Voices: Kirsty Morris Welsh On The Private/State Education Divide

On the wall above my desk, I have several pictures and quotes, optimistically hung there with the aim of providing guidance and inspiration in times of need. Needless to say, I spend a lot of time scowling at them.They include Grant Snider’s The Nature of Ambition, poetry by the greats – Frost, Plath, Seuss – and a print-out of the Good F**king Design Advice poster. My favourite is a quote by Josie Long, dutifully copied out in biro and positioned directly above my laptop screen: “You have to just try not to be bitter, because no-one ever says, ‘Guess who I’m bringing on the expedition? This bitter, shrivelled-up old husk!’”

I’m roughly a hundred miles away from my desk at the moment, but that quote still sprang to mind this morning when I read a BBC news article entitled ‘Privately educated graduates “earn more” than state school colleagues’.

Now I know what you’re thinking. But on its own, this wasn’t enough to anger me. After all, the headline wasn’t reporting anything I didn’t already know, and such a discovery can hardly be deemed ‘news’.

One line in particular leapt out at me: ‘The government said it was “determined… to ensure every child, regardless of background, reaches their potential” through its policies.’

If that statement elicits any response other than anger (or perhaps laughter) from you, then the only explanation is that you’ve recently been rescued from the Andes, after spending a fraught six years subsisting on nuts and berries. Maybe you think Brown’s still prime minister. Oh dear. Best put the kettle on, because you’ll need a very strong cup of tea when I’ve finished bringing you up to speed.

Perhaps the most galling thing about the entire report was the claim that success and progression are down to ‘soft skills’, such as articulacy and assertiveness.

There’s a lot to be said for assertiveness, but there’s another quality which you definitely can’t pick up at public school: resilience.

When you come from a disadvantaged background, you’re motivated by something very different. You take rejection on the chin, because you’re so used to it. You’ve had to work hard for everything you have, and you live every day in the knowledge that one wrong move could bring it all crashing down around your ears.

Surviving school and getting into a good university isn’t the end game, as this report seems to suggest. It’s just the first step. Once you make it there, you remain markedly different from a lot of your peers, because you don’t have a safety net. If you fail, nobody is going to pay for you to resit, and you will have sunk money into a black hole. If you’re nodding off in a lecture, it’s not because you’re hungover after a wild night out with your mates – it’s because you’re working thirty hours a week to pay your rent while you study.

Try telling those people they’re worth £4,500 less a year.

Against my better judgement, I decided to browse the comments section. I know from long experience that reading comments underneath any online article is akin to looking under a wet stone. Or a bandage. This was no exception. I found the predictable levels of anger amongst the comments, but it was directed at the most bizarre, tenuous places. Teachers. Tube drivers. Communism.

One comment read, “Where would these lefty academics have been without their privileged upbringing at the grammar school and red brick uni? Oh yes, at a polytechnic moaning about being hard done by.”

Far be it from me to despair over the opinions of someone calling themselves ‘I am Smarticus’. Yet this seemed to be the overarching theme of the responses. Words like ‘whinging’, ‘bitter’, ‘jealous’, ‘chip’ and ‘shoulder’ were in abundance.

The only thing worse than the brutal and systematic removal of opportunities is the backlash against people who dare to point out its injustice. When you speak out, you are immediately pigeon-holed. Either you’re a fringe firebrand who’s angry that their entire life has been one long struggle, or a wealthy monster who’s never done a day’s work.

While we’re busy arguing about accents, privilege, and which supermarket we can afford to shop at, the government quietly closes libraries, abolishes maintenance grants and sells off RBS.

There’s a lot for us to be bitter about, but we can’t fall into that trap – there simply isn’t time. We’re too busy playing catch-up.

My theory is that the more bitter we are, the more closely real life will resemble an online comments section. And what kind of dystopian nightmare is that?

Maya Angelou said it better than I could ever hope to: “You should be angry. You must not be bitter. Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. It doesn’t do anything to the object of its displeasure. So use that anger. You write it. You paint it. You dance it. You march it. You vote it. You do everything about it. You talk it. Never stop talking it.”

I really must get round to putting that one above my desk.

Bloom and Wild