“Isolated” or “Privileged”? The state/independent school divide in Durham’s colleges

By Elliot Burrin, and

Students at Durham University tend to have a passionately close relationship with their colleges. Among this often comes a set of stereotypes and reputations for each college – often to do with the type of schooling its students experienced.

Across the past four years, an average of 43% of all students at Durham University were state-educated, and 30% were independently educated, and 28% were recorded as School N/A. Out of all the domestic students, 61.4% of those who entered the University in 2023 were state-educated. The University also ranked last for social inclusion in The Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2024, although this university ranking mainly looked at the schooling of domestic students.

Palatinate found that there is an uneven distribution of state-educated and independently educated students between Durham’s sixteen undergraduate colleges.

Students on the Bailey are 25% more likely to have been privately educated than on the Hill, whilst students in self-catered colleges are almost 50% more likely to be state-educated than those in catered colleges.

At its most extreme, South College students are 310% more likely to have attended a state school than Hatfielders.

Durham University “randomly” allocates colleges based on “multidisciplinary communities within all colleges and an applicant’s preference”. Students rank all sixteen undergraduate colleges and are allocated one through this process.

“We invite students to express a college preference and try to accommodate these wherever possible,” Durham University said, “while also ensuring each college reflects the full diversity of our student body.”

“Each of our colleges offers a vibrant community of staff and students from across subject areas and backgrounds. We work hard, with student leaders, to nurture an environment where everyone feels supported and valued, enabling them to succeed and thrive.”

61.4% of domestic students at Durham Univesrity were state-educated in 2023

Despite the random allocation, some colleges have a clearly different distribution of schooling. Hatfield College, for example, has been the only college to have a majority of students attend an independent school for the past four years.

The only colleges to have a majority of students be state-educated are catered colleges. South and John Snow lead this, being the most state-educated colleges at 57%.

In the dataset, students, irrespective of their country of origin, were recorded as having attended an ‘independent school’, meaning their school was fee-paying, a ‘state school’, meaning their school (selective or nonselective) received partial or full funding from the government, or as ‘School N/A’. From 2020-2024, an average of 28% of students at each college are recorded as the latter.

Durham University has recognised the need for more students from lower socio-economic status groups in its Access and Participation Plan, whilst also celebrating an increase in students from ACORN 4 and 5 neighbourhoods, from 7% to 2012-13 to 13.4% in 2018/19. ACORN is a way of classifying residential neighbourhoods, with 4 and 5 being the lowest categories.

The Access and Participation Plan, which will be updated by the next academic year, showed that there was minimal difference in academic achievement and progression between socio-economic status groups at Durham.

The University also aims for 39% of student to be from outside of the UK by 2027, which could lead to more students as a whole being privately educated, due to the nature of education systems outside of the UK.

Palatinate spoke to 50 students about their schooling and college experiences. Here’s what they, and the data, had to say:

Hill vs Bailey

Durham colleges can be found on the Hill or the Bailey (with the exception of the College of St Hild and St Bede, which for the purpose of this article is included as a Bailey College due to its geological proximity to the Bailey).

Bailey colleges tend to be more historic – the first Hill College, St Mary’s, was not founded until 1899, a decade before the newest Bailey College, St John’s, in 1909.

Across a four year average, a third (34%) of those on the Bailey attended an independent school. On the Hill, this was 27%.

Some students Palatinate spoke to described a difference in schooling between students on the Hill and Bailey. Scarlett, John Snow, told Palatinate, “I think going to a Hill college has meant that I’ve not felt as isolated, compared to friends from state-schooled backgrounds who are at Bailey colleges.”

“We encourage application from students from all backgrounds with the aspiration, potential to succeed at Durham University.” Durham University said, “We have made great progress in diversifying our student body recent years, such that for academic year 2022/23, around a quarter of our undergraduate home students came to us through widening access schemes.”

“We spend around £14 million a year on access and success initiatives for less advantaged students.”

