Last month, a report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission railed against what it saw as the UK’s ingrained elitism. Its knock-me-down-with-a-feather conclusion was that the upper echelons of Westminster politics, law, the media and other senior professions continue to be dominated by – or at least disproportionately filled with – people who were privately educated, people who went to Oxbridge, or, in many cases, both.
For anyone who’s been paying attention for the last forty years, this isn’t in the least bit surprising. The modicum of social mobility enabled by post-war social democracy was dramatically thrown into reverse after 1979, and in the neoliberal era that has followed, the wealth of the family you were born in determines your life prospects more now than it has done in half a century.
Britain spends proportionally more on private education than any country bar Chile – a place where, it’s worth remembering, a democratically elected socialist government was violently overthrown in a US-backed coup, then replaced by a murderous regime that imposed the most extreme, de-regulated form of capitalism the world had ever seen.
UK private schools educate 7% of the population – 93%, the vast majority, get state educations. But, as the Commission’s report demonstrated, about a third of MPs, half of broadsheet journalists and nearly three-quarters of senior judges went to private school (one in seven to Westminster, Eton, Radley, St Paul’s Boys or Charterhouse). Oxbridge educates more Etonians than it does people who were poor enough to qualify for free school meals.
If you’re looking for a solution, there’s a very easy, obvious place to start. Private education should be abolished. It’d be treated as a catastrophic crime against civilisation by the Right, but banning it wouldn’t be nearly enough to right a status quo ludicrously skewed in favour of the richest. Germany, for example, has a steeply elitist education system with almost no private schools at all. And in Britain, assuming elitism starts and ends with private schools masks the true extent of the problem. A state school in rural Surrey is likely to be very different from a state school in inner-city Leeds. Dig a little deeper into the demography of the high-fliers and you’re likely to find that a sizeable wedge of state-educated elites went to schools serving wealthy catchment areas – places a lot of people could never afford to move into.
But shutting private schools would be an important first step in the right direction. We should be under absolutely no illusion about what they are. They’re citadels of tradition, we’re told, embodying the best values, the old ways, timeless excellence. But these – along with their cuddlier labels, ‘independent’ and ‘fee-paying’ – are just ways of obscuring the fact that ‘private’ really just means socially segregated.
Private schools tend to get better results than state ones because their class sizes are much smaller – and because, by excluding anyone who isn’t rich, they can ensure that their intake is impeccable well-resourced, compliant, and, often, from the kind of elite backgrounds where jumping through the hoops of the education system is treated as the most important thing in life.
In many cases, the educations themselves are no better than state ones. Private schools aren’t special, or “better”. They just don’t let poor kids in – the ones whose parents don’t have the resources, the time, or never got enough education themselves to help them learn.
It’s startling, because we’re told they’re bastions of olde-worlde superiority. But speak to schools inspectors, educationists, teachers who’ve worked in both, and, above all, former pupils, and you’ll find the standard of teaching can be appalling in some private schools. Contrary to popular perception, genuinely excellent ones are rare. OFSTED rated only 5% of the private schools it visited as ‘outstanding’ in 2008, compared to 15% of state schools.
Even more eye-opening is the fact that private educations aren’t always very good for the people subjected to them. Research by the Sutton Trust has found that state schoolers often do better at university than their privately educated counterparts.
Far worse, though, is the emotional and psychological damage elite schooling can do. Earlier this year, writer and psychotherapist Nick Duffell wrote in the Guardian about how boarding school educations can turn impressionable children into emotionally stunted, dysfunctional adults – people who “appear much more competent than they actually are” and are “particularly deficient in non-rational [i.e. interpersonal] skills.” On social media, you often see one of those picture-memes of a Charlie Brooker quote about Tories having “some essential part of their soul missing” – that missing thing is probably empathy.
Unfortunately, there’s a tendency even among some left-wingers to get wrapped up in the romantic, traditionalist fog that surrounds private education in British culture – to lip-service the supposed gorgeousness of the buildings and the venerable history of the institutions, as if they’re in any way comparable to the social damage they do.
They might look quite nice on a postcard if wastefully fancy is your cup of tea, but these are establishments built exclusively for and used exclusively by the tiniest of elites. Their basic characteristic is that they exclude the vast majority of the population – and, most harmfully, disfigure society.
An arbitrary slice of the population lucks its way into wealth. They buy their children into the elite too, by way of expensive segregated educations. And those children do the same for their children, who do the same for their children, and before long you’ve got a new hereditary aristocracy – one that’s worse than the nobility of old, because, as sociologist and ‘meritocracy’-coiner Michael Young predicted and feared, its members believe they’ve truly earned their positions at the top.
Shutting private schools would be a start towards a more comprehensive, lasting solution. It wouldn’t matter what you did with the buildings – give them to the National Trust, turn them into homeless shelters, knock them down and re-use the materials. But their assets could be seized and put towards a programme that aimed to finally bulldoze the barriers between people from poorer backgrounds and educational achievement – taking New Labour’s nice-but-piddling Sure Start initiative and turning it up to eleven.
Public-funded centres, built in every community that needed them, could offer all the resources and support required to ensure that every child got the same social advantages available to the richest – books and other materials, mentoring and encouragement, nutritional advice, study spaces, as well as training in parenting and other skills for parents, all free at the point of use.
And, at the other end of the social spectrum, society could use every means at its disposal to drag a detached and relentlessly self-serving elite back down to earth – a legally-binding maximum wage, wealth taxes, progressive income tax, carbon taxes (it being the richest that consistently pollute the most), banning tax avoidance and tax evasion, closing tax loopholes, and harshly punishing the companies and individuals that try and use them.
It’d take a lot of effort, but would be worth it to achieve one very simple, lovely, modest thing – a society in which everyone genuinely did have an equal start in life.