The School Divide – State vs. Public

By Gabriel CallaghanFourth Year Physics.

If there were ever a Durham topic to discuss, it would be state versus public schools. Durham University’s statistics show that 62.51% of students were educated in the state system. That leaves a significant proportion of students who were educated in fee-paying public schools. Interestingly, Durham’s statistics show that 56.32% of Classicists and 52.14% of Anthropology students were privately educated. However, only 16.67% of Physics students and 14.58% of Computer Science students were privately educated.[1]

This raises my first point. Subjects such as Classics and Anthropology are not taught in state schools. I certainly didn’t hear of the Iliad at my school and I didn’t even understand the meaning of ‘Anthropology’.

At state school, I found that the emphasis was placed on exam results – nothing else really mattered. All recourses were poured into the core subjects. Ofsted inspections are the hard currency of state schools, whereas the independent sector seems to emphasise a well-rounded intellect studying a broad range of subjects.

I do find the above statistics about Physics and Computer Science interesting. GCSE Physics is boring – there isn’t a way to make optics ray diagrams or uncertainty analysis fascinating. Only at degree level does Physics become interesting. Quantum Physics is stimulating – something that would certainly capture interest! I can see how a debate of Aristotelian and Plato metaphysics in a small class can be made inspiring, even at GCSE level. The crucial capturing of interest at GCSE level is lost. It’s purely by accident that I’m doing a Physics degree.

However, extra-curricular vs. co-curricular seems to sum up the main differences. State schools use the term ‘extra-curricular’ and public schools use ‘co-curricular’. ‘Extra-curricular’ implies that sport and music are afterthoughts whereas ‘co-curricular’ implies that they are an integrated part of the educational experience. At my school, the ‘extra-curriculars’ were reliant on the good will of teachers and there was little funding for them. From experience, I find that privately-educated students find it easier to adapt to Durham life with all the activities available outside of study. It’s something that is alien to us in state schools because it’s not a ‘tick box’ on the national curriculum.

At public schools, people seem to pledge allegiance to their institution. However, at my state school, we pledged allegiance to our classmates and teachers. Some people had no problems making a mortice and tenon joint in the workshops and could cut anything with a band saw; some were academic. None of my friends went to university so you encounter a wider range of life outcomes as opposed to a one-dimensional public-school sense.

The social backgrounds were diverse. At Durham, it’s rather homogenous, but at my school, many pupils turned up to school without breakfast and lived in poverty. Nevertheless, we all wore the same uniform, went to the same lessons and were friends with each other. For those six hours every day, we were all equal.

We learned how to communicate with a range of people as well as the true meaning of friendship. Some of us have been lucky enough to get a good degree and have the academic qualifications to go into excellent jobs. I feel we have a better education having encountered a variety of backgrounds, rather than just a subset of people. It was a culture shock coming to Durham and hearing all the Southern accents.

Our school accepted everyone. People worked hard at school to do well for themselves regardless of social class. We were in cramped classes of 32 with the furnishings falling apart, but we were taught that if we wanted something in life, we would have to work for it. The majority of people were aiming for vocational careers such as bricklaying and hairdressing. In public schools, the emphasis seems to be on going to university and into some ‘acceptable’ job.

However, I feel that both school systems fail students. The public-school system conforms to a stereotype – that is, the pressure to achieve expected A*s. But the state school system is not for everyone either. Not everyone is academic and some of the teaching content is frankly useless. I do a Physics degree, and you would think that if anyone needs to use circle theorems, it would be me. But I have never used them since GCSE. Does someone wanting to be a hairdresser need to learn mathematical proofs? No. They tend to misbehave in class ruining everyone else’s education.

The skills they need to succeed in their careers are budgeting and learning how to run a business. We need people who have technical skills as well, which are not taught in schools. Instead, they are learning about ‘An Inspector Calls’ which is of no use to them. We’re setting up people to fail with such an academically-based education system.


Want to share your thoughts? We actively encourage discussion and debate and would love to hear your opinion! If you’d like to write a full response, or if you have any thoughts on this article that you would like to share with us, please comment below or email

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s