Despite this, some students explained that they thought schooling did not make a difference: Sam, a state-educated student from Van Mildert, said that “my corridor in first year had people from a variety of backgrounds, and we just got on because of common interests rather than shared pasts,” whilst Grant, a privately-educated student from St John’s, said that they hardly felt the need to disclose their schooling, and that “my experience at college was unaffected”.

Similarly, one student at Trevelyan College said, “it’s not something that ever really affected me in any substantial way in College”.

St John’s is the Bailey college with the highest state schooled population. Grey College and St Aidan’s College are the Hill colleges with the lowest percentage of state schooled students: in the 2023 intake, 35% of each attended a state school. For Grey College, this was a fall from 41% in 2020.

Across the past four years, however, Collingwood College has been the least state-educated Hill college, with an overall average of 36%. Its lowest was the 2022 year of entry – less than a third of current Collingwood second years attended a state school.

Collingwood also has a reputation for being a ‘sporty’ college, which some students linked to the type of schooling received by its students. Margot, an international student at Collingwood, believed her “exposure to a lot of expensive sports and societies with a high upfront cost, like rowing”, helped her to fit in in college.

Catered vs Self-Catered

Four of Durham’s undergraduate colleges are self-catered (five in 2024/25) and two, St Cuthbert’s Society and University College, offer either option, or a mixed-catered package

A student who attended a comprehensive school at Grey College told Palatinate, “I feel like there is probably an unequal balance in the private school to state school ratio at Grey and other catered colleges that haven’t been addressed by the University.”

Students at self-catered colleges are almost 50% more likely to have attended a state school than those in catered colleges.

Catered colleges also cost more: in 2024/25, catered colleges will charge £2,940 for the 39-week catering deal, totalling to £98 per week. This is over triple the Save the Student estimate, which said that students would spend an average of £31 per week on food shopping in 2024.

Margot, Collingwood, said that she had not considered that there would be a financial barrier to participating in college. “I’ve been able to afford to go to any balls or formals I’ve been interested in without worrying about finances, and assumed generally so would other people,” she told Palatinate, “even though with a bit of thought that’s obviously not the case.”

Only four colleges had the majority of their students come from state schools in an average calculated across the past four years: South (57%), John Snow (57%), Josephine Butler (54%), and Stephenson (51%). All four are self-catered.

Whilst only 19% of students attended an independent school at John Snow over the past four years, Camille, John Snow, said that attending a fee-paying school made a difference to her experience in College because she “made more friends who were from a similar background.”

Do Sports Matter?

Aliza, Josephine Butler, said, “before coming to university, I never really understood the impact of a private school education. I just thought, well, we all got into the same place, so what was the point?”

“I think where it plays one of the biggest roles is in societies and extracurriculars,” Aliza concluded. A quarter of the 50 students Palatinate spoke to raised sports as a reason why schooling could impact experiences in college.

One student at Collingwood College told Palatinate that they felt that “the college system is tailored to make private school people feel more comfortable,” particularly through sports.

“Especially at Collingwood with the huge sport culture, it sort of feels like a class thing,” they said. “Private schools put a lot more into sport than state schools, especially certain sports like rowing.”

Multiple students mentioned rowing as impacted by the state versus private school divide. This is visible on a national level: 83% of the school rowing clubs registered with British Rowing from 2019-2023 were linked to fee-paying schools.

One privately educated Grey College student said, “having boarded at school it made it really easy to get used to living in college and college sport.”

Image: Thomas Tomlinson

In 2022, the Telegraph reported that 46% of national school sport competitions are won by independent schools.

One student from St Cuthbert’s Society said they were “proud” to have come from a state-educated background, but felt “disadvantaged” in sports and socials. They explained that they had “never felt so out of place before” in some sports socials, but that “I’ve since joined the badminton team where I feel comfortable being both bad at the sport and relaxed in the social atmosphere.”

However, whilst they felt sports were where the schooling divide was most prevalent, they believed that “going to a state sixth form college has given me an academic advantage in independent study”.

Around 75% of students in Durham do some sort of sport. Despite this, an investigation by Palatinate last year found that the cost of participation in sport was increasing “at all levels.” The University does award around 12 scholarships in sport each year.

