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.

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"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. Her novel, The Tyranny of Lost Things, is published by Sandstone Press.

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

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