This week an inflammatory headline claiming that, “White private school boys are the new disadvantaged” caught my attention. I was not educated here in the UK and I don’t have the posh accent; I sometimes wonder if that has negatively impacted my access to opportunities. At the same time, as a mother of a son who attends a private school in London, this ongoing characterisation forced me to consider the other side of the argument.
My initial defensive reaction was this: “Yes, private school-going children may be advantaged, but that doesn’t mean they don’t work hard; my son just went through a gruelling and cumbersome 11 plus and 13 plus exam route.”
As parents who did not attend expensive schools, we sacrificed a great deal to ensure my son could attend a private school. But there are other factors for us beyond where my son attends school.
I am also the mother of a private-school going boy who is an Asian, Muslim immigrant, so there is a lot more for me to unpack. When we talk about “white private school” boys, we consider challenges that race and social mobility present for non-white, state school boys. However, I rarely see debates regarding private school boys who aren’t white and may have a different faith and immigration status, or any factor that may work towards their disadvantage.
There maybe an underlying assumption that social mobility is the only aspect of identity dictating one’s access to, or disenfranchisement from, power. Belonging to an intersectional group means the challenges you face can be interwoven in such a way that it’s hard to distinguish one from another.
I may be falling for what researcher Mary Maxfield considers, “forced ranking of oppression which can be unhelpful, lacking empathy and impossible to assess.” Wouldn’t it be more helpful to recognise my privilege for what it is without falling into the trap of the “Oppression Olympics” (that fear of being left behind when the focus shifts to one group’s fight for liberation)? Wouldn’t it be more conducive to understand each group’s unique issues and support each group for what it is?
As I highlight in my book Her Allies, recognising privilege is crucial to understanding how unequal access to power and resources impacts communities. Privilege is a set of unearned benefits and advantages assigned to people within a specific social group. Members of a privileged group often do not recognise that they are privileged, whether it is due to their gender, skin colour, social mobility or any other factor. When you belong to an elite or powerful group, others perceive you as the standard versus an outlier and it takes significant self-reflection and scrutiny to begin looking at things differently.
Being a privileged group member does not mean you never struggled; it simply means you haven’t faced the same impediments that the non-privileged may have encountered. Some would argue that socioeconomic background trumps all sources of discrimination. In contrast, others believe its visible sources of differentiation, such as your skin colour, offer the highest odds.
For now, let’s consider social mobility independent of other factors. Despite his multiple marginal identities, my son will not be at a disadvantage if he does not get into Oxbridge because he will be accepted at another institution. Given their experience, tutoring and guidance, access and awareness, private schoolboys undoubtedly have a head start, among other advantages. If they don’t have other forms of discrimination simultaneously working against them, such as race, faith, gender identity, sexual orientation, or ability, I believe they will eventually be better off than those who did not have the same access to education and schooling.
Moreover, my son can’t control being a non-white, Muslim, immigrant, but he can control how he chooses to use his private school education to improve society and advance equality.
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I hear parents who feel their children are being unfairly penalised; anonymous applications are an idea I can get behind. In a world of ideal meritocracy, this would work perfectly, but let’s face it; institutions are run by humans – who may have affinity bias and thus give certain privileged groups an unfair advantage.
Irrespective of background, gender, ethnicity and faith, everyone matters in an inclusive space, and everyone should be heard. When we compare between the “haves” from the “have nots”, we are neither healing nor driving positive change. In a world where competing narratives force us to defend our respective sides, it’s an ideal time to pause and self-reflect.
Equal access and opportunity for all will perhaps lessen the insane pressure to vie for the top. It’s essential to ask ourselves whether it is more important for our children to get into the top schools, or become decent, kind-hearted human beings who will become the next era of empathetic leaders.
It may seem unfair to be penalised for privilege, but perhaps we all need to reassess our advantages and examine how we can leverage them to support others without them. Eventually, we may all end up having an unfair advantage over others owing to one factor or another.
The question to ask ourselves at a given point in time is – which advantage is ours and how can we use to support those who don’t?