If you’re serious about educational equality, it’s time to bite the bullet.

Britain’s private schools are renowned centres of excellence. They are lauded and endeared internationally. They are central to our culture. And they should be abolished. No education secretary of the last five decades has had the courage – or ideological framework – to suggest this, but the arguments in favour of ending our private, parallel schooling system are powerful.

Before I began my training with Teach First, I had to gain a week’s experience in a ‘challenging school’. ‘Challenging’ meant that over half of the children had to come from homes in the lowest 30% of the socio-economic scale. I duly contacted a primary school in East London that met these conditions and was assigned to observe a year 3 class. On the whole, I enjoy talking to children (who are interesting and hilarious) much more than adults (who are dull and close-minded), and over the first few days I got to know each of the kids. I discovered that most of them lived in the same high rise building across the road, and were eligible for ‘free school meals’.

Michael Gove constantly asserts that there is a ‘Berlin Wall’ between the state and private education systems which must be broken down. A recent summit at the New Statesman gathered several leading educational experts to discuss ways of doing this. Andrew Adonis proposed that private schools either sponsor local state schools, or convert to academy status; Anthony Seldon suggested that 25% of school places be reserved for children from the bottom income-quartile; Laura McInerney argued that the same proportion go to children ‘on a low-income or those of with low ability’.


Free school meals is very loaded term. It is consistently used as a measure of ‘disadvantage’ as it marks a low family income, which in turn indicates a myriad of obstacles. I had been aware on a theoretical level that the odds were stacked against these children; statistically less than 5 of the class would go to university. Less than one child in front of me would go to a Russell Group university. To put this in context, over 96% of children attending a private school go on to university, half of which are Russell Group. It wasn’t just stats on a screen now, the kids were in front of me.

Adonis’ suggestions are not so much drops in the ocean as drops in the Sahara – no private school would voluntarily convert to academy status except for one fearing financial oblivion, while very few schools have been accepted as academy sponsors. Seldon and McInerney’s proposals deserve further exploration (and in the real world, they probably represent the best we can get), but I want to propose a more radical step.

It was these statistics that compelled me to apply for Teach First. On the third day of the placement, I accompanied the class on a school trip to the Museum of London. Before we set off, it was my job to check the children’s packed lunches and ensure that they contained enough food. I walked around the class, asking the children to open up their carrier bags – few had actual lunch boxes – and topped them up with some fruit and veg that the school kitchen had provided. The museum had a special room for school-children to have lunch, and when we entered we realised that we would be sharing with another school. After settling the children on their benches, I sat in the middle of the room and looked up. I looked from side to side, and saw two utterly disconnected worlds. Already, at seven and eight, the kids knew it. They did not interact with each other. Growing up, I would have been in the class on the left, but now I probably belonged more with the class on the right. I didn’t want to be with the class on the right. They already had too much.

Private schools should go. I am not a socialist and I don’t want to mandate equal outcomes in life. What I do want is for each child to have an equal opportunity in life. Private schools are the biggest block to this: they drive and reproduce inequality.

Most private schools boast far superior resources to most state schools; as a result, their pupils have a far higher chance of getting the best grades, accessing the best universities and landing the best jobs. If your parents cannot afford to pay for these advantages, then bad luck. Private education violates the principles of merit and desert: children are handed opportunities based on nothing other than the lottery of birth. This happens often in life, but when we can control it, we should.


On my right, I saw 30 white children in blazers with floppily styled hair. They were eating, a nearby child told me “salt beef baguettes with root vegetable crisps and lemon cheesecake slices”. On my left, I looked at the class that I was helping to supervise. There were no white children there. Several were wearing stained tracksuit bottoms. I had become smitten with each and every one of them, and we continued to chat about how cool it would be to have a street named after you. If I was completely honest with them, though, I should have told them that the world did not belong to them. University and financial security was not really their path. 

