All schools should be as good as Eton

Christopher Beckett

Topics Politics UK

Labour Against Private Schools, a campaign group within the Labour Party, is calling for a ban on private schools.

The campaign hopes that banning private education for the privileged few will result in equality for all, ending class segregation in education. Its Twitter handle is @AbolishEton and its pinned tweet cites the fact that a third of all British prime ministers were educated there. Boris Johnson became the 20th Etonian to become PM this week.

The idea would be to emulate Finland’s radical educational reforms that followed the Second World War. Finland abolished private schools and incorporated them into the state system. By the early 1970s, all children participated in a comprehensive education system. The reforms successfully closed the attainment gap between the richest and poorest pupils.

Holly Rigby, one of the campaign coordinators and a teacher in the state sector, argues that there is no justification for young people’s potential to be ‘determined by the size of their parents’ bank balance’. I agree. But the focus on abolishing private education is still misguided.

Private schools, particularly elite ones like Eton and Harrow, do provide a huge amount of opportunities to those privileged enough to afford the fees. Whether it is their fantastic facilities or access to alumni networks, pupils at private schools certainly have advantages over their state-educated peers. Pupils are generally better behaved and more motivated, too, which fosters an atmosphere more conducive to learning.

The attainment of privately educated pupils speaks for itself: they are five times more likely to get the top grade at GCSEs. And it is a similar story at A-Levels. One consequence is that privately educated students, though they make up only a small percentage of the population, dominate the places at top universities.

Meanwhile, the state system has been on a race to the bottom. Budget cuts and ever-greater responsibilities piling on to teachers are squeezing state schools to breaking point.

But how should we bridge this divide? Instead of abolishing private education, campaigners and educators would do better to acknowledge what the private sector does better and be willing to learn from it.

Ideally, state education would be so good that it could surpass private education. If outcomes in the state sector improved enough, private education would be obsolete anyway. If Labour activists were truly interested in providing the best education for all, this would be their aim. But this would take a great deal of work and imagination, especially when the bar for state schools is set so low.

The state sector’s biggest long-term problem is that low expectations and low standards are far too common. Do we expect kids in state schools to read Classics? No. Do we expect them to play an instrument? No. Do we expect them to learn a foreign language? No. Such low expectations lead to inevitably low outcomes.

The calls to ban private schools are part and parcel of these low ambitions for state education.

Christopher Beckett is a trainee RE teacher at a school in east London. Read his blog.

Picture by: Getty.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


Delia Scales

28th July 2019 at 5:16 am

I’ve read about Katharine Birbalsingh and the successes of the Michaela Community School. It sounds great. I’m from Australia, a country that rates as having one of the most violent, disruptive, schools, with some of the lowest STEM levels. 50% of schools here are private, parents have fled the public school mess. I don’t think it’s about money. I think good education is about classroom discipline and teaching a high standard curriculum.

Martin Bishop

27th July 2019 at 5:12 pm

Christopher offered a great suggestion in his article about looking at what the private sector for inspiration. In the private sector you look at what others do well, and do the same. I had a look at Finland and their system seems really good, so let’s do what they do.

One of the big issue with politicians that I would be surprised to see any disagreement with, it that they make decisions about things they are unaffected by. I seriously doubt we would have seen the kind of budget cuts to our schools if all MP’s sent their kids to state schools.

denis daly

26th July 2019 at 3:35 pm

One should look to Finnland where there is only a state system, that produces much better results. It is no coincidence that Finland has higher income per capita, has a much higher educational output in terms of Pisa, and calibre of university graduates. And all at a much cheaper price. The UK’s system is archaic, not fit for the 21st century, and is partly responsible for it falling down the world rankings on most indicators. Take Ireland for example, where it is almost exclusively state educated. They produce top calibre graduates, that drive its thriving economy. Again, it is no coincidence that Ireland is ranked 4th in the world for GDP per capita. Obviously Norway with its state educated populace tops the rankings.
By the way, schools like Eton, tend to produce increases in narcissism as well (Twenge, 2018).

denis daly

26th July 2019 at 3:29 pm

There is ample empirical research, by Gordon Pennycook, that schools like Eton produce graduates who bullsht. This has a formal definition where bs is where one says things that are convenient without regard for the truth. Research designs can measure this characteristic. This undermines the ability to reason, and make way for wishful thinking. The title of his scholarly book that he edited, that includes hundreds of peer reviewed journal articles in top ranked journals is called “THE NEW REFLECTIONISM IN COGNITIVE PSYCHOLOGY, why reason matters”.

