Private education’s role in Durham University disgrace

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: David Tomlinson/Alamy Stock Photo</span>
Photograph: David Tomlinson/Alamy Stock Photo

As one of those concerned about the social and psychological damage caused by class privilege in British society, I am grateful to the Durham University student Lauren White for exposing the abuse she and others have received from some of their fellow students (Students from northern England facing ‘toxic attitude’ at Durham University, 19 October). However, your report does not identify the factor that most, if not all, the abusers will have had in common: their private education.

For those with experience of universities with similar social compositions to Durham, these students’ experiences will be all too familiar. With the products of private schools constituting well in excess of 30% of students at universities such as Oxford, Bristol, Exeter, St Andrews, Edinburgh and Cambridge, as well as Durham – even though they represent only 7% of the relevant age cohort – the arrogant “culture of condescension” that is a by-product of the private schools’ informal role in the reproduction of class privilege, will be daily in evidence.

Social science research has shown that there are strong linkages between private education and the reproduction of class inequality. If Boris Johnson and his ministerial friends were serious about improving the lives of those in northern England who voted for them in 2019, then dealing with private education – and thus its labour market and cultural consequences – would be on their agenda. But with the privately educated chumocracy in control, there’s no chance of that.
Jeffrey Henderson
Professor emeritus of international development, University of Bristol

• I was saddened to read your account of social discrimination at Durham University. My own shibboleth came in the early 1970s in my first university seminar. I was in a group of three, with one other working-class student and one who spoke with received pronunciation. We were each asked to read a poem by the 16th-century poet Sir Thomas Wyatt. While the student with RP was congratulated on her performance, my Lancashire accent and that of the student from Birkenhead led to our tutor telling us that we “weren’t fit” to read English poetry.

It took me a long time to realise that there were other reasons for his scorn. After all, we were barbarians at the gates of learning, receiving maintenance grants yet obviously unable to speak the Queen’s English. But by then I’d walked away in disgust, working at a series of labouring jobs before re-enrolling elsewhere to complete my degree. How little seems to have changed.
Prof Graham Mort
Burton-in-Lonsdale, Lancashire

• I walked into a comprehensive school down the Old Kent Road in London to teach in 1958 after an interviewer at Oxford University‘s careers department had said to me: “So, Mr Clements, do you mean to tell me that you will not be teaching the sons of English gentlemen?” Where have we got to?
Simon Clements
Former Her Majesty’s inspector of schools, Sheffield

• Lauren White’s experience at Durham University is shocking. But not surprising to residents who live in the city. The university is ranked second worst in the UK for “social inclusion”. Despite outreach programmes to attract north-eastern applicants, numbers remain very low. I wonder why. Stories like Lauren’s cement local opinions of the university being for “arrogant hoorays”. This should be a wake-up call for the university to move beyond published platitudes.
David Duell

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