Eton for all

Rather than abolishing private schools, we should insist that every child has access to a great education.

Joanna Williams
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Topics Politics UK

If there is one thing the Labour faithful hate almost as much as Brexit, it is the Old Etonians in the Conservative Party who triggered the EU referendum and allowed the public to have a say. So when shadow education secretary Angela Rayner used her annual conference speech to propose the effective abolition of private schools she was, of course, met by rapturous applause. It may be the case that many at the top of the Labour hierarchy were themselves privately educated (Jeremy Corbyn, Seumas Milne) or sent their children to fee-paying schools (Diane Abbott, Shami Chakrabarti), but attacks on posh private schools are a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.

Only around 6.5 per cent of children in the UK attend a fee-paying school, a figure which has remained consistent for many years and is currently at a five-year low. These are, for the most part, children of a wealthy social elite. The Labour activists have a point – it is not fair that money can buy access to a better education. Unfortunately, Labour’s plan to end ‘hierarchy, elitism and selection in education’ by forcibly redistributing the assets of private schools is unlikely to do anything whatsoever to improve the education on offer to state-school pupils. On the contrary, it may even lead to a fall in standards.

Parents pay to send their children to private schools for a reason. It is not just for the friendships and networks children form – it is for the education itself. Privately educated pupils do considerably better in public exams and are far more likely to go on to the top universities. In 2018, close to half of all privately educated pupils achieved an A or A* at A-level compared to a national average of 26 per cent. At 16, the difference in performance is even more stark: 63 per cent of children at fee-paying schools got grades A or higher in their GCSEs compared to 23 per cent of pupils across the country as a whole. This vast gulf in academic performance is not down to genetics, acres of manicured playing fields or even small class sizes.

I began my career teaching English in a private school and after a few years moved to work in a state comprehensive. The differences were immediately apparent. My private-school 12-year-olds were expected to read Silas Marner; my comprehensive kids were given The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole. The private-school pupils were expected to read the entire book for homework, whereas, at the comp, extracts were read aloud in class. At the private school, children wrote about George Eliot’s writing style and how she portrayed different characters. Their state-school peers wrote short diary entries.

The state-school pupils I taught were bright, but because so little was expected of them they learned little every day and in every subject. The cumulative impact was lower exam results. Thankfully, this culture of low expectations has begun to change in recent years and some schools, such as the Michaela Free School, are now offering pupils something different. There are new and more challenging exams, a new Ofsted inspection regime, as well as new schools and teachers determined to raise standards. This may well account for some of the fall in the number of private pupils.

But there are those in the state sector who object to these changes and worry about inflicting psychological harm on vulnerable children through expecting too much from them. The Labour Party has now pledged to abolish Ofsted along with private schools. Going along with these objections might play to the conference floor, but it won’t improve standards in state schools.

Arguing against a small proportion of parents using their wealth to buy a better education for their children is a crowd-pleaser at the Labour conference. But it is naive to think the rich won’t find other ways to cement their advantage if private schools are abolished. Wealthy parents will invest in an expensive house in the catchment area of a good school. They will send their children to be educated abroad. They will hire an array of home tutors and sign their kids up to exclusive extracurricular activities. And so what? Neither the parenting habits of the wealthiest in society nor the existence of schools like Eton create inequality in society – although this point is lost on the Labour elite. Inequality is entrenched though a lack of access to money, jobs and power, and reinforced through a culture of low expectations at all levels of society. Today, these low expectations are more likely to come from the political left who would prefer to see all children experience failure-proof, feel-good activities than a rigorous education.

Private education is inherently unfair – all children deserve access to the very best schools a society has to offer. But abolishing private schools won’t make this unfairness disappear. It may well make schools more equal. But, unfortunately, in Labour’s race to lower standards, this is likely to mean equally bad. It will lower the benchmark against which other schools are judged and lower our aspirations for our children. Rather than abolishing the best schools we should insist that every child has access to the very best education. Eton for all!

Joanna Williams is associate editor at spiked. Her most recent book, Women vs Feminism: Why We All Need Liberating from the Gender Wars, is out now.

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.

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Topics Politics UK

Comments

Stuart Mack

27th September 2019 at 8:21 pm

Ideally all children would attend a well run school in which they are encouraged to reach their full potential. The difference between the outcomes in state and private schools may be because children in private schools are taught by “teachers”, while state school children are provided with “facilitators of learning”.