We know from different research that schools like Eton perpetuate class distinctions in relation tot he appointment of judges, politicians, and the civil service. Not to the same extent elsewhere, where merit is rewarded more.

Not Again

26th July 2019 at 2:04 pm

The left’s slogan is “For the Many not the Few”. On the surface a noble sentiment, but on examination ignores reality. Eton’s bursaries cover 20% of the boys’ places but that requires 80% pay the full £42,500 a year plus extras. In this case an ironic “many for the few”. Of course it is a minority of the population at large that can afford the full fees, but by doing so it creates an opportunity for the few to benefit. Abolishing Eton means no one benefits. A spiteful outcome. One is also choosing to ignore the fact that every place at Eton is won through a hard fought, highly competitive entrance process which is blind at the point of entry as to whether you can afford the fees. Any parent with an academically gifted son can apply. And there is no excuse not to.

Danny C

31st July 2019 at 10:08 pm

Bursaries are rarely full. They can vary between 30 and 70%. Regardless of raw talent / aptitude, this still price all but the privileged few out of private education.

Jim Lawrie

26th July 2019 at 10:15 am

Give parents education vouchers and let them choose in an open market.

When the middle classes imposed comprehensives on us in the 70’s, they knew they were eliminating competition that their own were facing.

Jim Lawrie

26th July 2019 at 9:52 am

Comprehensive schools condemn bright working class youngsters to educational boredom and stagnation by age twelve, and have been responsible for putting a stop to the social mobility of that demographic.

Danny C

31st July 2019 at 10:15 pm

No. Schools are a reflection of border societal expectation and lived experience. Your parents and your local community are a decent barometer of where you end up … not a teacher or a schools aspiration.

Sean Robertson

26th July 2019 at 9:49 am

Eton is not a good school.
Hurtwood House is a good school.
Eton is a school for spivs.

christopher barnard

26th July 2019 at 9:28 am

Let’s make state schools as good as Eton. Let’s make all cars as good as Rolls Royces. Let’s make all houses as good as Buckingham palace. Let’s make all hospitals as good as the ones used by the royal family. Let’s make all food as good as Waitrose’s. Let’s make all flights first class.

I am surprised by a Spiked article of such naivety and idealism.

Danny C

26th July 2019 at 9:13 am

I agree that expectations and standards should improve in the state education system. I am not sure if the template / goal should be to be as ‘good’ as Eton. Private schools provide a clear pathway to the top professions – law, medicine, armed forces, finance, media, politics. Society is not meritocratic. The brigtest, hardest working state pupils do not necessarily achieve and are often unable to break into such top professions. I’m not convinced that improving standards alone in the state sector will do much in terms of addressing the broader, longstanding inequalities (wealth, aspiration, network, employment etc) that we see in the UK.

Steve Roberts

26th July 2019 at 9:37 am

Danny C the article makes the point , one of many excellent points,that low expectations lead to low outcomes. You further compound that by effectively saying that as we do not live in a meritocracy and there are other inequalities in society then improving educational standards will not suffice. That misses the point, your concerns are social and political, education for educations sake is the real point the article is making, raising, exponentially, educational standards for all is a first step in equality of opportunity without which better outcomes are a pipedream of social engineers and emotion based political activists.

Danny C

26th July 2019 at 9:49 am

Private schools provide the conditions for teachers to educate in the purest sense of the word. I agree that this is something to aspire to. I am all for education for education sake. But private school are equally examples of social engineering are they not? Do parents send their kids to independent schools exclusively for pure education?

