Private schools educate around 6% of the UK’s school population, or around 625,000 children in 2,600 schools. Since they have their own inspectors and select their own intakes, comparisons with state schools are not straightforward. But in outcomes such as exam results, prowess in arts and sport, and rates of admission to universities and the professions, the success of fee-paying schools is unquestionable: 42% of Oxbridge places go to private pupils, who also make up 32% of all MPs, 51% of leading journalists, 74% of judges and a third of 2016 Team GB Olympic medallists. It’s possible to celebrate the achievements of individuals such as Bafta winner Olivia Colman yet recognise that this narrow cohort’s collective winnings are a problem.
The UK is chronically socially immobile. More than in most comparable countries, a person’s life chances are determined by the status of their parents. Positions of power and influence are dominated by those with inherited wealth. This is not only unjust, but also a waste of human resources, which holds back progress of all kinds. And while private schools are by no means the main reason for the class system’s staying power, they are an important one. It is not just about the impact of small class sizes and lavish facilities on exam results, but also the creation and maintenance of powerful social networks and inculcation of mores. Progressives in the education debate are often accused of social engineering, but private schools are inequality-generating machines, as the title of a new book about them – Engines of Privilege – points out.
The book by historian David Kynaston and economist Francis Green is timely. The deep divisions in modern Britain between the haves and have-nots were part of the reason for the 2016 vote to leave the EU. Widening inequality is a global problem. But the role played by our highly stratified schools in deepening the gap should not be ignored. Reform will be resisted: private schools have formidable lobbying power. But a degree of consensus – among politicians and the public – must be the goal. Earlier attempts to reform the system have been flunked (Clement Attlee’s attachment to his own public school, Haileybury, was one obstacle). Meaningful change will take time and require wide consultation.
In 1968, this newspaper ran a cartoon of a man writing a letter about “divisive” public schools. The joke was the date: 2068. Because public schools are part of the nation’s fabric, and the conflict between liberty and fairness is a real one, the problem can appear insoluble. But there are steps that can be taken straight away. The Scottish government plans to strip private schools of certain tax breaks. Measures such as adding VAT to school fees in England (included in Labour’s 2017 manifesto) should be taken forward. So should the use of positive action schemes, and the consideration of contextualised information in applications to study and work, by universities and employers. There is evidence that state-school pupils outperform those from private schools who arrive at university with the same grades. Taking into consideration the differences between schools and family backgrounds when deciding on admissions is a way to rebalance the scales.
Variants of the adage that life isn’t fair are the riposte to this. It’s a competition, and private schools exist to boost opportunities for those children and families ambitious and resourceful enough to aim for them. But such arguments are inadequate when confronted with the reality of entrenched injustice. It is simply not tenable in the 21st century to have a judiciary, a parliament and a professional elite dominated by people whose life experiences are so far removed from those they are in charge of. Only 1% of all privately educated pupils pay no fees; just 4% of such schools’ turnover goes on bursary schemes.
School funding, failing academies and technical education all require attention more urgently than private schools. But it is possible to do more than one thing at once. The sharp elbows of fee-paying parents don’t just serve to shield their own children, but also push others out of the way. Countering such behaviour is in the interests of the country as a whole.