Set against this fundamental injustice is an oft-imagined civil right. The retiring Headmaster of Eton, Tony Little, recently argued that ‘We conceive of ourselves as a free country and parents must have the fundamental right to choose how to educate their children.’ The appeal is stirring, but this claim deserves scrutiny. The vast majority of parents will never be able to choose between private and state education, even with the much-vaunted financial aid programmes in schools (which don’t sum to much in reality: fewer than 1% of private school pupils are on a full bursary). How can we live in a free country – in Mr. Little’s elision – if so few parents ever have the opportunity to exercise this fundamental right?

The kids on the other side of the room, they are the ones who will go on to access higher education and financial success. Although they are no cleverer than you, nor work any harder, they will get better grades than you. They will achieve more because they will get more. You literally have almost no chance. It’s already been decided. There is time to reverse it, but we won’t. Suck it up. I imagined this conversation. I’ve imagined it since. Only 5 of you. All of them. They would ask why. I don’t have an answer.  

I may be cynical, but portraying a move to ban private education as an assault on deeply-held liberties seems the prerogative of the rich and powerful. We are prepared to place social limits on the lengths that parents can go to in order to protect their offspring, in order to uphold a just society. Why should we preserve a right which most people can never exercise, to protect the few who can?



  1. Have you read my blog post about myths and fables in selective and commercial education? I’d been interested to see what you think. http://icingonthecakeblog.weebly.com/1/post/2014/03/sarah-vine-myths-and-fables.html

    My view is that children at commercial schools are incredibly priviledged as a group, with parents who can and do spend their time and money on their children’s education in many, many ways, so ultimately, it isn’t the schools which make the difference. The differences between children which you describe on your museum trip are as profound in state schools with mixed socio-economic intakes – ask anyone teaching in a mixed state school about the difference family support makes to progress.

    The root cause of educational difference is wealth and poverty, not school (see Christopher Cook’s Graph of Doom*). Legislate against ‘private’ schools and the rich and powerful will simply find some way to shield their offspring from ‘Sinkhouse high’, as Sarah Vine so charmingly described the ‘choice’ available to the poor. But trying to limit choice in a free society is bound to fail, because it is profoundly illiberal – and I don’t believe that it would have the effect you seek, I’m afraid.

    The good news is that – according to the Sutton Trust amongst others – children from state schools are better prepared for university than their counterparts from commerical schools. Being able to buy something does not guarantee value for money, and this seems especially true for education.

    * http://blogs.ft.com/ftdata/2012/02/22/social-mobility-and-schools/

    1. I was going to the post the same link; educational inequality isn’t a private v public sector issue, rich children do better than poor ones regardless of the school they attend. What I find strange about your solution to this is the idea that school must remain as it is and poor children must change to better fit in within it. As long as our education system is only concerned with academic performance those at the bottom of the achievement hierarchy, usually poor children, grow up being told by school they are inferior. I believe in equality of opportunity, but what kind of opportunity do you have when you’ve been taught everyone else is better than you?

      1. If a teacher believes, and is seen by pupils to believe, that “They will achieve more because they will get more. You literally have almost no chance. It’s already been decided.” then they should get out of teaching and make way for others with a more positive attitude.

        It’s not easy to inspire disadvantaged children to take their school work seriously, and help them overcome the opportunity gap. But it’s not impossible either.

        Refusing to compete because of perceived “unfairness” is a ploy much-used by lazy people.

  2. Thanks for the comments and apologies for the late response; I co-wrote this article and really appreciate people taking the time to engage with it, regardless of any differences of opinion.

    JACK, you’re certainly right that kids with socio-economic advantages are likely to do well at state schools as well as private schools. However it seems reductive to say that this finding means that educational inequality is not a private-public issue. I’d refer you to this paper by Francis Green and his team at Kent (http://cee.lse.ac.uk/ceedps/ceedp115.pdf), which suggests that private schooling is responsible for a large proportion of the rise in inequality over the last thirty years. I don’t think that wealth differentials entirely explain away the advantage of private schooling, although clearly they play a part.

    I think you’re also right that, absent private schools, richer parents would still find a way to protect their offspring. But this argument strikes me as a little fatalistic; ‘well it would probably happen anyway’ isn’t a reason not to do the right thing, especially as it would be much harder to manipulate a wholly state system to one’s own advantage than our current system.

