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Why do state-school pupils earn less over a lifetime? Because they aren’t taught to dream big

Private schools instil their children with a sense of entitlement and confidence that is lacking among state-school pupils, argues Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett.

"I can’t go in there on my own,” a friend said recently when I told her I would be late for brunch at Dean Street Townhouse, a central London restaurant. “It’s way too swanky.” She would not be dissuaded. And so, instead of going in, she stood outside in the cold until I arrived and we could face the maître d’ together.

I’m telling you this not because I think you’re particularly interested in my brunch habits, which are sporadic and based entirely on cash flow, but because I was reminded of this conversation when I read an Institute for Fiscal Studies report showing that UK graduates who went to private school earn thousands of pounds more a year than their state-educated peers – £4,500 more, in fact. We don’t just have a gender pay gap in the UK, we have a class one, too. This is not only because privately educated students are more likely to attend elite universities, or to study subjects that are more likely to lead to higher-paid careers. Even when the researchers compared students who went to the same university, and took the same job after graduating, the pay gap between state-school and private-school students was 6 per cent, or £1,500 a year on average.

One explanation for this is the “confidence gap”. Private schools instil their children with a sense of entitlement and confidence that is lacking among state-school pupils, it is suggested. I often give talks in schools about sex and body image, and the difference in approach between the state and private sectors is striking. I have never, for instance, heard a state-school pupil make the dreaded announcement, “This is more of a statement than a question.”

Earlier this year, in a pub in Westminster, I was confronted by a couple of Young Conservatives who had been at an event in the House of Commons and who had the slicked-back hair and rosy cheeks of a pair of Michael Portillo-inspired ventriloquists’ dummies. They were still at university, yet they heckled me about austerity in a way that revealed an intimidating level of belief in the importance of their own opinions. Coming from a state school and filled with self-doubt, I would never have dared to lecture anyone, let alone a stranger, in such a way.

This is the confidence gap. And it is where the argument “I can’t go in there on my own – it’s too swanky” also comes in. It is something I have often thought to myself over the years, first when visiting prospective universities, and later while working in a media dominated by the privately educated. I have thought it while standing outside the House of Commons and BBC Broadcasting House, at the offices of Vogue magazine, the Guardian building, the Oxford Union – and pretty much anywhere I’ve visited since becoming a journalist. I know I’m not alone. The last time I spoke at the Oxford Union, a talented and well-regarded fellow journalist, who is also state-educated, turned to me and said: “This place is not meant for me.”

I can’t imagine that such a thought has ever crossed the minds of the Prime Minister, or many of those attending cabinet – George Osborne, Nick Clegg, Jeremy Hunt, Oliver Letwin – who have passed through the well-established route of top public school to Oxbridge to Westminster. Same crowd, slightly different building. I doubt they have ever thought: “I can’t go in there on my own – it’s too swanky,” perhaps because so many of their peers are already waiting inside.

Politics is dominated by private-school leavers: 36 per cent of the cabinet and 33 per cent of MPs were privately educated – compared to 7 per cent of the general population. The media, too, are dominated by former private-school kids: they make up 43 per cent of newspaper columnists and 26 per cent of BBC executives. Astonishingly, one in every seven judges went to any one of just five private schools: Eton, Westminster, Radley, Charterhouse and St Paul’s boys’ school.

For state-school pupils, there’s little room at the top. Once you’ve broken into politics or the media, you feel so lucky that you don’t want to draw attention to yourself. I wonder how many of the graduates polled by the IFS are still catching their breath and thinking, “Christ, I made it. Better leave it a few years before I ask for a pay rise.”

Perhaps this is also why class war has never truly broken out in this country. Once someone from an “unconventional background” – state-educated, or from an ethnic minority, or a woman, or maybe all these things – climbs the career ladder, they rarely want to risk peering down and saying, “Hey, guys, come up here. The view is terrible.” And so the establishment remains distant, its figures as remote and indifferent as the mythical beings on a ceiling fresco.

By contrast, Russell Brand, whose articles are shared by my schoolfriends almost daily, is approachable. Excessive use of a thesaurus aside, he speaks the same language. He is the working-class kid who made it, and that is powerful – especially to those who were not taught to dream big at school. And he has the courage to speak about Britain’s shameful lack of social mobility.

They say you have to fake it to make it, and that is what I have done. But affected confidence is not true confidence, and many state-school pupils are leaving without the latter. Higher education is not the leveller many on the left hoped it would be, because self-doubt starts earlier. Kids aren’t stupid; they know Britain is not a meritocracy. They have been taught to believe that “this place is not meant for me”.

My friend, by the way, has breakfast at Dean Street Townhouse all the time now. She got over her fear. But I have no doubt that outside, on the pavement, there is someone else thinking: “I can’t go in there on my own.” 

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is the author of “The Vagenda: a Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media”. 

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a writer for the New Statesman and the Guardian. She co-founded The Vagenda blog and is co-author of The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Deep trouble

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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