When My Best Friends Went To Private School, Our Relationship Changed Forever

Designed by Anna Jay.
In primary school, I spent my time with The Triplets. The Triplets, as you might guess, were three siblings with whom I spent six years making up ghost stories, having messy sleepovers and pratting about for the sake of it, like all pre-teens do. 
In year 6, when The Triplets told me they were going to private school, I burst into tears. I wrote them nonsensical letters, begging them and their parents to reconsider in a haze of biro and Crayola. After three straight weeks of crying, my mum realised she was dealing with my first heartbreak. 
She was presented with the first rift she and my dad couldn’t solve: we couldn’t afford private school, while The Triplets' parents definitely could. 
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Even though The Triplets and I promised to keep in touch, it didn’t last long. I got invited to their birthday, but their new mates kept on asking why I didn’t have a pony. As I picked up more slang and my voice got deeper, they dropped their Hull accents and started pronouncing their r’s and t’s. 

We promised to keep in touch, it didn’t last long. I got invited to their birthday, but their new mates kept on asking why I didn’t have a pony.

Now I’m 27, my argument against private schools is more than a personal grievance. It’s developed into something angrier. I see how children from different social classes are pitted against each other from the age of 4, making prime ministers of 6-year-olds while telling state school kids like me that we don’t deserve to learn geography past the age of 12. 
State school kids are taught simply to function in the world while the privately educated are taught to run it. And that mentality leads them to effortlessly foster connections with the elite because they happened to go to the same school. 
But along the way, my perspective has developed a begrudging nuance. I’ve made friends with more private school kids, at university and at work. Our schooldays might be far behind us but our experience of the world is fundamentally and palpably different, because of the way we were educated. 
It is for that reason that, like the Labour Party, I want private schools to be abolished
I met my friend Alfred on the first day of university and we immediately hit it off. Hilarious, with excellent music taste and a plum velour blazer to match, he told me over our sixth pint that he went to a specialist naval boarding school in the south of the UK. 
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"My experience was bizarre, looking back," he told me.
"I went on a BIG bursary because my dad was part of the marines, so I can proudly say that I have fired blank rounds into the sky to 'Rule Britannia' at the age of 15, like it was totally normal."
Alfred’s education fascinated me. He said that if there were such a thing, his private schooling "wasn't usual".
"We had to iron our uniform and polish our shoes to pass inspection on Saturday afternoons before we could enjoy our free time." 
"It was very strict, and it put me off entering the military for life," he added. 

State school kids are taught to function in the world while the privately educated are taught to run it.

Alfred was hardly the only person I met at university who had a private school education. My perception of them has been marred by experiences of class discrimination, which included one privately educated student in my seminar writing a letter telling my editor to sack me from the student paper every time I wrote an article.
I often wonder how it is for working class students now, or even the majority of middle class, state-educated people. It doesn’t surprise me to read that in the 2017-18 academic year, the proportion of state school-educated university students fell, never mind the fact that students now have to grapple with £9k fees and the scrapping of maintenance grants for poorer pupils, a lifeline during my time in Leeds. 
Although only approximately 6% of schoolchildren in the UK are educated in private schools, at 15 universities, the proportion of public school students is more than 30%
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But Alfred told me he felt like the odd one out at university. 
"I used to feel a little ashamed of my education," he explained. "When I got to uni I was surrounded by 'normal' people and I felt quite out of place, as if I’d lived in this strange, isolated bubble for the last seven years and was playing cultural catch-up." 
"I’ve started to own my education in recent years, using it as a 'fun fact' when I tell people I know how to strip, clean and reassemble the rifles currently used by the British army, but it’s taken me a while to get there."
At university, fitting in tends to be a priority and getting good grades a secondary concern. And for state school-educated children, the sudden emphasis on networking, career building and the importance of connections is an added pressure.
While I was taught how to write a CV at 16, Natalie was taught she was a world leader.
She told me: "I joined Westminster School for sixth form. On my first day we were given a talk by the headmaster, who told us: 'You are the crème de la crème of this country. Sitting around you are future leaders. Don’t you forget it.'"
Jonn, who went to private school and then Cambridge University, echoes this experience.
"The main thing you get from private school is the assumption that the world is there for the taking," he said. "Everyone was expected to go to university, even the thick kids, and there was a big push to get a bunch of us to apply to Oxbridge." 
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"The facilities were probably better, I bet the education wasn’t. But the expectation you could do anything was invaluable," he added. 
Even for Natalie, who had been privately educated her entire life, joining Westminster was a different world. It was in a different league of private school. 
While I had to ask teachers to sign my passport because I didn’t know any other 'professionals' according to Home Office criteria, the future leaders lived in a parallel universe, spending four-figure sums on booze and drugs.
"In my first week I was taken to a bar in Mayfair by one of the 16-year-old boys, who spent £1,000 in one night on some of the new girls," Natalie told me.
But while money wasn’t an issue for Natalie’s classmates, it didn’t stop the same toxic narratives that pervade UK teens’ lives everywhere. In fact, it compounded them. 
"My experience at school was that class privilege combined with male entitlement in the most toxic and destructive ways. There was rampant sexism and bullying. There was regular cocaine use in the school toilets, and among the very bright, very high-achieving girls, there was widespread bulimia, anorexia and self-harm."
Nonetheless, she notes that none of this hindered their prospects. 

