The Lunacy of Private Education – an early own goal for a society dedicated to fairness

by Sam Tomlin

In their report at the turn of the millennium, ‘Educational Inequality, Mapping Race, Class and Gender’, Ofsted claimed that,

Equality of opportunity is a vital issue of social and economic importance to the whole of society.

Equality of opportunity can more or less be said to underpin the whole issue of social justice. The vast majority of political ideologies would agree with this although of course methodology to achieve the goal naturally diverge after the initial meeting of minds.

Any society aiming for equality of opportunity (such as ours, apparently), should focus on young people (not exclusively of course, but predominantly). It strikes then of worryingly naive behaviour of the same society to allow parents who can afford it to give their children a monumental leg-up almost from the moment they are able to communicate properly.

It can be and has been argued that what matters most in whether you succeed in life is social background. The Sutton Trust reported for example that in 2006, 79% of children from degree educated parents obtained at least 5 GCSE’s at A*-C compared to 33% of children whose parents left school without any O Levels, a gap of 46 percentage points.

Quite clearly, whether your parents are educated and take an interest in your education and whether you have books in your house growing up (for example) will be the major factor in whether you succeed in life, as argued by Owen Jones in the Independent a few months ago.

However, one cannot ignore the facts around independent schools and achievement which suggest something much deeper going on here. Just as a snapshot, while remembering that just 7% of the UK’s children are privately educated:

The list could go on. Again, it may well be the case that many of these privately educated people would have achieved the same heights even if they were forced to be educated by the state.

However, the issue, for me, becomes a moral one. If we are dedicated to fairness and equality of opportunity in this country, are we seriously comfortable with compounding already vast social divides by allowing children of wealthy parents to receive a better education? It is symbolic as well as objectively unfair.

Eton’s fees for a year are £30,981.  Quite aside from the moral issue of whether it’s right to spend above the average wage in a year on a child’s education when many don’t have the option and we’re in the middle of a recession, the list of advantages this buys you are exhaustive. For this, not only do you receive the best class-room teaching with the best teachers, you get the best sporting facilities, the best preparation for University entrance exams, but perhaps most importantly you are surrounded in an environment every day where you are told you will achieve and you are, whether you accept it consciously or sub-consciously or not, ‘above’ others in the world. As Owen Jones states in his article (link above):

Separating children on the basis of their parents’ bank balances denies children the opportunity to mix with others from a whole range of backgrounds, fostering [elitist] divisions at the earliest age.

Having attended a prestigious private school myself, I am no stranger to this and certainly I am sure I am the wrong person to be writing this blog. Having also visited many of the most challenging schools in London (with a Free-School-Meal percentage of at least 20%) in my previous job, however, I am aware of the magnitude of the spectrum. It is simply a different educational universe that children grow up in, let alone world. It is this which compels me to write.

Would abolishing private schools do away with educational inequality? Of course not. Issues of social exclusion run deeper than which schools children attend and sorting out education in the state system is the most educationally pressing issue of the day (perhaps the subject of a future blog). But by abolishing the private system of education we would send a clear message that we are at least a bit more ‘all in this together’, as Mr Cameron so helpfully put it, than currently.

I could never bring myself to send a child of mine to a private school. How could I when my next-door neighbour might simply not have that choice? That is an issue, plain and simply of fairness, and it is an issue I am astounded we have not addressed in this country.

  1. Thank you for painting this picture so clearly, this needs to be heard and acted on though the longevity of the private education system in this country leads me to conclude that radical change is a structural impossibility.

    Just one question; on what information do you base the assertion that private schools attract the best teachers?

  2. neallgarrad said:


    Some support for you from an OECD report looking at education across countries:

    “Early selection into different institutional tracks is associated with larger socio-economic inequalities in learning performance without being associated with better overall performance.”

    And again:

    “research has shown that school choice, and by extension school competition, is related to greater levels of segregation in the school system, and consequently, lower levels of equity.”

  3. AndyB said:

    I completely agree on the macro level. Private education should be abolished. However, on the individual level, as the system is now, what would you do if your local school felt not just poor but frightening, there was no chance of getting your child into another state school and you could just scrape the money together to go private?

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