One student at St John’s praised the College’s variety of opportunities for sport: having limited chances to play sport competitively at their comprehensive school, “being in a traditional historic college I feel has really opened me to these things that I never got to experience.”

Another St John’s student, who was privately educated, said, “my JCR has done extensive work to create a classless student culture.”

St John’s is the catered college with the highest proportion of state-educated students, at 49%. Last year, it launched the David Wilkinson First Generation Scholarship, which provides two scholars up to half of the College accommodation costs for their first year. They also subsidise the cost of postgraduate students who become Resident Tutors, and offer College Internships for students seeking professional experience.

“We are determined to continue progress in widening access to and participation in higher education in the years ahead”

Durham University

George Connolly, Vice-Principal at St John’s College, told Palatinate, “these initiatives help our students to fully participate in all that student life in Durham has to offer, enriching both their university experience and the College itself.

“We are both proud of these initiatives and are continually seeking innovative ways to widen participation and create opportunities for all our students.”

Durham University similarly work to “recruit pupils from state schools across our region, which has the country’s lowest A-Level attainment rate and lowest higher education progression rate amongst 18-year-olds.”

They told Palatinate, “This is why we are expanding our work with state primary and secondary schools, further education colleges and other North East universities, to raise aspirations and improve levels of attainment from an early age.

“We are determined to continue progress in widening access to and participation in higher education in the years ahead.”

Analysis: The Hatfield Exception

Those at Hatfield College are half as likely to have attended a state school compared to other Durham colleges. The College was originally founded as an affordable alternative to the lavish lifestyle in University College – so how did it become the most privately-educated college at Durham?

The College is dominated by independently educated students: for the past four years, Hatfield has been the only college in Durham where over half of its students have been privately educated. This was at its highest in 2021, when 62% of students who joined that year were privately educated. In 2023, 57% of Hatfielders attended an independent school.

One Hatfield student who attended a fee-paying school told Palatinate that, “one of the first questions asked during Freshers’ was ‘what school did you go to?’” This question is most commonly associated with privately educated students, who tend to be more familiar with other independent schools outside of their local area.

Another said, “I have found it fairly easy to fit in purely based on the fact that I went to public school.” Whilst they said they had only met “three or four people that were not privately educated” in their year group in Hatfield, they did also say, “I don’t think that this necessarily means that state-educated people don’t ‘fit in’. I don’t think that most people I know really care what kind of school you went to.”

“However, I do think that there is a minority that do look down on people that went to state school, you notice it mostly through the way people speak about them or through making ‘jokes’ etc., rather than through blatantly exclusionary behaviour.”

A Hatfield student who attended both state school and an elite private school during his education also believed that not enough action was taken to prevent this behaviour. He told Palatinate, “[The divide] never really impacted me. But I can completely understand how it could be intimidating to some students from state school.”

One Hatfield student who attended a state school told Palatinate that the dining room is where they most “prominently” see how the difference in education impacts their experience in the College.

“The groups are very obviously split between the private and state school students,” they said, “I think making friends was particularly hard as a state school student.” For this student, it was their “clothes”, accent, and “apparent ‘Otherness’” that made them feel separate from the privately-educated students at Hatfield.

“I have found it fairly easy to fit in purely based on the fact that I went to public school”

Palatinate spoke to one student who is seeking to move to a different college due to the impact that their experience at Hatfield College had on them. Coming from a state school, they said, “Something I’ve found unique to Hatfield is the absolute awareness of your background. As someone who comes from a very poor area, it was never something I’d thought about before I joined Hatfield.

“People here love to make a big deal about [your background], even if some mean it innocently. My experiences have ranged from people asking me what school I went to (expecting somewhere they would actually know) to hearing people say they’d never date someone from state school.”

Durham University said, “We expect all our students to act responsibly and respectfully at all times. Where we are made aware of behaviour that falls short of these expectations, we will take firm and swift action.”

Image: Thomas Tomlinson

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