Bridging the Gap

By Anya Nedungadi | Oct 15, 2021

  When we talk about the school system in the UK, most of us are speaking from a limited viewpoint: our own schooling experience. This is not directly our fault. It is a consequence of our socio-economically segregated schools and society. Data indicates that only 6.5% of the student population in the UK is educated in the independent sector. Although that number is very small, students from independent schools make up 43.2% and 39% of Oxford and Cambridge undergraduates respectively. We are disproportionately represented.

  No one can deny the value of an Oxbridge education and students at K12 state schools deserve a fair shot at that opportunity. Yet that 6.5% in the independent sector are trapped in a bubble; for the most part, they are unaware of the inequality that exists within our school system. Or if they are aware of these inequities, they often ignore them.

  Why? Because it is hard to face the fact that you are privileged—that you were born with an automatic advantage over your peers.

  I should know. I am one of them. I am a 16-year-old, South Asian, Muslim woman living in London. I should have all the social disadvantages in the world, but I don’t. My financial privilege has shielded me from extensive racism, poverty, school cuts, gang violence, the list goes on. Yet although that privilege benefited me in many ways, it also shielded me from the reality of the world that I live in, specifically, the reality of the inequality between private and state schools.

  My personal shield was lifted when I joined the Camden Youth Council; a political group for students in Camden hoping to make a change. I made friends from all different backgrounds and heard strikingly personal human experiences. A sister loses her brother to gang violence after he is caught up in the wrong crowd at his local state school. A struggling student feels like he doesn’t receive the chance to talk to his teacher one on one because of his large class size, so he is falling behind in his class. A 14-year-old girl doesn’t eat during school holidays because her parents don’t have enough money to feed both her and her younger brother. Personal hardships such as these are rampant in our society, but I was oblivious to this because I had been trapped in my bubble. This is what segregation within the school system causes. A lack of awareness. Without a ‘Camden Youth Council’ experience for everyone, the veil will not be lifted.

  I didn’t only hear personal experiences; I learned the in’s and out’s of state school education. If any of my personal experiences have taught me anything, it would be this: our school system in the UK is inherently unequal, and this is what fuels segregation and prevention of awareness.

  The state school system is designed to be equitable; each pupil ‘receives’ money from the government-funded per pupil expenditure which makes up the total funding for the school (excluding additional funding for students who have special needs, students who are on the free school meals program and the National Early Years Budget). Theoretically, this works. This ‘system of equality’ makes it too easy for privileged students to not recognise the reality of the deep inequality lines.

  But they exist. And when we whittle it down, there are ultimately three main reasons why inequality exists within the school system. The first reason is the location of state schools.

  While state schools receive equitable funding from the government, they do not enjoy a level playing field. A school’s location shapes the hardships that students bring to their schools and the resources that schools have at their disposal to address them.

  One of the main challenges in the UK is food security. In the UK, 19% of children under age 15 live with a respondent who is moderately or severely food insecure, 10% live with a respondent who is severely food insecure. However, the distribution of students who face food insecurity at home is unequal; state schools located in high-income neighbourhoods may not have to address this challenge to the extent that state schools located in low-income neighbourhoods might face. This is when the ‘Free school meals’ program comes into play. Children coming from households that earn a maximum income of £7,400 after tax are eligible for free school meals. This program has been a success; however, it fails to take into account the food insecurity that will continue during non-school hours. Food insecurity puts stress on studentsand puts stress on a school’s faculty and resources.

  State school location may also shape the level of private funding that a particular school receives. Why? Schools located in high-income neighbourhoods have the added benefit of families that have the financial capital to conduct fundraisers and donate to their children’s state schools. More and more often parents are expected to make regular contributions to their school, making up for running costs, classroom materials and other resources that the schools cannot cover due to cuts made to government funding. This can create potent problems for schools in low-income neighbourhoods that are receiving scarce donations.

  This is how inequality is created in the state school system. But what about the private school system?

  The only explanation for this disproportion again comes down to funding. Private schools have smaller classroom sizes because they can afford the salaries of more teachers, therefore, the students receive more attention from their teachers. Private schools have more resources because they can afford supplies that state schools can’t. The list goes on and on.

  Our school system is inherently unequal. The first step to combatting that is through raising awareness. We must join to bridge the gap between the private schools and the public schools and make friends across these barriers. We need the masks to come off and integration to occur before we can all work together to push back against inequality.  
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