Eric Blair

27th September 2019 at 10:33 am

It may not make much of a difference to outlaw private schools. But the symbolism of the wealthy buying success for their offspring is important too. Just as we should, as a mature liberal democracy, abolish the monarchy and the House of Lords, private education should, firstly be stripped of its ludicrous charitable status, and then abolished. Hierarchies and inequalities are maintained not just by wealth but by a whole superstructure of cultural baggage – clothes, accents, contacts, brands etc all inculcated into the young through private schooling.

Ven Oods

25th September 2019 at 9:27 am

Interestingly, most of the countries with acknowledged ‘best’ education systems also rank highly for suicide rates. Does this suggest that they make better-informed decisions, or is it that those who still manage to fail in a top education system feel even worse about themselves? Finland would be a case in point.

Hana Jinks

26th September 2019 at 8:57 am

And Japan.

ZENOBIA PALMYRA

24th September 2019 at 9:17 am

It seems to me that the British have never really understood democracy. Apart from an unelected head of state, private schools ensure that the 7 percent continue to lord it over the 93 percent. This is feudalism and oligarchy. Advanced nations such as Finland do not have these schools and yet have superior educational outcomes. Why can’t the British follow their example and embrace meritocracy?

Winston Stanley

24th September 2019 at 7:39 pm

Exactly. England needs to get rid of the “queen” and the “house of lords and ladies”, and public schools and stop running the country like a Walt Disney movie for the profit of a few. That is why I support the break up of the UK. Then England can take a good look in the mirror and ask it, “who is the fairest of them all?” And the mirror can tell them straight, “not you, that is for sure. You need to sort your society out and drop all the Walt Disney cr ap.”

John Millson

24th September 2019 at 8:17 am

Completely agree that standards should be raised for all. (Not sure about Silas Marner – read it a 12- and wow, was it dull – the school wasn’t that ‘posh’). But just to point the truism: no matter high much higher standards are raised for the majority, the richest, most elite will always want to remove themselves to keep what they have for themselves and no one else. The sense of ‘amour propre’ which so many rich, especially newly rich, display, drives the whole rotten thing.
We can’t do anything about that except raise all taxes for everyone, even the poorest, for high quality education and training.

H McLean

23rd September 2019 at 11:13 pm

It’s always worth noting that the left, Labour, Marxists – whatever you want to call them – despite all their proclamations and insistence are not motivated by a desire to uplift the poor but rather a deep-seated and malevolent hatred for the rich.

Amin Readh

24th September 2019 at 3:54 am

@ H McLean

Nah! This betrays your own silly prejudices. The comment is too ridiculous to acknowledge. Yet, both people on the left and right demonise each other in this simplistic way. Just pause for a moment, for you know your comment is completely wrong.

Tinfoil Hat

23rd September 2019 at 9:37 pm

Apart from the social aspect of school, just settle down with the A-level syllabus, and some good Maths, Physics and Chemistry books, and storm it.

Jim Lawrie

23rd September 2019 at 9:22 pm

“63 per cent of children at fee-paying schools got grades A or higher in their GCSEs compared to 23 per cent of pupils across the country as a whole. ” that is to say, 63% at private schools, and 18% at state schools.

Winston Stanley

23rd September 2019 at 9:44 pm

“This vast gulf in academic performance is not down to genetics, acres of manicured playing fields or even small class sizes.”

Think how much better the country would be if all kids had the funding and opportunity to achieve high grades. Do you agree that lower class kids are not condemned to lower educational outcomes by their genes but only by the concrete opportunities offered by society?

In lieu of better funding for all kids, there is no reason why we should favour a divided education system that benefits rich kids and gives them a privileged, advantaged outcome later in life at the expense of other kids. It is not in our interests to disadvantage our own kids in that way, so it makes sense that we would vote against the existence of private schools.

Capitalism is professedly based on self-interest and it is in the self-interest of the masses to deconstruct the divided education system that disadvantages our own kids. The rich use their money to advantage themselves at an educational level and we can use our votes to cancel that out.

Capitalism is arguably no longer a progressive economic system in UK, with zero productivity growth over the last ten years. If capitalism can no longer make the society materially better off, and provide a better future for all of our kids in education and later in life, then it seems fair that the rich should have to enjoy the same level of education that the capitalist system leaves the rest of us lumped with.

