PRIVATE SCHOOLS: ARE WE BETTER OFF WITHOUT THEM?

by David Grounds

After Alan Bennett gave his sermon entitled ‘Fair Play’ at King’s College Cambridge, some of the conversations in my school have turned to the issue of private schools, and why we are attending one. The phrase that I have heard more than once, is a line from Tom Lehrer’s song, ‘Selling Out’:

I’ve always found ideals,
Don’t take the place of meals.

Or, put simply, there’s no point in abolishing private schools if it isn’t going to help on anything other than an ideological level. My objection is simple: it would help. 

My school is one of the ‘lighter’ private schools compared to Harrow or Eton, and so the proportion of, for want of a better term, ‘brats’, is fairly small. But still, there are one or two people who could certainly be described as ‘posh’ or perhaps ‘spoilt’. It may seem inevitable, with parents (especially upper classes) spending more and more money on their children, that they might come out with a weaker connection to real life problems and difficulties and have insufficient communication skills for the real world. But being placed in a sheltered and favourable private school as well will only serve to deepen this detachment – as Alan Bennett said, “They [the private school children] were loud, self-confident and all seemed to know one another, shouting down the table to prove it while also being shockingly greedy. Public school they might be but they were louts”. If this is the result of many private schools, and from my perspective it is, then their education has failed, for it should not only serve to get them a university place and good job, but to adequately teach them basic life skills. In this, private schools often fail.

My objection is simple: it would help. 

However, my basic and natural objection to public schools is that they are inherently and openly biased and classist, and judge children not on academic ability, but on the social status of their parents. When a whole new generation forms and splits over issues of wealth and class, it is damaging. It is not simply the ideology of equality that suffers, but the whole future generation. Private education breeds and encourages a division between the rich and the poor.

In fact, shouldn’t ideology itself be reason enough to change things? After all, it is ideologies of morality and money that we base our lives around, and, when something threatens this, it should change.  And private education is certainly a threat – it openly favours the rich over the poor, and implies more worth in children of richer parents than those of the lower-middle or working class. I happily support Alan Bennett’s idea of uniting private and state schools, starting with ‘the amalgamation of state and public schools at sixth form level’.

At the moment, however, the main objections come from those who benefit from private education: the upper class parents and, in some cases, children. The heart of this dissent, judging from the people I have spoken to, is that dissolution of private education would result in spreading and therefore diluting the ways in which they benefit from public schools: better educated, more able teachers and more expensive equipment and facilities. But this, for me, is not a valid argument. It is, in fact, promoting elitism purely because they benefit from it.

it openly favours the rich over the poor, and implies more worth in children of richer parents than those of the lower-middle or working class

So why hasn’t anything been done to tackle this issue? Perhaps it could be chalked down to the bias of those in parliament – the idea of a social elite running the country. Except that, since Harold Wilson in 1964, only two prime ministers were privately educated: Tony Blair and David Cameron. Or it could be the result of cultural inertia (people like me, in fact, who disagree in principle but see that it has always been done and haven’t the motivation to change it), or politicians pandering for upper class votes. In truth, it’s not particularly relevant. What matters is that something should be done, and, with support, it could be done.

I would be both naïve and arrogant to believe that I hold the solution to this matter. In reality, I don’t have the intelligence or information to tackle all the ethical and economic issues presented. The matter is more complex than I, or anyone perhaps, could put into only so many words. But for me Alan Bennett summed up the problem in just five words that ring true whichever way you approach it: ‘private education is not fair’. That, for me, ideological or not, is reason enough to abolish it.

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