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‘We want to redefine what it means to be state-educated in the UK’ | Sophie Pender on the future of the 93% club, her time at UoB and the reality of the state/private school divide

The 93% club has grown from a single stool at the University of Bristol’s Freshers Fair to become one of the UK’s biggest social mobility organisations. Epigram spoke to its founder and CEO, Sophie Pender, to discuss the future of the charity, her experience at Bristol and much more.

By Amaan Ali, Aidan Szabo-Hall & Nel Roden, Co-Editor-in-Chief, Features Editor & Co-Deputy Features Editor

In 2016, Sophie Pender founded the 93% Club at the University of Bristol. What started as a Facebook page for students who felt alienated among their wealthy peers has now grown into a UK-wide network with 51 on-campus societies dedicated to supporting state-educated students. To return to where it all began, Epigram spoke to Sophie Pender about her experience at The University of Bristol, the state and private school divide and the future of the 93% club. 

Having begun her English degree in 2016 when the university’s private school intake was at a record 35.5 per cent, Sophie described her shock at arriving in Bristol to find that many students already knew one another. She elaborated:

‘I had left quite a lot behind when I went to Bristol in terms of my community [...] I grew up in a very working-class community, I didn't have a lot of contacts and felt like when I went to Bristol I had to leave that behind to become this new version of myself. And I think what I realised very quickly was that other people didn't have to make that sacrifice’.

Sophie recalls an early university experience which illustrated the disparity between herself and more affluent students:  

‘In my first year, we were in a group of six girls and we were looking for a property. The group ended up splitting in half, between those who could afford to go through the private letters and those who could only afford to go through Bristol SU. 

‘The girls who could afford it - whose parents could afford to pay agency fees - got a much nicer flat than us. They arranged that completely behind our back. When we raised this with them it began an argument, and one of the girls turned around and said "It's not our fault that your parents can't afford the fees”.’ 

Nearly 40% of Bristol University students came from private schools last year
The University has come in the bottom 15 of UK institutions for its admission of state-school students

Sophie described feeling as though she needed to change aspects of herself such as her accent, hobbies and interests to fit in with her privately educated peers, for whom university appeared to be no more than an extension of the school(s) they’d previously attended. She went on to note that the cliqueness she encountered was ‘Never intentional; it’s human instinct to gravitate towards what you know. Unfortunately, when you're from a working-class background at university, what you know tends to be a very small portion of people’.

On this topic, Sophie went on to explain how this disparity in professional connections became clearer as she began to think about her future career. ‘[W]hen I was starting to think about [careers], that's when I realised that actually it was about who you know, and not what you know.’ She recalls thinking: ‘[I]t doesn't actually matter how smart I am. Because in order to succeed, I need to know X, Y, and Z’. This feeling is unfortunately upheld, with recent studies revealing that just under a third of young workers in the UK secured their job through connections, and that half of the London workforce is comprised of individuals who landed their jobs through personal ties.

Over 93 per cent of the UK population are state-educated. Just 7 per cent of the UK population attended a private school — yet this small elite dominates the country’s top professions. 65% of senior judges, 57% of members of the house of lords, 54% of journalists and 52% of diplomats attended fee-paying institutions.  

Amongst Russell Group universities, a working-class student who attains a first-class degree is less likely to secure an elite job than a more privileged student with a 2:2. Similarly, owing to a lack of family connections and financial support while applying for top jobs, graduates from poorer backgrounds earn half as much as their more affluent peers in their first job after university.  

The 93% club — which defines itself as an ‘old boys network in reverse’ — seeks to redress this imbalance by levelling the playing field for state-educated students. 

The charity has grown from a single stool at the University of Bristol’s Freshers Fair in 2016 to become one of the UK’s biggest social mobility organisations. The charity’s success led to Sophie’s inclusion on the renowned Forbes ‘30 under 30’ list in 2022. 

The overarching aim of the organisation is to challenge negative stereotypes of state-educated individuals and improve the image of state schools through various programs and support networks. Fostering a sense of pride and achievement amongst stated-educated students, Sophie explains how the defining mission of the organisation is to ‘Try and make people state school proud.

Touching on the progression of the 93% club since its founding, Sophie reflected that ‘We’ve gone through a lot of iterations since 2016, but the major goal of the club is to redefine what it means to be state educated within the UK [...] I think for too long, being state-educated has been perceived as something which is embarrassing, or as indicative of having less opportunities and connections.’

Sophie explains how a core aim of the charity is to ensure that state-educated students have access to the same resources and networks of opportunity that have, traditionally, been the preserve of more privileged individuals:  

‘What we want to do is make state education synonymous with having thousands of connections and job opportunities at your fingertips. No matter where you are in the UK, whether you’ve got parents that can help you or not, or whether you go to a good school or a bad school, if you need help with something, you can go online and you will know that there is someone in the 93% club who will be able to help you with any part of your life.’ 

