Grammar schools: stuck in the middle
By writing us off as irrelevant ignores the complexity of educational disparity
Michaelmas week 3, doing fines in someone's room before Friday Life. Someone piped up 'Fine if you went to state school!' Half the room cheered. We nudged our private school friends and laughed feeling smug our parents didn't pay for our education.
Then someone shouted, 'Although, fine if you didn't go to private or a grammar.' About 4 people raised their glasses to drink. Me included, hung our heads a little bit embarrassed by being so proud of being state when that wasn't quite the case. Of all the anecdotes I can muster from Cambridge, this one really shows the different education backgrounds of my peers and the attitudes we have about them.
Being a grammar school student here is odd. The debate around private/state always uncomfortably passes over your head – with some students forgetting that schools like yours even exist. I didn't quite realise how alien the concept was to some people until I got to Cambridge when I grew up in a primary school world where the 11+ was always a concept floating on the edge of the horizon.
There are 163 state run grammar schools in the UK, they make up less than 5% of state schools and even less when independent fee paying schools are brought in. So it isn't particularly common and really it's not surprising people forget about them – they're almost a relic from the 1950s. And yet they account for 16.4% of Cambridge students.
We kind of have a foot in both camps. On the one hand they are state schools. No financial privilege was needed to get in and many who got in would just have been sent to local comprehensive had they failed. Although not as diverse in background compared to normal state schools there is still a mix of students. However, the privilege can't be ignored. They often snap up the area's better teachers, provide more opportunities and have more support for students wanting to get into O*ford or Cambridge.
So, where do we stand? It can be a bit isolating being from a grammar school background – you don't fit comfortably on either side. You get no discrimination for it, nor abuse; but at Cambridge, somewhere where class and your background can account for a lot of your identity, it's just a bit strange. People seem to see you as one or the other. They just think of you as having gone to a comprehensive or academy – until you bump into 4 people from your old school in one smoking area.
But the issue with grammar schools is not just about education, but region. Over half of grammar schools are in the south east and the influx of pupils will have some sort of impact on the fact it's very tempting to sigh in fresher's week as the nth person has to clarify what exact part of London they're from. If anything, has that got something to do with why grammar school students appear sidelined its because we often blend in with the general middle class southern crowd. It makes sense that in debate the grammar school perspective isn't sought out – some may argue it's already catered for.
What to do then? Well, it isn't worth being ashamed of your educational background as no one gets anywhere doing that. It's important to get involved in the state/private Cambridge debate because being from a grammar school you can have a different perspective on the argument. You have privilege that needs to be checked but ultimately come from a state school background that had to struggle with funding cuts like any other.
And ultimately as conversation about education and the state/private issue rages on hopefully past school identity will mean a lot less. After all, just because you knew a good handful of those in Lola's smoking terrace back in the noughties, it shouldn't mean you get more out of Cambridge – should it?