Feeling not so stately after state school

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Hailie Pentleton

Hailie Pentleton looks at how being educated by a state school rather than by a private institution has affected her university experience.

After the initial joy of accepting my place at the University of Glasgow had faded, I felt an odd sense of guilt. When I first mentioned the idea of applying to my family and friends, I was reassured, more times than I could count, that I was practically guaranteed a place based on the fact that I am a disabled student from a deprived area. I made a number of jokes at my own expense about how “lucky” it was that I had been born poor and disabled. But beneath the jokes lay a deep rooted insecurity: the belief that I had not earned my place through my capabilities but rather it had been offered to me because of my disadvantages. Though incredibly grateful that programmes such as the “Widening Participation Programme” exist, I could not help but feel disheartened by the knowledge that I was perhaps awarded my place out of, what I perceived to be, pity.

I developed a sense of imposter syndrome in the months leading up to my start date, fully convinced that I was not as smart as I had been “pretending” to be. A friend made the point that, although I did fill some quotas, I had worked harder than “spoon-fed” private school students, who “had everything handed to them.” Though I understood her point, I could not help but wish that I could have been one of those students; that I had attended a school that guaranteed me academic success from day one. Like my friend, I had internalised the idea that all private school students were rich, posh and entitled. I thought that they were better educated and generally smarter than my state school peers, and that the price of a private education also covered the cost of a lifelong superiority complex. Yet, despite the array of negative things I could conjure up about them, I could not help but want to be amongst them, to be preparing to attend university without battling an intense feeling of inferiority.

This desire, and perhaps envy, was heightened after a brief interaction I had at a local students event a couple of weeks prior to starting my first year. That day involved me meeting a lot of people and at one point the girl next to me mentioned that everyone in her class had achieved straight A’s before moving on as though nothing important had been said. Immediately, I felt a knot in my stomach. The insecurity surrounding my abilities resurfaced and consumed me for the following two weeks.

I attended school in a constituency wherein 28% of children will grow up in poverty. As well as providing its students with an education, my school also provided breakfast for those who would otherwise go hungry and struggle to concentrate. Guidance teachers often doubled as therapists, having to receive regular training to combat a number of complex concerns unknown to the halls of most private schools. Though dedicated to delivering the highest level of education they could, it would be absurd to expect a string of straight A students given the numerous welfare concerns that their teachers have piled on their desks each week.

Though incredibly grateful for the compassion shown by the teaching staff in my state school – they have taught me an invaluable degree of empathy from being surrounded by so many complex circumstances – I cannot help but wish I had been born successful. How wonderful it must have been to have been groomed for success before knowing the definition of the word.

I ought to clarify that I do not hold the same naïve views about private school students as I did before starting university, nor do I believe it automatically makes your life better. Ironically, my closest friends at university all attended private schools and have painted these institutions as pressure cookers, devoid of opportunity for critical thinking at the risk of failure. Nevertheless, it would also be naïve to ignore the financial security, unique employment opportunities, and general reassurance that comes with attending one of these elite institutions. I still believe I would have felt a lot more comfortable about attending the University of Glasgow had I had a higher level of certainty about my abilities.

Yet even with these views I hold, I do attend the University of Glasgow, and without the kickstarter advantages private school children automatically obtain,  I’d like to think I’m thriving where I once thought I would fail. Despite not having access to private tutoring, reputable summer internships, and so-forth, I sit in the same lecture halls as those who did benefit from the likes of those, as do many of my state educated peers. Though I was once quick to note the disadvantages of my background, I find myself more appreciative than ever of the work ethic, determination, and insight that my public school experience gifted me. In an ideal world, all young people would have access to the same level of education and teaching quality, and I truly hope that we continue to work towards that goal. Sadly, that is not the reality we are living in. So for now, I urge anyone who has ever felt embarrassed, inferior, or insecure about their public school background to take a moment and appreciate the institutions that facilitated our journeys to where we are now, and the unique benefits that they provide.


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