For some people, a private education is normal. It was just where they went to school. For many others, the image we conjure up when we think about private schools is one of ancient buildings strewn across rolling playing fields, of robed masters teaching Latin to the Camerons and Johnsons of our future. An image of extreme wealth and extreme privilege. It could be my Southern upbringing, or maybe my Chelsea boots, but it is often assumed that I went to a private school. I didn’t. And in a way, it’s hard to talk about something that I really have no experience of.
But to leave that aside for a moment and mount my soap box: the institution of the private school is inherently unfair: providing smaller class sizes, more extracurricular activities to pupils, and more attention given to each individual. The private school is the first and greatest slap in the face to any notion of meritocracy – that one person can receive a better education than other, due to an accident of birth. Statistically, despite efforts to diversify, privately educated students are massively over-represented at top British universities. 43% of students at Oxford University were privately educated, and around 25% at Warwick, despite well over 90% of the population receiving a state education. Undoubtedly, things are evening out, with more state students than ever attending university. But the cultural impact of a divisive education system cannot be underestimated, scents of the ‘old boy’ networks linger in public images of the political class.
The private school is the first and greatest slap in the face to any notion of meritocracy
It’s self-evident that a better education on the back of parental privilege is unfair. Some well-intentioned genius probably came up with the idea of granting private schools charity status (provided that they used some of their extensive resources to serve the local community). It’s a valid idea, a strong central ground, a best of both worlds, and I don’t like it. Images of people being forced down mine shafts in exchange for a water fountain and a pair of Nike trainers flash through my mind. This should not be about appeasement or about watering down a system that is inherently unfair, but about equality, the principle that all children should be entitled to an education, to the same start in life.
But before we all take hammers and petrol bombs to the walls of Eton, I would suggest that the real issue here is not one solved by the destruction of private schools, but one solved by the re-structuring of the state sector itself. State schools that compete at the same level as their private counterparts, that are so attractive, so opportunistic, that the need for the private sector becomes redundant.
True, this is a pipe dream. But in many ways, it is one that can be realised not necessarily through massive investment, but through rewriting the national curriculum, and redefining what education is all about. To educate for the sake of educating, rather than to force the poor kids into replications of the rat runs they’ll navigate for much of their adult lives: going through series after series of exams and assessments. Instead, we should foster a system that assesses the individual creativity, that inspires innovation and initiative, and that allows each child to realise their potential. We can leave the private schools standing, but empty.