Students playing cricket outside a private school

Private schooling is one of the most divisive social issues of our time, with privately schooled pupils accounting for 6.5% of all school children in the UK. As of 2011, five schools in England accounted for more Oxbridge entrants over three years than nearly 2,000 others collectively. Only a casual glance at the cabinet should be enough to convince even the hardiest pedant of the benefits to a private education. Privately schooled children are a small minority, yet they do disproportionately better than those in the state education system.

This simple fact leads to one of the more popular criticisms levelled at private schooling, that it is both socially divisive and unfair and allows a parent’s wealth to determine their offspring’s life chances. It would obviously be better if everyone received the same standard of education, so the argument goes, private schools should be abolished. Problem is who would such a closure benefit? Closure may actually be to the detriment of students in both sectors, as closing private schools will force more students to join the state sector. It also ignores how polarised the state education system is; more competition for the best places will lead more children to go to bad schools.

As a society we need to increase social mobility and the route to mobility is education. Closing private schools enables teachers and parents alike to overlook the widespread failure of the state system which makes it incapable of competing effectively. It also solves nothing; if the real issue is equality of opportunity then the best state schools should also be closed. After all, they also present an ‘unfair’ advantage. It is much more uncomfortable to recognise that the reason most private schools exist is not as part of a wider conspiracy against the disadvantaged, but because much of the state’s provision is so inadequate.

We also need a cultural change, one that embraces more academic extracurricular activities. To move away from the sort of reverse snobbery that rejects proposals to set up debating societies in schools, as condemning state school pupils to receive a poor version of “what the posh kids get.” Debating societies are a good example of an initiative that potentially provides multiple benefits, including increased confidence, improved communication skills and the ability to present and counter arguments on the fly. Even better they are basically free, the only overhead is time.

If we want to tackle inequality and social division and live in society where our start in life is determined by the talents we were born with and not the wealth we were born in to, we need to improve our education system so that every school is able to achieve parity with the private sector. We need to accept that much of our state education system is poor, amply demonstrated by most parents’ reaction to the Ofsted classification ‘requires improvement.’ We need more teachers and smaller class sizes, but we also need better teachers with more rigorous training. Over the past decade there have been continuous allegations of grade inflation and lowering standards, despite massive investment in education. What is needed is cultural and systemic change. Until then private schools stay, as an ever present if uncomfortable reminder of how far we still have left to go.