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Want equality of opportunity? Keep private schools.

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.

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  1. To pick up on your description of state education as “inadequate”, I know many people who would confidently say their experience of state education was extremely valuable. I think that was quite a sweeping statement to make, and to be honest is quite dismissive of the thousands of teachers and pupils working hard towards making our state education system good!

  2. I definitely agree that there is need for a culture change in attitudes to education, but I think where I fundamentally disagree is that this can be achieved while we still prop up the old systems of privilege that public schools embody. While I understand your point about public school being a reminder of what ‘good’ education can look like, underwriting the failings of the state system, I think that while we still have public school we essentially condone the principle that someone can buy their way into better education, and therefore better prospects in life – which, for me at least, will never produce a fair, progressive system.

    Really thought provoking article, shall be mulling this one over for a while.

    Harriet (Culture Ed)

  3. I agree so much with the title of this article. The last sentence, however, sees a turn around in argument: “Until [cultural and systematic change] private schools stay, as an ever present if uncomfortable reminder of how far we still have left to go.”

    I don’t see why private schools have to be an “uncomfortable reminder of how far we still have left to go”. It seems to be a socialist call for an attack on the private sector. Here’s what I think: If I ever have the honour of being able to call myself a father, I’ll want my kid(s) to go to the best school, and make the most of it. If it’s a state school, then great; if it’s a private school, the same applies.

    In Britain there seems to be a great lot of people who despise private education because it’s “elitist”. The points that I put to them are: 1) If you could afford it, wouldn’t it actually be okay in your mind? And 2) Surely private schools provide a different option anyway, and don’t have to impact negatively on the actual education of state school pupils.

    The private sector is a superb part of any society – it creates wealth, provides amazing services, and generates jobs and growth – so, for goodness’ sake, let’s not be hating on those who choose to spend additional money on a good deal. Let’s not slag off those who can afford these services just because there are those who are not able to at the moment – it’s cheap class warfare and an assault against aspiration.

    I think that state and private sectors can co-exist quite happily, and that prejudice & naive class judgements are really what need to be tackled.

  4. Having attended both a public school and a state school, it’s clear to me that public schools provide certain advantages that simply couldn’t exist in state schools (e.g. smaller classes/you are pushed more to achieve academically because the parents are extremely conscious of the importance of education in relation to job prospects)

    But I don’t see what the removal of public schools would achieve.
    It’s true that it does create a cycle whereby the wealthiest people send their children to the best schools who in turn tend to achieve the best grades, get the best jobs, and then send their children to private schools etc etc. But it’s a privilege that can, potentially, be earned by anyone.

    Instead, I think we should be much more worried about the government’s ‘academy’ school agenda, whereby teachers have no financial security (the academies themselves can dictate their pay), schools are forced to doggedly compete with each other (in my opinion, education shouldn’t be reduced to a competitive, reductive set of league tables and numbers), and religious academies are free to teach creationism in their classes.

  5. Just to touch on what Harriet is saying, I would disagree with this statement, “I think that while we still have public school we essentially condone the principle that someone can buy their way into better education, and therefore better prospects in life – which, for me at least, will never produce a fair, progressive system.” Reason being that education could be viewed an not being a natural right. If anything, isn’t education a priviledge? In that sense, the state’s providing of a public school system is providing the priviledge. Private schooling ins not a privliledge, at least towards the parent of that child. It is a result of the hard-earned wealth they have created. However, it is their taxes that provide for public education…in which their student would not be part of. As a result of this, I do like to question why people do not accept a private education system. I can’t see how it is more immoral to allow people to spend their money how they would like rather than strip their right of giving their child a private education. The immorality comes in disregarding one’s right to provide a better education for their child.


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