The private education system creates inequality from the youngest of ages and perpetuates a more divided society. It is not only deeply unfair to separate those who can afford to pay for private schooling off from the rest, but also greatly disadvantages our society as a whole and means our country is far from the best it can be. Consider that, although they educate only 7% of the population, 71% of top barristers are privately educated, as are 32% of MPs, 51% of leading print journalists and 61% of top doctors.
It is, then, no wonder that there has never really been a proper public discourse about this issue. The figures above show that those in the most politically and culturally powerful jobs are disproportionately privately educated. Where is the incentive for those in the top jobs, the most powerful both in terms of law-making and opinion forming, to change, or even challenge, the system that got them there and will likely allow their children to get there too?
Private school students are not the best and brightest, they are simply the offspring of those who have money. It plainly isn’t true to argue that private school students take a disproportionate number of this country’s best jobs because they are brighter than the rest of us. Anyone who has actually met any of them can surely testify to this. It occurs because of the inequality of opportunity that is created by these schools; whether that be the so-called ‘soft skills’ the students gain, or the small class sizes and minimal external distractions enjoyed in the private education system. Whatever it may be, we are allowing a limitation to be placed upon our own society because those reaching the top jobs are not the best and brightest but the offspring of the richest. To add insult to injury this is all done at considerable public expense. Private schools are granted charitable status and therefore enjoy business rate reliefs (government subsidies) worth £700m per year. There is much debate about whether private schools do provide the charitable contribution to the public that is supposed to justify this, but such a debate seems entirely besides the point; institutions that perpetuate centuries-old inequalities should not exist in the first place. Added to this, most private school teachers also happen to have been educated at public expense.
To argue, as some do, that this argument is sour grapes, driven by jealousy, reduces justified political beliefs down to some kind of personal grudge. It is not enough to argue that the solution is just to make state schools better, this ignores the inherent benefits that private schools have in just being part of the establishment. They allow for their students to grow up within, and familiarise themselves with, the customs and practices of the elite – developing those so-called ‘soft skills’ I referred to earlier. A state school could never replicate these advantages. Nor is it enough to point to the few scholarships that private schools offer to some of those who can’t afford the fees. Allowing a few of the great unwashed masses into their gilded institutions doesn’t cut it. If it did, that elite culture, which is perpetuated by a minority being allowed to close themselves off from the rest of us, would not exist. The 93% are denied the best chance of making it to the top.
To contend that parents with money have somehow ‘earned’ the right to give their children a head start, ignores the fact that many of the rich have money because they, too, are a product of this system that perpetuates inequality and those that weren’t should understand all too well that one should not be allowed to buy opportunity. Equality should not be for sale. To argue against this smacks of the proclamation by the pigs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm that, ‘all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’.
What should be done then, is to abolish private schools altogether and the selective state schools too. There are many inequalities in life, but education should not be one of them. It is deeply unfair to discriminate among children based on which socio-economic background they happen to be born into. The state system has many brilliant schools who produce outstanding individuals and with more investment we could create one of the best public education systems in the world.. This means paying teachers more, building more schools and removing the influence of the private sector. This last point should be a no-brainer. Contrary to the prevailing neo-liberal ideology, the market is not a solver of all things, especially when it comes to public provisions. Finland, who have no private intervention, are consistently among the top countries in the OECD’s Pisa rankings for Maths and English, while the US, who have championed introducing private competition into their education system, lag far behind. The Conservatives’ introduction of private sector competition into our education system through the creation of academies will fail. As for teachers, they should be held in as high regard as we do doctors or lawyers; they are the educators of our next generation. The solution to teacher shortages is not to allow the hiring of unqualified teachers, as the current government would suggest, but to require a high-level of education for the position and, in turn, provide a high-level of pay. The job would be far more desirable if teachers, especially those in central London where housing prices are skyrocketing, could afford to live on their wage. Building more schools is a must in order to keep class sizes low and create a better learning environment for students. An easy start here is to use some of the existing buildings that currently house private schools, while selling off the land of those for which it makes most economic sense to do so and reinvesting the money into building new schools and increasing teachers’ pay.
In a time of massive wealth inequality this is one of the things we can, and must, do. The problem will only get worse if we continue along the same path. As the country becomes ever more divided in terms of wealth, the wealthy become ever more reluctant to spend money on common needs. The rich can buy government provisions for themselves and leave the 93% as an ever diminishing vision in their rear view mirror.
words by Harry Clark