Are private-school pupils cleverer? No, just richer

A private scholarship changed David Ejim-McCubbin's life – and made him realise how much money and opportunity matter

Pupil in blazer, holding trophy

I attended a state secondary school before gaining a full bursary to study A levels at Rugby School, an independent boarding school in England. 

I was born into a single-parent home, in an inner-city London borough that ranked as the second most deprived local authority in England, and I attended a secondary school where fewer than one in four pupils achieved a good pass (C grade) or above in five or more of their end-of-senior-school exams (including maths and English). 

I wasn’t born into privilege. The structure of my family was neither uncommon nor unusual, with one in five black-African families in the UK consisting of one lone parent (usually the mother) with a dependent child. 

Outside the front door of my block of flats, I was used to witnessing hostile interactions between local residents and the police. From my bedroom, I had heard a shotgun fire twice at my childhood friend. And on three separate occasions, I passed through the police-cordoned murder scenes for the fatal shootings and stabbings of neighbours and friends.

Three different headteachers during my five-year stay at a failing secondary school sets the scene for this real-life drama.

A life of chaos

As a young black boy, it seemed as though a life of chaos, criminality and substandard grades was inexorably mapped out for me, and for my friends. 

This is the reality that tens of thousands of gifted, intelligent and ambitious young people navigate each day. More tragic is that the young people who exist in the most undesirable boroughs and estates often forget or never get the chance to realise that they are just that – gifted, intelligent and ambitious. 

The suffocating nature of their compounded, multi-layered disadvantage holds them back from realising their potential; their efforts are focused desperately on gasping for survival in their stifling concrete jungles. Wings are clipped. Dreams deferred. Ambition absconded. These young people lose before they have a chance to try. 

Unsurprisingly, many of these young people can be found in local underperforming state schools, where classes are rife with behaviour-management issues.

Students bring the chaos of their home life into the classroom; their schools are planted on the intersections of gang turf and territory. This is where you’ll find these young people. This is where I was found.

A private school bursary

While working at just above average level during my third year of senior school, I was identified as a repeatedly distracted student failing to fulfil my academic potential. The reason for this? A failure to take school seriously enough to care about how the decisions I took then would affect my future. 

Sadly, for my friends and me, school largely functioned as an escape from the dire realities outside its gates. 

My secondary school at the time began working with the Eastside Young Leaders Academy (EYLA), an East London education charity aimed at supporting the academic development and leadership qualities of young black boys. 

Soon, the charity formed a relationship with Rugby School. Together they sought to provide full bursary places into their senior school (for pupils aged 13) and sixth form (for those aged 16) for the boys who would most benefit from it. Propelled by their pioneering headmaster at the time, Patrick Derham, Rugby opened up a world of untapped opportunity.

Rugby School is ranked in the top 100 schools in the UK. I received a rigour to my education unlike anything I’d experienced before. The high-quality teaching had a lasting impression on my ability to think critically and logically while recognising the importance of evidence.

Class sizes at Rugby were less than half those at my previous school. Managing behaviour in a classroom was never an issue for teachers. Many of the staff were experts in their fields; a considerable number had doctorates. 

Money and opportunity

But of even greater significance was my attitude to school and learning. I had a greater self-belief. I felt, for the first time, that my aspiration for the life I wanted to live was matched by teachers and encouraged within the school campus. 

Students at Rugby generally achieved excellent exam results, partly because of the quality of the education they received in the classroom. But it was the acquisition of these other skills, through a kind of osmosis in the corridors, boarding houses and around the school environment, that had the most profound effect on me. I believe that the most compelling argument to make in support of independent schools becoming more accessible to state schools lies here.

I did not possess a special inner gift or sacred talent that afforded me my place at Rugby School. I became saddened at the apparent material difference between the students at Rugby and the students at my previous state school. The difference didn’t lie in natural cognitive ability or innate intellectual capabilities. No, the difference was – and remains – money and opportunity. 

Rugby provided me with an opportunity to be free from circumstantial obstacles, including an unstable neighbourhood and a classroom environment unconducive to learning. Of course, not all state schools are like this. But mine was, and many such schools remain in some of the most deprived areas in the country. 

Fundamentally, we need to give these students more opportunities to have a better chance in life. This is not the only way to achieve social mobility, but for many it may be the only and best way for them. 

Essential to making this work is finding more EYLAs and Patrick Derhams, who passionately seek to draw out the potential within students who are victims of their neighbourhoods. It should be the shared duty of the education sector to provide all with the best possible start in life. Independent schools, I call on you to rise to the challenge and do your part.

David Ejim-McCubbin is senior business manager at the Ministry of Justice

A longer version of this essay is published in The State of Independence: Key Challenges Facing Private Schools Today, edited by David James and Jane Lunnon, and published by Routledge

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