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?