Jim Lawrie

26th July 2019 at 2:12 pm

Danny comprehensive schools are social engineering. the destruction of a working, tried and tested education system that evolved over centuries, and its replacement with a system itself theoretical aimed at an ideological outcome. Then when it failed the remnants of the previous system – private schools – are to be blamed.

Danny C

31st July 2019 at 10:40 pm

The idea that the education systems in the various parts of the British Isles pre comprehensive schools – if that’s what you mean – was tried and tested is laughable.

Stephen J

26th July 2019 at 8:34 am

There is not necessarily an advantage to coming out of school full of facts, I know people who have attained far more than I have, and whenever I have a conversation with them, I wonder how they managed, considering the depth of their ignorance.

I am a person that knows a lot, something for which I am not blowing a trumpet, I am just wired that way. I am shocked at how little my wife knows, we have been together for forty years and it still surprises me sometimes.

I went to a secondary modern school for five years and did OK, my wife on the other hand went to a top private school in Ireland, and she has done OK too.

Career wise, she has been a leader, a nurse, and I have been a worker, shoved around by the bosses, whilst completely away and at the same time helpless.

In other words, the advantage that public and private schools have over the state system is not resources, like the best classrooms with the biggest computers and the latest software.

No, it is all to do with the inculcation of an attitude… The former are told that when they emerge into the adult world, they will be leaders in whatever field they choose. The latter are sent to the job centre for a life of compliance.

Jim Lawrie

26th July 2019 at 5:30 pm

As in the motto of St Aloysius, Glasgow “Ad majora natus sum – I am born for greater things”.

Philip Davies

26th July 2019 at 6:59 am

The solution is easy. Keep the private schools, encourage anyone and everyone to apply to them, choose only the best, on competence, and the state pays as it does for all education. Not just for the rich any more, but for the best suited.

Dermod O’Reilly

26th July 2019 at 6:56 am

“became the 20th Etonian to become PM this week.”


David Baynes

26th July 2019 at 5:00 am

What! You don’t seriously expect our teachers to act professionally and actually take responsibility for children’s education do you? For heavens sake man, whatever next, Policemen preventing crime?

christopher barnard

26th July 2019 at 9:33 am

They advertise constantly on TV and radio asking people to become state school teachers. That’s because the job is poorly paid for the work required. The very existence of these adverts is a giant warning sign to potential applicants.

mister wallace

26th July 2019 at 2:43 am

But if Labour were to ban private schools, where would those politicians and fellow travellers send their children. Oh, silly me. Of course they would have special state funded nomenklatura schools wouldn’t they? Not to mention using other countries where the “progressive” dreams had not yet been realised, eg Chinese (and you have to be a Party member to be that rich) send their children to the US, Canada, Australia, the UK and NZ not just for the education, the course work of which is usually carried by the non-Chinese students or where there are guaranteed passes to ensure more dirty money continue to flow to those universities, but backdoor immigration when it is time to cut and run from the Communist Party and settle in The West to enjoy its (not paid for by them) benefits, leaving millions (not cash) behind in penury.

Jim Lawrie

26th July 2019 at 9:48 am

The indigenous wealthy are facing serious competition for places in UK private schools. The schools, as in any market, are responding by hiking their prices. Costs are rising too.
In Edinburgh, foreigners are affecting house prices as they buy swanky apartments and houses, and staff them for their youngsters attending the local private schools, or for the parents to visit a few times a year.

This growth area is not going to disappear. It will just become the preserve of rich foreigners and justified as an earner.

denis daly

26th July 2019 at 3:37 pm

So, you are worried that the entitled privileged positions of the wealthy in the UK, may be gazumped by even richer foreigners. I hope you can ingest the sense of irony in your post.

Jim Lawrie

26th July 2019 at 4:05 pm

Denis Daly you impute, as does any reply starting with “So, you are ..”.

My post is a description a free for all, open borders, market in education.

The same situation exist with free, non means tested, tuition in Scottish Universities, open to all EU students. The local middle classes pushed for no means testing and were appeased by the vote hungry at Holyrood, are being pushed out. The working class are now unheard of in our universities. Suits some.

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