I'm tired of the prejudice against people like me who went to private school - we're not all super-privileged

Considering my Dad was a dry cleaning salesman, money was tight. For a few years my mum had to work a second job at Asda just to pay for Christmas. They invested in us, and almost bankrupted themselves in the process

Saturday 25 November 2017 11:43
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Boys make their way to classes across the historic cobbled School Yard of Eton College. File photo
Boys make their way to classes across the historic cobbled School Yard of Eton College. File photo

There always has, and always will be, a certain stigma attached to those who went to a private school. We’re the educational pariahs, blocking the path to social mobility and maintaining our elitist status at the top of society.

Just last week a Government Minister decreed that recruiters should increase diversity in their workforce by asking prospective employees if they attended state or private school. Matthew Hancock, himself privately educated and an alumnus of both Oxford and Cambridge, was the minister responsible for the suggestions.

Apparently, we’re supposed to believe that all privately educated people in the UK are a homogenous mass of privileged, wealthy job-grabbers. We’re all chauffeured to school by ‘the help’ and can only ride our horses after we finish our caviar. Regardless of our intellect, our parents buy the school a new pavilion and our ‘D’ in Latin is overlooked. Then, Papa gives his golf chums the nod and we're parachuted straight in to a six-figure job.

I went to private school. And a bloody good one, too. Manchester Grammar School was, and still is, one of the finest schools in the country. But to describe me as rich, posh or one of the elite would just be ludicrous.

I come from Tameside in East Manchester. Its most notable former inhabitants are Myra Hindley, Harold Shipman and one-eyed grenade-thrower Dale Cregan. Neither of my parents went to university. In fact, neither of them even got any A levels. As soon as they were old enough, my Dad helped my Grandad run his newsagents’ and my Mum paid half her salary back to her parents so they could afford to bring up her two younger siblings.

By the time they had us, and my smart-arse older brother shocked everyone by gaining a place at MGS, my parents had to decide between their future enjoyment of life, and ours. Fast forward seven years and all three brothers had passed the entrance exam. That one year cost over £20k in fees; more than my mum’s entire salary before tax.

School for the super-rich open in Grade-1 listed building in Mayfair

Considering my Dad was a dry cleaning salesman, money was tight. For a few years my mum had to work a second job at Asda just to pay for Christmas. My parents spent their entire lives bouncing debt around, taking out loans to pay off other loans and never wanting for anything. They invested in us, and almost bankrupted themselves in the process. My Dad’s paltry wardrobe became a thing of legend.

To be clear, I'm not after your sympathy. In no way am I saying I haven’t benefited from some privilege in my life. After all, I am a white male from a good educational background. I’m just saying I’m not wealthy. I'm barely middle-class. That, and my thick Mancunian accent, means I’m rarely considered for the polo team.

Of course there were people at my school whose parents could afford to send 50 kids to private school and still have enough money to visit their castle in Provence, but that wasn’t all of us.

Rich getting richer

Recently I called my alma mater and spoke to the school’s High Master, Dr Martin Boulton. The first thing he proudly told me was that he attended MGS on what were then called ‘assisted places’. Despite being from a family who couldn’t afford to send their kid to the school, he now runs the place.

Clearly that is social mobility in action.

One of my best friends was on a full bursary. He was there solely on merit, as were plenty of other kids. My school, and many others like it, pride themselves on entrance being based on intellect. And while richer families could afford tutors and preparatory schools, it didn’t stop the intellectually worthy gaining a place. It’s actually those rich families and successful, wealthy old boys who help prop up the bursary scheme. In turn, that allows more people like my friend to smash through the social glass ceiling above them.

Dr Boulton was one of those who signed a letter to The Times last week complaining about the backlash against private schools. But they chose to single out the signatures from the Eton and Rugby heads, continuing the myth that private schools are only attended by Tarquin Double-Barreled Third Duke of Earlsham or by the Queen’s granddaughter who, at just two years old, is already being touted to the fanciest establishments in the land.

As Dr Boulton pointed out, 17 per cent of MGS pupils are eligible for free school meals. In contrast, he explained how some state schools in the wealthiest areas of Manchester have between 2-3 per cent of pupils eligible. Fewer of their applicants are from lower socio-economic backgrounds and schools like mine are actually more positively influencing social mobility. Destroying them to create a ‘level playing field’ will only drive education based on house prices, with no recourse for those who can’t afford it.

I’m told MGS will be ‘needs blind’ within 50 years, meaning places will be offered on intellect alone. For now, we have to accept that the state school system isn’t as virtuous as we think, and be glad some private schools offer bursaries and an excellent education to the less fortunate and fortunate alike.

My parents sent me to Manchester Grammar School.

For that I, and they, will never apologise.

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