Jim Lawrie

23rd September 2019 at 10:06 pm

As with all lefties, you think destroying something is an achievement.

I am all for raising standards and therefore parental choice and education vouchers.

Closing private schools would reduce expenditure per child in state schools by 6%, and increase class sizes by 11%. How would that help, with numbers rising every year?
After the credit crunch there were thousands with no school place because the state system could not cope with those children who had come in from the private sector as their parents were skint. We also have the looming crisis of shoddy PPI buildings about to start falling apart. Another Labour bequest.

Jim Lawrie

23rd September 2019 at 10:43 pm

Why don’t you reply to what is posted?

Winston Stanley

23rd September 2019 at 10:46 pm

“As with all lefties, you think destroying something is an achievement.”

You resort to personalisation, generalisation and slander, how “educated” of you.

“I am all for raising standards and therefore parental choice and education vouchers.”

You are yet to provide any statistical evidence that grammar schools, your preference, produce better educational outcomes. “As with all [righ]ties, you think destroying something is an achievement.”

The aim should be to raise the educational levels of all kids, not to reinforce social divisions by giving some kids an advantaged education over others, be that within the comprehensive school system or elsewhere. If there are genuine factors in the teaching methods why some schools do better than others then the education system as a whole should learn from that and implement any changes found necessary. That is the point of the article. It looks like your only desire is to reinforce disparate outcomes and not a better outcome for all.

“Closing private schools would reduce expenditure per child in state schools by 6%, and increase class sizes by 11%. How would that help, with numbers rising every year?”

If the rich can afford to pay more for education then they can afford to pay more tax to support higher funding for the education of all. The sum would increase the amount available for the educational of all per kid. A distinct tax on the rich could be implemented for that purpose. If they can pay more toward education then let them pay more. They have benefited from an unequal education system and now they can pay some of the money gained to contribute to an equal education system.

The number of kids in education increases all the time but so do the numbers in work to support that, there is no reason why an influx of rich kids should make any more difference to the level of education available to all than any other influx. Indeed it would have a positive impact on funding if the elevated funding that rich parents spend on the education of their kids was directed into the general education system.

Winston Stanley

23rd September 2019 at 11:47 pm

Why don’t you reply to what is posted?

“Do you agree that lower class kids are not condemned to lower educational outcomes by their genes but only by the concrete opportunities offered by society?”

Winston Stanley

23rd September 2019 at 7:12 pm

The abolition of private schools would not necessarily make state schools any better but it would make the education system fairer. The 6.5% of parents who send their kids to privileged schools will likely want to keep them but there seems to be no obvious reason why the 93.5% of parents who do cannot send their kids there would want to keep them. Why would a majority of parents want to maintain an education system that favours other kids over their own? It is contrary to their own interests. If state schools do better in posher areas then that is an argument for relatively higher spending on education in poorer areas until that gap is closed. We would not set out to create an unequal education system and we do not have to maintain one either. A uniform education system would give impetus across society to increase general education standards. What is not to like about that?

Jim Lawrie

23rd September 2019 at 7:58 pm

“Why would a majority of parents want to maintain an education system that favours other kids over their own? ” They don’t. The clue is in the word “private” – as in privately funded.

“A uniform education system would give impetus across society to increase general education standards.” Pure assertion. Back it up. Wasn’t comprehensive education supposed to do that?

Winston Stanley

23rd September 2019 at 8:18 pm

“They don’t. The clue is in the word “private” – as in privately funded.”

Why would a majority of parents want to politically maintain the existence of private schools that give other kids an advantage over their own kids when they could vote to abolish the system of private schools? This is a democracy and we do not have to let businesses run private schools for privileged rich kids. Their “traditional” trappings make no difference to that.

“Pure assertion. Back it up. Wasn’t comprehensive education supposed to do that?”

All comprehensives have some streaming in subjects to help all kids attain their full potential but that does not mean that we need separate “grammar” schools with disproportionate funding to reinforce the class system.

All parents will have a common interest in raising education levels when all kids are part of common schools.

Be sure to include some stats in your next post, if you demand evidence then you should be willing to supply it.

Winston Stanley

23rd September 2019 at 8:47 pm

“Wasn’t comprehensive education supposed to do that?”

