I went to a private school from the age of 11 until I was 18. It was an elitist, high-performing boys school. I remember sitting the entrance exam, driving up to the school with my friend Simon, testing each other on capital cities of countries around the world. This didn’t come up in the exam, but we knew a lot of them. I got a bursary to attend the school; every year my academic performance was monitored to make sure I was still eligible to receive this money. If I hadn’t met the standard, my parents could no longer have afforded to send me.
Looking back on this now with adult eyes, that seems like a lot of pressure to put on a child, but it didn’t feel like it at the time. In reality, I had no concept of the financial and political decisions behind my education. I went to school. I worked hard. I made friends. I did well. That was all. However, the decision even to send me for the entrance exam resonates through my life to this day and has guided every step of my career.
In the sixth form I applied to read English at New College, Oxford. The system is different now, but back then Oxford set its own entrance exams which you would sit in your school. If you passed those, you were invited for interview, and if you passed that you were given a nominal offer (two E grades, in my case) for the purposes of UCAS. I was put in a special class to coach me for the entrance exam, given mock-interview practice and guidance from Oxbridge graduates on the staff as the tried-and-tested programme at my school picked me up. Again, even as a 17-year-old, I didn’t question this. My school was the only secondary school I had ever known; I naively had no idea that other schools were any different. I got in.
The formative moments came after Oxford as I studied for my PGCE at Nottingham University. The highly astute and perceptive tutor Chris Hall (to whom I owe an enormous debt) recognised that sheltered naivety in me, and sent me for my teaching practice to a school in the north of Nottinghamshire in a very deprived area, where there was no school uniform, where teachers were called by their first names, and where open-plan classroom spaces merged into one another. I think she thought that it would make me or break me. It made me.
I was appointed at Sutton Centre (now an Academy with blazers) as an NQT after my teaching practice and spent three years in the amazing English and Drama department there. The experience shaped my adult self. I know this is supposed to happen at university, but Oxford hadn’t provided that for me. I knew a lot about Jane Austen and even more about Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson, but I had no idea how people really lived in the real world. Suddenly, I was in a properly comprehensive school for the first time in my life – and I loved it.
During this time, between the ages of 21 and 24, I was forced to reassess my past. I would often conceal the fact that I was an Oxford graduate, as it generated prejudices in people I met which caused me to be ashamed of what I thought were unfair advantages in my own background. I went through a period of resentment about my own education, which boiled down to this – I like to think that I got into Oxford on merit. That I would have got in anyway, no matter which school I had gone to. But I would never know if this was true.
If I’m honest, I still haven’t resolved this, although am no longer ashamed of admitting where I went to school or university (hence this post!). But what coalesced in me during that formative period from my PGCE to my first promotion was a bedrock philosophy for my career. This philosophy is simple: that no person should have an unfair advantage through education because of the amount of money their family has.
What I realised in Sutton was that state schools provide an education that private schools cannot – a human education which puts children from all backgrounds into one community, together. My education did not do this – I didn’t learn much about the real world until I was in my twenties. And some contemporaries of mine from school and university, not to mention some government ministers, never learn what it’s like to live a different sort of life or come from a different sort of background. They live their lives in a comfortable, homogenous bubble which corrodes the social fabric of our country.
This realisation continues to push me every day to provide a free state education to every pupil for whom I am responsible which is of the highest quality. I want state schools so good that parents, if they are choosing between state and private, would choose the state. I want state schools so good that private schools go out of business and end that poisonous division in our society which leads good parents like mine to think that they can buy increased chances of success for their children.
I know that I won’t change the world. But I will chip away at my little piece of it, making what difference I can.