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Why we need to rip up the textbooks on private schools

Elite education is wrecking Britain by shutting off opportunities for anyone outside the old boys' network. It's time for a complete overhaul of the system, says Francis Green and David Kynaston

So why did two privately educated white males in their late sixties feel the need to write a book about the issue of private schools in Britain? Partly because of a nagging sense of unease, about how whatever we have managed to achieve in our lives has owed at least something to a wholly undeserved head start denied to the great majority of our contemporaries. Partly because of our awareness as parents in the state sector of the almost grotesquely unlevel playing field, with one of us also having been a governor in state schools as well as a volunteer with children’s sports clubs. And partly because in our professional lives – one as an economist, the other as a historian – we have been increasingly immersed in the profound damage that the entrenched educational apartheid has done to modern Britain.

Yet all that said, probably the single greatest driving force has been a deep sense of frustration. On any objective and dispassionate reading, whatever one’s particular stance, the issue of private education is clearly an important one. Perhaps less so in other countries, where private schools are not nearly as closely linked to the centres of political power, but undeniably so here. Yet, astonishingly, our politicians and policy-shapers very seldom mention the issue, let alone offer a way forward. Among current leading politicians, only Michael Gove and Andrew Adonis have been willing to put their heads above the parapet and say something of real substance.

We include in our book a Guardian cartoon from July 25 1968 depicting a cross-looking man writing a letter to the editor: “Sir, with reference to your leader on the public school system’s divisive influence on our society…” On the wall above him is a calendar with the date: July 25 2068. We are now nearer to that date than we are to 1968. And in case any younger readers are puzzled about the terminology, we should explain that private, fee-paying schools used – for reasons lost in the mists of time – to be called, ludicrously enough, “public” schools. That at least has changed for the better, though the schools themselves prefer the more feelgood “independent”.

At heart it’s a problem of unfairness,

So what’s the problem? Why do we need to do something about what are after all often excellent schools? At heart it’s a problem of unfairness – an unfairness that, both substantively and symbolically, undermines all notions of a cohesive and equitable society, as well as a society in which talent and hard work, as opposed to the circumstances of birth, determine life chances. Consider these two fundamental facts: one in 16 children go to private schools; but one in six teachers teach at private schools.

Given which, it is unsurprising to learn that the day-to-day resources gap between the private and the state sectors is roughly three to one. Much smaller class sizes, lavish facilities, an eye-catching range of extra-curricular activities, the intensive cultivation of ‘character’ and ‘confidence’, the high and thus exclusive price tag (fees up threefold in real terms since the early 1980s) sustaining a concentrated peer group of children mainly drawn from supportive and affluent families, highly resourced and knowledgeable, ‘working the system’ to achieve the best possible exam results and the highest rate of admission to the top universities – all these elements mean that the private sector is by and large operating in a parallel universe to the impoverished and often demoralised state sector.

With these privileges of money, the privately educated enjoy an almost unimpeded path from school to top university to prestigious, high-paying career; the block on social mobility is not only in an upward direction (earlier this decade the Prime Minister, the London Mayor and the Archbishop of Canterbury had all gone to the same school, which was not Windsor Comprehensive), but also downward (with all those nice-but-dims still getting their places at Russell Group universities), which is crucial given that for social mobility to work properly it has to be a two-way process; and with so many of our national leaders – not just in politics, but also the media, law, business and much else – being drawn from a privately educated elite, inevitably with little instinctive understanding of what life is like for most people, there is in effect a serious democratic deficit.

So what is to be done? We argue that four possible approaches are understandable but unhelpful. 

The first is to retreat to a comfort zone, diss the private schools – as schools – whenever the opportunity arises (for example over physical abuse stories), deny their general excellence (unsurprising given their vastly superior resources), and somehow hope that they will implode under the weight of their own self-importance and relentless marketing.

We have been immersed in the profound damage that entrenched educational apartheid has done to modern Britain,

The second unhelpful approach is to attack parents (including Labour politicians like Diane Abbott and Shami Chakrabarti) for going private: parents will almost invariably do what they see as best for the interests of their own children, and they like everyone else live in the world as it is, not as they might wish it to be.

The third is to pin hopes on the state system becoming so good – which above all means sufficiently highly resourced – that fee-paying schools will of their own accord gently wither on the vine. It is a wonderful thought, but in fiscal terms sadly improbable in any remotely foreseeable future. Indeed, state schools have recently been suffering reductions in their real-terms funding per pupil.

Finally, there is abolition as a solution, in practice the complete nationalisation of the private sector, with fee-paying outlawed. While we gladly agree that it would have been a better world if the fee-paying principle had not been introduced in the first place (education being fundamentally different from other purchases), we argue that politically this would be an almost impossible outcome to achieve, given what a powerful vested interest the private schools are, and that any such sustained attempt would run the serious danger of nothing being achieved at all. Put another way, the perfect as the enemy of the good: history has taught would-be reformers plenty of sobering lessons to that effect.

More realistic, we believe, are two not mutually exclusive approaches.

Reducing demand for private education is the first. This can be done in two ways (again not mutually exclusive): fiscal pressure from government, so that the fees rise to a point where demand starts to drop; and by some form of positive discrimination at the top universities in favour of state-educated applicants, so that private education is no longer the automatic golden ticket to the dreaming spires and those glittering prizes that lie beyond.

Some limited progress has already been made on both these fronts, including Labour having in its last election manifesto a proposal to impose VAT on school fees (though a proposal without any accompanying narrative or explanation about the private school issue). We certainly do not disparage either approach. Even so, even if either or both were to be vigorously pursued, the most powerful and influential private schools would still survive relatively comfortably. On their own, these initiatives may not become bedded in, and could easily be reversed.

The other approach (as we explain in some detail in the book) is to begin to change the social composition of the schools themselves, which at the moment are unhealthily dominated by the children of the wealthy. We propose what we call a Fair Access Scheme, under which 33 per cent of places at private schools would be allocated on a state-funded basis, with a view to that proportion rising steadily and significantly over time, perhaps 80 per cent or more. Crucially, the criteria for that allocation would be determined and overseen by government, not the schools themselves. Or put another way, we would be moving to a point where the private schools become an extension of the state system.

We are not dogmatic about any of this. What matters most in 2019 is to encourage open, rational, non name-calling debate about an issue prone to over-emotional investment; not to give way to a sense of fatalism about the intractability of the issue; and to realise that there are some practical and eminently attainable ways forward. Moreover, as we approach a new decade, this could be the moment. Last spring we commissioned a poll from Populus, which asked its large and representative panel whether they thought it “unfair that some people with a lot of money get a better education and life chances for their children by paying for a private school”. The results were illuminating: 63 per cent agreed with that statement, 18 per cent disagreed, and 19 per cent were unsure. In other words, more than three quarters of those who expressed an opinion one way or the other agreed that private schooling in Britain is unfair. It’s time to do something. Almost anything, after all, would be better than where we are now.

Engines of Privilege: Britain’s Private School Problem by Francis Green & David Kynaston is out now

(Bloomsbury, £20)

Image: Jimmy Sime/Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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