Various literature reviewed here: https://comprehensivefuture.org.uk/comparing-the-outcomes-of-selective-and-comprehensive-systems-can-mislead/

> A study of the long term effects of a shift to comprehensive education in Scotland found there had been a rise in attainment and a reduction in social segregation in schools (xxii). It said ‘Scotland’s young people are better educated today than their parents or grandparents were at the same age’.

xxii Murphy, D, Croxford, C, Howieson, C and Raffe, D (2015) Everyone’s Future – lessons from fifty years of Scottish comprehensive schooling. IOE Press.

Jim Lawrie

23rd September 2019 at 8:00 pm

10% of children are in private education.

Winston Stanley

23rd September 2019 at 8:53 pm

> The UK independent sector as a whole educates around 630,000 children in around 2,500 schools.

The independent sector educates around 6.5% of the total number of school children in the UK (and over 7% of the total number of school children in England) with the figure rising to more than 15% of pupils over the age of 16. (Independent Schools Council)

michael savell

23rd September 2019 at 5:37 pm

It is a total failure to be forced to the conclusion that our state schools are so bad especially now that feminism supplies 80% of the teachers.It should be catching up with the wealth of talent we are told these so called teachers have or at least those same teachers tell us they have.Let’s get back to the male teaching of boys,isolate the sexes,stop playing games,let them grow up with their peers or risk a maelstrom of violence later.

Jim Lawrie

23rd September 2019 at 7:52 pm

If it were possible to uptick I would.

Winston Stanley

23rd September 2019 at 8:20 pm

Well it isn’t, this is an argument based format and not a tick format.

Dominic Straiton

23rd September 2019 at 4:59 pm

Eton would simply move from communist Britain to communist China.

Winston Stanley

23rd September 2019 at 7:15 pm

Good riddance?

Christopher Beattie

23rd September 2019 at 4:54 pm

Private education is no more inherently unfair than someone with more money can buy a larger house, or faster car, or go on more exotic holidays. Parents who live in this country and who spend their money on private education are already paying taxes that go to funds for the schools in the public sector. They are paying twice for their children’s education. I did not benefit from private education (though I was lucky enough to go to a grammar school in Northern Ireland) and my sons went to the local primary school, comprehensive and later sixth form college when we lived in Surrey, so I have no horse in this race. What is unfair is putting dogma before the needs of children, denying them knowledge and skills, closing off the vast hinterland of culture, history and the sciences, for superficial, trendy glosses that leave them poorly prepared for the present, never mind the future. The State should have a minimal role in education. What we see from this potential Labour policy is, at heart, another step towards making everyone reliant on that State – as long as it is Socialist, of course.

Winston Stanley

23rd September 2019 at 7:19 pm

“Private education is no more inherently unfair than someone with more money can buy a larger house, or faster car, or go on more exotic holidays.”

The idea is to give kids an equal start without privilege and then they can later merit advantages according to their own merits rather than privilege inherited from their parents. A capitalist society is never going to be entirely fair but we could make a good start in the education system.

Jim Lawrie

23rd September 2019 at 7:51 pm

Many people have turned to the private sector to give their children an education.
Thomas Sowell – I paid privately for my daughter to have the education that was once to be had free on the state –

What next – revive the Named Persons Act to make sure parents are not unfairly teaching their children at home?
It is not the fault of the private sector that State schools are rubbish.

The people proposing these measures are invariably privately educated, as are most of their children.

Education vouchers and choice is what parents need.

Winston Stanley

23rd September 2019 at 8:22 pm

Pure assertion. Back it up. Wasn’t private education supposed to do that?

Winston Stanley

23rd September 2019 at 8:32 pm

> Grammar schools are no better than other state schools, shows new research
(28 March 2018)

Grammar schools are no better or worse than non-selective state schools in terms of attainment, but can be damaging to social mobility, according to new research by Durham University which analysed over half a million pupil records.
The researchers say a policy of increasing selection within the schools system is dangerous for equality in society. Instead, they are calling on the Government to phase out grammar schools as their analysis shows that grouping more able and privileged children in grammar schools can harm the majority of others who don’t attend those schools.
Once the pupil intake of grammar schools is taken into account based on factors such as chronic poverty, ethnicity, home language, special educational needs, and age in the year group, the Durham University analysis shows that grammar schools are no more or less effective than other schools.
The apparent success of grammar schools is simply due to the pupils coming from more advantaged social backgrounds and already having higher academic attainment at age 11, suggests the research.
The research is published in the British Journal of Sociology of Education today (27 March).

https://www.dur.ac.uk/education/news/?itemno=34151

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