Privately educated people have to be willing to own up to their privilege in order to see the inherent inequality of private schooling. That's not something everyone is willing to do. 

"A lot of the people from Westminster are now working in the city," she said. "They’re making the big bucks – or those who were more liberal are working their way up to the very top of the media."
Alfred told me his school has a jobs and alumni network, designed for people to advance each other’s careers because of their common schooling.
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"There is a network called the 'old boys' for former students, which as far as I can tell, exists primarily to get people backdoor opportunities. I have not made use of it."
In journalism alone, 44% of the industry is privately educated, despite privately educated students making up 7% of the population – and 43% of the UK’s 100 most influential editors and broadcasters went to private school, according to social mobility foundation The Sutton Trust's News Media 100 list.
On the other hand, my privately educated friends say they feel judged in their more liberal social circles because of their schooling.
Natalie told me: "Most people I’m now friends with or work with did not go to private schools and I think people have judged me about it. I'm quite sensitive to other people's reactions about it."  
Alex agreed. "At university – and I’m ashamed it was that late – my views on it totally changed. I don’t agree with private schools at all, and sometimes feel hypocritical arguing against them when I had the privilege of going to one," they said.   
"The point I’m at with it now is that I think you have to own it and admit that privilege when it comes up."
Alex touches on something crucial here: privately educated people have to be willing to own up to their privilege in order to see the inherent inequality of private schooling. That’s not something everyone is willing to do. 
"The only conflict I really have about [the ethics of private education] is with the friends I have from school. They all still support it and we probably argue about schools, class and politics whenever I see them," Alex said.
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While my dislike of private schools has grown more nuanced as I’ve aged, I am still drawn to one compelling reality: a private education creates a difference beyond the parameters of the size of a classroom.
Do my privately educated friends agree with me that we should abolish private schools?
"I want them to be abolished, but I don’t think it will ever happen," Alfred said when I asked him. 
"It would be like trying to abolish the monarchy – it is so intrinsic to the British psyche."
Ed, on the other hand, told me his parents’ decision to send him to private school was a last resort, when the remaining schools where he grew up on the Isle of Wight started to struggle.

Today, my friendship with The Triplets revolves around sporadic Facebook likes and an enthusiastic but shallow hello if we bump into each other in town over Christmas.

He believes that rather than scrapping private schools – "There will always be a demand for private education" – they should be taxed. 
"I think my parents turned to private school as a last resort. There are only eight secondary schools on the entire island," he added. 
"My dad joined the board of governors and stuff to help my state school improve but it was just getting worse and worse, so they made a call. I was probably pissed at the time, leaving all of my mates behind, but I do understand why. So in that situation, maybe I’d do the same thing."
While Natalie wants her children to experience a mix of upbringings and backgrounds, there are some things she would absolutely pay for when it comes to education. 
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"If I'm totally honest with myself, I probably wouldn’t say no to a private tutor. Which I suppose is another aspect of class privilege," she said. 
But for Alex, there is only one answer, which, regardless of our backgrounds, we both fully agree on. 
"Private schooling has absolutely given me a big leg up in life. Anyone who went to one and claims it doesn’t is deluded. I’d never send my kids to private school, they’re one of the worst proponents of the uneven class system in the UK and should be abolished."
"I think not having them would make an absolutely massive difference to society in this country, definitely for the better."
Today, my friendship with The Triplets revolves around sporadic Facebook likes and an enthusiastic but shallow hello if we bump into each other in town over Christmas. We started out life in the same place, but there can be no doubt that the private school/state school divide put us on very different paths. 
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