Alongside running regular state-school socials, the charity organises events where leading employers provide members with employability training, CV clinics, mock interviews, LinkedIn headshots, job opportunities and career change support. 

One of the organisation's initiatives is to connect state-educated students and employers. Sophie elaborates on the aim of this scheme: ‘A lot of employers write state-educated students off as they may think they’re not as talented or don’t have enough polish. What we do is introduce employers to state-educated students in a really controlled environment, which allows them to relax, be themselves and show how brilliant they are.’

Sophie explains how this motivation to democratise access to networks, opportunities and employers was partially born out of her own personal experience: 

‘This was really important for me because [...] when it came to writing CVs or applying for jobs, my mum could never help me because she was dyslexic, and she didn’t really have many qualifications. If I knew that there was a pool of people that I could ask for support, that would’ve been amazing.

‘Part of the reason why the state and private school divide is so bad is because you’ve got schools that not only have students with loads of resources but parents who can pitch in to help. At my state school, it would have been so helpful to have a friend whose parents I could’ve tapped up for some support.’ 

Elaborating on the UK’s state and private school divide, Sophie said that ‘I think the problem is that people don’t want to address the reality of the issue, which is that the state and private school divide is a huge vehicle for inequality in this country. It compounds income inequalities, it compounds everything.

‘At the age of 5, this system splits kids up into two buckets — those who attend a private school and those who attend a state school — and determines that they won’t mix until they meet at university. This can result in a huge clash because when they do meet, they’re going to look at each other and think “You’re an alien”.

‘What we need to do as a country is start seeing state education as a social good, and realise that sending kids to state schools, and supporting state schools, is beneficial for everyone. That’s the shift in mindset that we need to achieve. It’s not radical. It’s not about looking at private school kids and thinking “You guys are the worst”. It’s about asking what does a fairer society look like for everyone involved?’

"I'm really keen on making sure the charity is not just about making people get into university or the workplace because I don't think that is a cure for a systemic issue"

Sophie explains how part of the issue is that society tokenistically uses successful working-class individuals as examples of how upward social mobility is attainable — rather than address the root cause of these inequalities:

‘With social mobility, the challenge is that we’re not willing to have these big systemic conversations. All we’re doing is focusing on getting a couple of working-class kids out of their communities — which only serves to further reinforce inequality.’

The 93% club is now a nationwide student network with 51 student societies. Describing the focus of the individual university clubs, Sophie emphasised the importance of grassroots involvement: ‘On the club level, I think it's really important that it remains grassroots and led by the members [...] I haven’t been to Bristol for a very long time now, so who am I to be saying that you should be doing X, Y and Z.’

She highlighted that while the leadership teams within the clubs are heavily supported by the charity, the main goal is ‘Making sure we empower people to deliver impact to keep it grassroots.’ 

Sophie explains how this ensures that the initiatives are driven by those directly involved, which produces a close connection between the individual clubs and their corresponding university: 

‘The delivery of the club’s initiative in Bristol, for example, is going to be different from the delivery at Warwick, or at Oxford. I think that’s a real strength of the club, as it’s tailored to what that university needs.’

Discussing the purpose of the national club, Sophie clarified the organisation’s stance on advocacy: ‘We're not a campaigning charity; if we were, it would be hard to pick a single issue, as there are so many different things we could campaign for. We couldn’t confidently represent as many people as we do if we picked a single issue’

‘In terms of our perspective on campaigning, we’ll continue to be a reactive organisation rather than a proactive one, and we’ll always be led by the members.’

She articulated her vision for the charity, stating, ‘I'm really keen on making sure the charity is not just about making people get into university or the workplace because I don't think that is a cure for a systemic issue.’

At its core, the organisation is focused on addressing systemic inequalities and ensuring that state-educated individuals are valued as highly as those who attended a private school. Sophie explains how this ethos is derived from the reality that ‘There’s a massive imbalance in this country where state-educated people are undervalued.’

Turning to the future, Sophie described how ‘The serious upward trajectory’ of the organisation has prompted her to quit her legal career — which she had previously juggled alongside her executive responsibilities — to become the full-time CEO of the 93% club.

Sophie reflected on the unpredictability of career paths and offered some words of advice for new graduates beginning to forge their own careers: 

‘If you asked me a few months ago what I wanted to be, I would've said managing partner at a law firm. What’s been really lovely about the last 12 months is that I’ve realised that your career is not linear. All I ever wanted to be growing up was a lawyer, and now I’ve quit that career — but I think it’s the best decision I’ve ever made.

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‘If you’re not sure about the career you’re about to embark on post-university, know that it’s going to be fine and you’ll find your feet somewhere along the way.’

Featured image: The 93% club / Students Union UCL