Ihave lived in Britain – mainly on, sometimes off – for 25 years, but there are still two things about this country I don’t understand. Number one: why do so many of your classic TV shows have such bizarre titles? Last Of The Summer Wine? Only Fools And Horses? Can you imagine what it was like to move here in the 90s, from the land of the prosaically titled Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place, to a country where one of the most popular shows was called Drop The Dead Donkey?
Second, how a country so obsessed with class can still be so weird about privilege. More specifically, how those who benefit most from this aforementioned privilege can live in complete denial of it, insisting their success is down entirely to their glittering talent.
Two reports came out recently, confirming – OMG! Who’d-a thunk it? – that going to private school is quite beneficial to a person’s life prospects. Turns out those parents are paying £12,000 to £30,000 a year for more than the cute uniforms. First, a Durham University study found that independently educated students gain a boost equivalent to two extra years of schooling compared with state school students. Meanwhile, the Sutton Trust’s study confirmed that the privately educated still dominate the leading professions. Newspapers reported this in shocked tones, but given that 51% of print journalists were privately educated themselves, I mean “shocked” in the way Casablanca’s Captain Renault was shocked – shocked! – to find there was gambling going on at Rick’s Cafe while he collected his winnings. Shocked like David Cameron was in January, when he suddenly realised that Oxbridge isn’t all that diverse. This would be the David Cameron who studied at Brasenose College, which has the poorest record of admitting state school pupils of all Oxford colleges. But I digress.
Life is unfair, and I benefit from this unfairness every day. Even besides being born in the era of modern medicine and Ryan Gosling’s face, I went to a private school. As much as I’d like to think my career is all thanks to my special snowflake qualities, it’s difficult, when looking around at the rest of my heavily privately-educated profession, to draw any conclusion other than that my schooling might have helped me.
And yet, some people still refuse to see that. This week, the privately-educated actor Tom Hollander insisted that the fact Old Etonians and Harrovians are represented to a frankly absurd extent in the current crew of successful young actors was down merely to “fashion”, not privilege. Old Etonian Damian Lewis made this point even more forcefully last year, dismissing the preponderance of his old school chums among the acting community as “coincidental and nothing more”. The real question is, he mused, “Do people succeed in spite of [Eton] or because of it?” Before you have time to cry, “My God, Damian, however did you manage to overcome the burden of being educated at one of the most famous schools in the world? Truly your life story could be the sequel to The Color Purple”, we must turn to another example. A privately-educated English columnist recently wrote, “To have been privately educated in Britain in the 21st century is to be a pariah” and compared it to being “Jewish or crippled or gay” in an earlier era. Once again, we can only wonder at how someone has managed to survive the holocaust of the privately educated in order to achieve their professional dream.
I understand why people say crap like this. No one likes to think that their success has at least as much to do with their parents forking out as it does their own hard work. Jibes about private education are too often taken personally, rather than as a comment on an unjust system. To deny the part your childhood advantage plays in your adult success – maybe out of ego, maybe out of embarrassment – is like Donald Trump claiming he’s a self-made billionaire while neglecting to mention he inherited untold millions from his father. In other words, it veers very close to bigotry wrapped in the cloak of narcissism – you’re saying that anyone who doesn’t match your achievements, with or without your advantages, is simply a useless potato head. Bad luck, peasants!
In my experience, private education bestows boys with self-confidence and social ease (although they’re always happier with their own kind, hence their tendency to hire each other). It gives girls self-loathing and eating disorders or, alternatively, brassy bossiness and a belief they can change the world. What it should give them, but rarely does, is an awareness of how much of a boost they’ve been given, and how many people out there with equivalent abilities don’t get this advantage. Turns out £30,000 a year can buy you quite a lot in life, but not self-awareness.