As a scholarship student, I take issue with the fact that many regard independent schools like mine as elitist intuitions, reserved only for the privileged few. Although it might be fair to say that there a cluster of independent schools that are openly elitist, in my experience to say all schools are the same is a sweeping generalisation.
As a scholarship student at UWC Atlantic College I can say that social and financial standing played no part in my attendance at an independent school. Like the majority of my classmates, I secured admission on my own merits; and like every member school of United World College's movement, UWC Atlantic College's mission statement is based on mutual responsibility and respect, intercultural understanding, compassion and respect. Does this sound elitist? It may sound like idealism, but that too is part of the philosophy that underpins my school.
Maybe my background will demonstrate how it is possible for an independent school to be non-elitist. Prior to attending an independent school on the south Wales coast, I attended a state comprehensive school in my home city of Liverpool, where I received an average education and achieved good grades in my GCSEs. I would have been happy to stay there. However, when my headmaster suggested that I should apply to a school that placed community service as high as academic success, a school he had formerly taught at, I thought it was worth a look.
Now it probably won't help my cause to say that when I arrived for my interview weekend at UWC Atlantic College, I was presented with a school housed in a 12th century castle. However, I discovered that the gothic exterior was home to a level playing field for all students. Through various tours and interviews I quickly discovered just how anti-elitist independent schools could be.
I'm in my second year, studying for my International Baccalaureate (IB) alongside classmates who represent one of the most culturally diverse cohorts imaginable -from UK residents, to scholarship students from some of the most poverty stricken and war torn regions in the world, but I would challenge anyone to pick out where any student calls home. It would be an even greater challenge to identify the fee-paying students from any of the bursary students who make up 50% of the college's student body. My school provides equal opportunities for anyone regardless of where they are from and has certainly opened my eyes to the diversity that exists in the world today - you quickly learn to accept people for who they are, they could be the son of a diplomat or a refugee from the middle-east. It makes no difference. We don't ignore these differences totally; in many cases we discuss them openly, that way we learn from each other.
While as a cohort we are incredibly physically active, at my school you're not likely to find many people playing 'elite' sports on our campus grounds. We're more likely to be spending our afternoons training to be lifeguards or working outdoors on environment projects in the local community. Personally, when I do play football, I'm usually teaching pupils at the local primary school. When you attend a school which is part of an international group dedicated to promoting social responsibility, it's no surprise to learn that many students' future plans involve working on behalf of charities and philanthropic organisations.
Personally, I have found my time in independent education to have been one of the most inclusive and enlightening experiences of my life so far. Before I joined UWC Atlantic College my career goals would probably have been to become a doctor and I still might. But, after two years of living in a culturally diverse environment sharing a dorm with people from Japan, Norway and Uruguay and counting fellow pupils from Cambodia and Central Africa as my friends - I think I want to travel. I want to see some of the places I've learned so much about from people I never would have met had I not attended an independent school that brought people together.
While there may be some truth in saying that some private schools are elitist, it is a misconception to say that all independent schools are the same.