Middle-class graduates harbour lasting feelings of guilt and inferiority, believing that their parents secretly wish they had done better, research published yesterday suggests.
In the first study of its kind, academics from London University's Institute of Education interviewed in depth 350 people identified as "academically promising" when they started secondary school in the early 1980s. The researchers then followed their progress through their twenties.
They found that many students who had achieved excellent GCSE and A-level results and good degrees from prestigious universities felt as if they were failures. Seemingly successful graduates in their late twenties were ashamed that they had not achieved four A grades at A-level, won an Oxbridge place or matched their parents' qualifications.
Professor Sally Power, the lead author of the report, Education and the Middle Class, said the apparent success of such students often hid their feelings of failure.
"It is often assumed that for middle-class, academically able children, schooling is a straightforward process that leads to academic success, higher education and good middle-class jobs," she said. But "their progress is often disrupted and many find their education a difficult and sometimes painful experience".
The study concluded: "What looks like success has sometimes felt like failure and what seems to be upward movement is experienced as drifting and aimlessness ... Their experiences have left long-lasting legacies of low self-esteem and guilt, and often resulted in damaged educational careers."
For those whose parents made a big financial sacrifice to send them to private school, "failure can be particularly guilt-laden", the report said.
One former public schoolboy told the researchers there had been a common view among his classmates that they wished they could "pay our parents back for all the things they paid for". Only a few respondents said their parents had openly expressed disappointment at their achievements but many believed they were secretly unsatisfied.
One former private schoolgirl reported that her father's high expectations made him constantly anxious about her school performance, pressuring her to take particular subjects and then refusing to speak to her when she did badly in her A-levels. "He labelled me as lazy, I suppose," she said. "So I thought well I might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb and that's the end of it, I guess."
Many students who had attended selective schools - in either sector - lost their confidence when they found they were "just average" instead of top of the class, as most had been at primary school.
Young people reported being torn between the academic demands of their parents and social popularity. This was particularly true for boys at independent schools, who had to be seen to be clever without working hard.
The study found that the slightly higher A-level grades achieved at fee-paying schools gave pupils significantly better chances of going to elite universities. Geoff Whitty, director of the Institute of Education, called for elite universities to admit more pupils from comprehensive schools even if they had lower grades.
Laura Orger: Advertising Rep
'I am under pressure to retrain as a lawyer' barrister
Laura Orger is tired of her parents putting her under pressure to train as a barrister and wishes they would be happy to let her try less coveted jobs.
Ms Orger, 22, enjoys her job in advertising but has no idea what she wants to do in the long term. "There is definitely a feeling that however well you do, you should have done better," she acknowledged.
"It's the constant pressure that gets me down. It is annoying because it makes me feel they aren't satisfied with what I'm doing. My father, who is retired, has even started to go to legal recruitment fairs and sends me brochures about becoming a barrister."
Laura got nine good GCSEs and ABC grades at A-level from St Edward's, a private Catholic school in Cheltenham. Despite these results, she describes her academic achievements as "not fantastic, pretty average really", adding: "If you go to a fee-paying or a grammar school everybody gets good results. Obviously across the country my results would be considered good, but when you attend a school like mine you get the message from everyone, really that they are nothing special."
Ms Orger opted to go to the University of East Anglia (UEA) a choice that baffled her parents and teachers. She graduated last summer with a 2:1 in English and philosophy.
"There is a lot of pressure to apply to Oxbridge or one of the other top 10 universities," she said. "I chose UEA because I particularly wanted to do their American literature option.
"I think [my parents] just want me to do better than they did. They have this idea that I should have access to the sort of professional worlds that they never had. They spent ages trying to get my sister to become a doctor. If I had been any good at sciences I think they would have tried the same with me."Reuse content