make some valid (even useful) points in the article, which I want to acknowledge. For example, her criticism of wealthy parents buying homes near top-performing state schools to cheat the system (using the example of Hills Road in Cambridge) is a valid one (even if such high-performing state school examples are outliers), and something acknowledged regularly by the UK’s first Professor of Social Mobility Lee Elliot Major OBE in his ground-breaking book Social Mobility and Its Enemies – a must-read for anyone interested in these topics. 

However, as the article progresses, Duncan’s arguments go from the slightly questionable to the downright offensive. Two points in particular stand out to me. Firstly, she writes that “admitting weaker state school students on the basis that they may catch up with better-performing private school kids is guesswork, which is likely to bring down the braininess of the average Oxford student”. It is only logical to think that someone who has met the academic entry requirements (albeit with perhaps one grade lower if given a ‘contextual offer’ to something like the LMH foundation year), passed the personal statement stage, and succeeded at interviews (bearing in mind that, as one friend from Eton informed me, pupils at the school are given 1-1 tutoring from secondary school age on both personal statements and interviews), all whilst fighting through the challenges of attending a less successful school (even if clearer definitions are needed, for example differentiating my school from Hills Road), has demonstrated the skills to prove themselves at Oxford. The implication that our presence is a threat to upholding the average IQ here is unbelievably condescending. I recently had a conversation with a friend at Oxford from a similar non-selective state school background around imposter syndrome – “why would I feel less deserving to be here than someone from Harrow,” he asked me, “when I had to build my intelligence by staying up later than them every night until the local library shut to gather my revision resources – all because my school couldn’t afford the textbooks? If anything, don’t I deserve this more?” The students Duncan is talking about have contextual offers for a reason.

The second point Duncan makes, and the one which has caused the most backlash, reads as follows: “discriminating against parents who save or borrow to pay for education in favour of those who send their children to state schools and spend their money on luxuries is not a good signal”. Although I understand the point she is trying to make, this statement comes across as incredibly out of touch. My rebuttal (the same one provided by countless state-schooled friends here) is also incredibly simple – the main reason that the vast majority of parents don’t send their children to private schools isn’t because they’ve spent the £30,000/year Wycombe Abbey tuition money on avocado toast and Starbucks – it’s because they just can’t afford it. The current average UK salary is around £31k – sending your daughter to Wycombe Abbey is therefore entirely achievable once you discover how to live on £1k/year.

This article is not intended to make any private-schooled individual at Oxford feel uncomfortable. I have many friends here from such a background whose raw academic talent is unbelievably clear for anyone to see – they do not possess less capable brains for Oxford which were ‘propped up’ by better schooling, as I imagine people like Duncan may accuse me of suggesting. I also agree with some of Duncan’s overarching points – we need to distinguish better between types of state schools – e.g. mine in comparison to state schools like Brampton Manor (which now bests Eton in Oxbridge admissions), and wider factors outside of the school itself (e.g. the stability of a family’s home-life or finances) need to be considered more.

Ultimately, however, Duncan’s article comes across as offensive and out of touch to many of us here from state-schooled backgrounds who overcame the barriers she is so quick to disregard. On Twitter, Cambridge Professor Gordon Dougan (from a council-estate, state-schooled background) sums it up best. In response to Duncan saying that Oxbridge “favouring state-school pupils isn’t fair”, he simply replies: “nothing was fair about me getting there. If I am damaging Oxbridge, so be it”.

Image credit: Evka W / CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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