    As for ‘trying to limit choice in a free society’, banning private schools certainly would be illiberal, and I think this is the strongest argument against abolition. However, we already place significant restrictions on choice in education and private schooling can’t be said to be a fundamental and irrevocable right, as it is available to so few people.

    You’re also right to flag up the recent research by Claire Crawford and her team, which suggests that state school pupils do better than private pupils with comparable grades when they do progress to university. (That finding, of course, suggests that private school pupils have certain advantages which distort their A-Level grades, and surely this rather goes against your argument that educational inequality is down to wealth rather than private schooling.)

    Thanks for that graph, that’s very powerful and I’ll certainly be banging on about that to my friends at every opportunity!

    ED – I’m not sure where you get the idea that poor children need to change to fit in with their school, or which schools are only concerned with the achievement of pupils at the ‘bottom’ of the hierarchy. Above all, I’m not aware of any schools where pupils are being taught that everyone else is better than them. Recognising that equality of opportunity is currently far from being realised in our schools most definitely does not mean having low expectations of your students, or communicating to your students that they are expected to fail (see the reply to Nick for an elaboration of this point).

    NICK – good teachers work tirelessly to encourage and motivate their children to achieve to the best of their abilities, but also have an empathetic and detailed understanding of their circumstances and realise that they have to overcome many hurdles in order to achieve. It’s entirely possible to acknowledge a social reality while writing about education, but also to have the highest expectation of your kids when you’re in school. In fact, I think it would be silly not to act like this as a teacher (and you acknowledge it when writing about the ‘opportunity gap’). You do your best for your kids, you accept no excuses from them and you expect them to do their very best, but at the same time you can’t bury your head in the sand and ignore the overwhelming statistical reality that millions of children are being systematically disadvantaged by our system. I fully agree that communicating a sense of futility and apathy to students would be a terrible approach, but luckily it’s not one that I see amongst teachers, even the socially aware ones (i.e. most of them). Understanding the current social reality emphatically does NOT mean communicating it to your pupils, so your suggestion that people should either ignore the social reality of education or get out of education strikes me as profoundly wrong-headed.

    I also take issue with the idea of people ‘refusing to compete because of perceived “unfairness”.’ Who exactly are these lazy people that you speak of, and in what situation?

    1. “I … take issue with the idea of people ‘refusing to compete because of perceived “unfairness”.’ Who exactly are these lazy people that you speak of, and in what situation?”

      What I said was
      “Refusing to compete because of perceived “unfairness” is a ploy much-used by lazy people.”

      This was intended as a general observation, but one which is particularly relevant to the current topic. The people I had in mind were both lazy teachers and lazy pupils. Most schools have plentiful examples of both. (I use lazy in the old fashioned sense of an unwillingness to expend more than the minimum amount of effort required to get something done – i.e. settling for adequacy rather than excellence.)

      Laziness is often seen as a personality trait – and in some respects it is – but it’s more realistic to see it as a reflection of cultural circumstances. And unfortunately, too many pupils come from backgrounds where mediocrity is not only acceptable, but is seen as the norm. Even more unfortunately, the same applies to some teachers.

      Two common psychological explanations of why people do not try harder than they do are
      1: an opportunistic perception that further effort is not necessary: this is good enough in the circumstances. And
      2: a belief that there’s no point – it will make no difference because the odds are unfairly stacked against us.

      It is the latter – a fatalistic pessimism – which strikes me as a particular menace in the classroom, whether in the mind of pupil or teacher, and which prompted my cryptic remark.

    2. We agree that “millions of children are being systematically disadvantaged by our system” but I’m not sure we agree about who those children are. Banning private schools might address the small injustice of rich middle class people buying an advantage in terms of Oxbridge places over the mostly middle class top performers in state school, but it does nothing about the gross injustice that the children of the poor are told they are inferior. For while there’s not a school in the land where a member of staff would say those words to a child’s face, neither is there one in which all Cs is not inferior to all As and all Us inferior to both. We tell children they are inferior through grading. If they’re no good at writing essays and doing sums we tell them they are going to be poor for the rest of their lives. It’s worse than systematic disadvantage, it’s institutional abuse.

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