Oxford's oldest student newspaper

Independent since 1920

Is the minority still the majority?

It has been years since infamous private member societies such as ‘The Bullingdon Club’ or ‘The Piers Gaveston Society’ have reigned supreme at Oxford; the university and students alike condemning their behaviour. It has also been around twenty years since the proportion of state school-educated students surpassed that of privately educated students. On paper, it looks like the tables have turned on those educated at the most elite schools in the country, but as a state school-educated member of the university it doesn’t always feel that way. 

I was lucky enough to attend an extremely high-performing state comprehensive. In 2021, when I won a place, so too did fifty-one other students from my college to attend either Oxford or Cambridge. This is an extremely impressive number for a nonselective school. However, when you take into account that there were one-thousand six hundred students in my year group, that’s actually only 3.25% of the student body. In the same year, St Paul’s Girls School, one of the top-performing private girls’ schools in the country, had a staggering 46.9% success rate. 

But facts have never made good news stories. Since the proportion of state school students at Oxford has risen, so has the number of screaming headlines in the national press. Papers such as The Times love to shout about private school students who’ve ‘lost out’ on their chances in the name of equality. ‘Private pupils shunned by Oxbridge are being ‘driven overseas’, ‘Going private is putting our children’s Oxbridge chances at risk, parents fear’, and ‘White private school boys are the new disadvantaged, says Cambridge academic’ are just a few real article headlines which have been published in the past couple years.  

The reality of the situation is, of course, a little more complex. Only seven percent of the population attends private school and yet they make up around 30% of Oxford students. However, the crux of the issue isn’t so much about the weight of the name of your school in relation to your success, but about the things you’ve learned there which give you an advantage.  In my experience Oxford is still very tailored towards the culture of these schools; before these pupils even attend Oxford or Cambridge, they know the secrets. And it’s this that really makes it feel as if, despite statistics, state school-educated pupils are still in the minority.  

Before I went to Oxford I had never really been asked where I went to school. The question at first surprised me. Why would anyone know of my school and what relevance would it have to our possible friendship? However, I quickly learned that for attendees of those top London private schools, it held a meaning, a sort of secret code. It provided an instant bond, an opportunity to discuss mutual friends and experiences only available to those who attended those types of schools. Which also, for those of us who were not a part of it, unknowingly created a divide. Subconsciously, these initial alliances create a feeling that there is a ‘group’ you could never be a part of, or rather one that you would have to work to understand. And indeed, you do. Never have I known the names of so many independent schools in and around London, nor been able to add to a conversation by adding an anecdote of another friend at the university who attended the same place.  

But the issue is not just in the where-did-you-go-to-school conversations. There are so many other traditions which new students have to familiarise themselves with. Before coming to Oxford, I wonder how many of you had heard of matriculation, formal hall, or sub fusc. For each of these things, I felt words like this made me feel completely in the dark. What was the dress code, and how should you behave? Luckily for me, I had a friend from school who went a year earlier than myself who told me I needed to get hold of some ‘black tie’ wear for formal. Black tie was not a concept I was familiar with, and only after some research was I able to look online for a formal dress that would be appropriate. My only experience with ‘formal’ dress before coming to Oxford was prom in year eleven or the occasional wedding. Despite being assured that many others were in the same position as me, my lack of knowledge made me feel stupid. Surely by nineteen, I should have known how to do something as easy as get dressed in the right clothes.  

Of course, though, these traditions are not something you have to buy into, and it’s not as if you’ll be penalized for not taking part. Wadham is a shining example of a college that rejects them by replacing balls with ‘Wadstock’ and scrapping formals altogether. Wadham might prove that things have shifted, and that the University is taking steps to move away from the focus on private school culture. But the very fact that Wadham has chosen to reject these traditions is very telling. Surely we only need to reject the things that impact our lives. Wadham’s rejection in fact shows just how entrenched the rest of Oxford is in these old-school traditions. All of which fits nicely in with what students from private schools have spent years preparing for. 

Inevitably, these feelings also slip into the academic life of Oxford. As someone who is used to classes of thirty-plus pupils, tiny tutorials at first felt uncomfortable and exposing to me. In the first few weeks, I held back ideas and stumbled nervously over my words. Private schools by contrast pride themselves on small class numbers and much more individual-focused learning, which I can assure you is something I wish I had had more experience of in that first tutorial. I had never envied the private school experience before an Oxford tutorial, but I had to learn quickly how to build up the confidence to effectively communicate my ideas. This was a confidence that had been instilled into my counterparts for at least five years. It didn’t take long for me to get a handle on this, but there were certainly many awkward silences and cringe-worthy moments in the first few weeks which made the process feel more difficult. 

Eventually, putting on ‘black tie’ becomes as easy as putting on your pyjamas, and a one-on-one tutorial is simply part of your weekly routine. However, that doesn’t shake the feeling that you’re often playing catch up with this culture. And the onus is on the state school students to adapt, learn the codes, and build up our confidence to a private school level. Not all of this is bad, but it is different. The media can keep on saying that the system has changed to favour state school pupils, but the truth is that I spent my first year striving to adapt to the lifestyle at Oxford. This isn’t to say that I didn’t also have a great time – it has in fact been one of the best years of my life so far. But it’s also undeniable that many of my privately educated peers didn’t have to waste time thinking about this, feeling comfortable from their very first day.  

Support student journalism

Student journalism does not come cheap. Now, more than ever, we need your support.

Check out our other content

Most Popular Articles