For those of you who don’t know, Robert argued in favour of the abolition of private education at his old school. Since Sherborne is a private school, he was understandably met with a frosty reception. So today I will outline my views on private schools. Unlike Robert I was state educated, but my sixth form was founded by the Mercer’s Company of the City of London, so it receives more money than most places. My sixth form also unusual in that it attracted people who had been privately educated, but then decided they wanted a change. That, combined with my mother’s poor experience at a boarding school, meant that I grew up believing private education was a waste of money.
The classic argument in favour of abolishing private schools is that they allow the rich to buy a better education for their children. Since privately educated children have access to more resources, better teachers and smaller class sizes, they have huge advantages when sitting exams or applying to university. The vast majority of the UK’s top universities have a hugely disproportionate proportion of privately educated students. Thus, the notion of a meritocracy or level playing field is a myth in a nation where some children have such advantages over others from the very beginning.
There is quite a lot of truth to this argument. The UK is the least socially mobile country in the developed world- even less so than the US. If you are born poor, you have less of a chance of becoming rich than everywhere else. It would be absurd to conclude that children at independent schools deserve their disproportionate success because they work harder or are naturally cleverer. Private schools also create a very self-conscious upper class and upper middle class culture. It is hard for non-British readers to understand, but Britain is one of the most class-conscious countries in the world. The rich and the poor have scarcely anything in common. As a result, the poor feel they shouldn’t apply to places like Oxford and Cambridge because they won’t fit in- they aren’t of the same culture.
However, on closer examination, Britain’s lack of social mobility is not the fault of the private schools, but the state schools. There is an enormous variation between state school performance in rich and poor areas. Kensington and Chelsea’s state schools are amongst the best in the country, whereas Blackpool and Hull’s schools lag behind. There is little evidence that getting rid of private schools would solve state school underperformance. Rather it could have the reverse effect. Wealthy parents would buy up the most expensive catchment areas, or pay tutors for their children for the 11+ in grammar school areas. One way or another, the wealthiest parents would ensure their children attend the best state schools, making the state system even less meritocratic than it is currently. The country would be left with a situation where the government has to spend more money to cover the formerly privately educated children, while the overall standard of education would decline due to the closure of so many good schools.
There are two solutions. The first is to ensure universities take into account the socioeconomic characteristic of their applicants. So a student predicted 3 A’s from a private school would have less of a chance of getting an offer than a student predicted the same results from a comprehensive in a deprived area. That would improve equality of outcome without reducing academic standards. There would be no crude quotas, just a recognition that it is harder to achieve good exam results if your school wasn’t as well resourced or your family are in poverty.
The other solution is to make the state schools more like the private schools. Teach a more rigorous curriculum. Introduce more traditions, which many students actually enjoy. Encourage the students to be more ambitious. Reduce the amount of paperwork teachers have to do. Foster the creation of extra-curricular societies. Most of this wouldn’t require all that much more funding. The most important reform is a reform of people’s mindsets. There were too many people at my old school who believed they couldn’t achieve highly, and so resigned themselves to mediocrity. Instilling optimism and the will to succeed is the best thing we can do for children of all backgrounds, but especially those from the lowest social class.