I’ve noticed a phenomenon in recent months and years. Every so often I’ll log onto Facebook and see that one of my Facebook “friends” has taken the decision to pull their kid out of normal school and enrol them in a private school. Cue a picture of the child in a boater or stylised blazer and then lots of well meaning comments about how people hope their child enjoys their new school.
I don’t post these comments. I feel alienated and confused by their decisions. People who seem generally OK are making decisions that I find very difficult to understand and even more difficult to square morally.
For the record I feel very similarly about the people who suddenly discover God to facilitate the admission of their child into a religious school. In general I don’t believe that the state should fund religious schools, but the decisions of genuinely religious people to school their children in this way are a rather different kettle of fish – but, that is another post.
Back to private (fee paying) schools. In general I believe that creating a system of educational apartheid is a bad thing. Imagine designing an education system. You need some way to allocate people to different schools, so what about if at the age of 11 everyone’s parents took an income test? Depending on the size of the parents’ house and bank balance the young people could be sorted into two (or more) different types of schools. The rich go to one lot of schools, the poor to another.
Now I’m guessing that most people would be loath to support such a system. They might argue that it is not fair. That young people shouldn’t be judged on the income of their parents and that such a system would only serve to entrench inequality and mistrust. However, we routinely live with a system which operates in exactly this way. Rich kids go to private schools, poorer kids don’t. And not only do we live with it, our politicians (who largely came from the private schools) actually fete and celebrate the private schools. (See David Cameron’s conference speech for a recent example).
In fact hardly anyone goes to private schools in Britain. Only about 5-10% of the population are educated in this way (I calculated 6.9% from the latest government school statistics) . This makes the visibility of people with this background all the more noteworthy. Most people don’t go to these schools because they can’t afford to. The private school nearest to where I live will set you back over £11000 per year. They are expensive and hardly essential given that the state funds high quality education for all young people.
However, at some point people’s income reaches the level that would enable them to spend a lot of money on a private education for their children. I’ve started to get interested in why they make this choice. School choices are important career choices, but they are choices that are largely made by your parents for you. So what is it that those parents who make these choices are looking for? I’ve heard a range of different reasons given along the following lines.
- “Well the state system is in crisis. Of course I believe in public education, but one just can’t take the risk with one’s own child.”
- “I’ll do anything to maximise my child’s opportunities in life.”
- “State schools don’t have high enough standards. My child is not being challenged enough.”
- “State schools don’t look after young people enough. My child needs much more intensive support.”
- “My child just wouldn’t fit in at the local comprehensive.”
There is undoubtedly a grain of truth in all of these. However I think that they are all wrapped up in a lot of moral panic fostered by politicians and the media. Typically this kind of panic over-emphasises the effect that different types of schools have as opposed to factors like an individual’s intelligence or the socio-economic background they come from. In fact there is a lot of research that suggests that school effect is pretty small. It also typically runs down state schools by sensationalising incidents where they have failed. Melissa Benn is very good on these sorts of issues in her book School Wars.
Of all of the reasons that people give for paying for private education I suspect that the one about their child not fitting in is probably the most important. People feel uncomfortable when they have to deal with people who are different from them. This is not entirely unreasonable, conflict and challenging relationships often appear between different groups. Kids are aware of class, race, gender, sexuality and so on and often make unfair and prejudiced judgements on these lines. Wouldn’t it be better if everyone was just educated with their own? Good fences make good neighbours. Why treat schools as if they are social experiments in multi-culturalism? If I send my kids to a school that only admits other children whose parents work at a university wouldn’t it really be better for everyone? Even better if the school teaches my religion, if the teachers agree with my politics and nobody ever has to have a cross word. A private school allows me to pay for that, or at least something like it. Except of course children, like all human beings, are endlessly inventive in finding differences which they can use as the basis of bullying. So if you go to an all white school, you better hope that you don’t have red hair or a big nose or the wrong trainers!
On the other hand I have watched Metropolis and know where creating a segregation of the classes leads us. Politically I don’t suppose I’m particularly unusual in wanting to create a society in which different classes and races are educated together in harmony like the keys on a piano. However, it is easy to vote for this kind of ideal, especially when all politicians claim to believe in it as well. But, when you have to make a choice about your son or daughter it all seems to get a bit harder for some people. You are making a career choice for your child and you don’t want to make the wrong one. If you make the most conservative choices and pay every penny you can, then no one can say that you did the wrong thing. Caution is often a good idea, but only if it is in relation to a real danger, rather than a manufactured moral panic.
Personally I don’t feel that my children’s interests and my principles are in conflict. Sorry! I wish I did, but I’ve given it a lot of thought and it seems that there are so many reasons not to send your kids to private school and very few reasons to do this. So I thought I might set out my logic in the hope that it might help people who are struggling with this.
- Social and cultural reasons. I believe that young people should have the opportunity to mix with a wide range of people and learn from these interactions. Sometimes these might be hard, but they can still help young people to learn and develop. I think that it is strange and unhealthy to grow up in an environment in which everyone shares almost all of your background.
- Political and ethical reasons. I’ve banged on about this already, but I believe that it is profoundly dangerous for us to educate rich and poor separately. Inevitably this is to the detriment of the poor, but it is also likely to be to the detriment of the rich. The growth of inequality and the breakdown of social solidarity are bad for everyone. Having some empathy for people who are different from you is helped along by ever having met someone different from you. It may be a cliché to say that the personal is the political, but in the area of school choice it clearly is. You don’t have to use the private school system, but when you do, you are making a political choice and should think about whether it is one that you are happy with.
- Educational reasons. I think that the evidence that private schools offer a better education is pretty slim. Most of the difference in attainment is explained by differences in the intake. Beyond this it is possible that private schools are better at teaching to the test and it is certainly the case that they are better resourced. A recent Sutton Trust study traces the advantages that private schools have with more resources, smaller class sizes and an ability to attract and retain teachers. The study concludes that although it is difficult to be sure given the data available it is likely that independent schools support children to make more progress. But, there is also evidence from HEFCE that students from private schools perform worse at university. So private school might help children to pass exams but it probably won’t make them cleverer in the long run.
- Career reasons. Where private schools probably do score considerably better than state schools is in wider career benefits. Some of this is about enhanced educational attainment, but this is only one factor. Spending all your time with rich people and their families probably does rub off and offer access to knowledge and networks that constitute real career capital. However, it is difficult to separate these from the socio-economic background of the child. It is also a fairly problematic message to give to young people and runs the risk of fostering a sense of entitlement and unearned privilege. While we might not want our children to get everything the hard way – do we really want everything to come easily to them? There is surely a study to do of the career development needs of trustafarians! However, even with these advantages the aforementioned Sutton Trust report argues that adjusting for social background independent school educated people probably earn £57,653 more than their state school educated colleagues between the ages of 26-42. So that is about £30,000 less than their parents will have paid for their school fees. It is a real advantage, but it isn’t as huge as you might expect.
- Financial reasons. Private schools are expensive. You could spend that money on other things that might also offer your children considerable opportunities to learn and develop themselves. Of course you could also give it all to charity or spend it all on buying the finest wines known to humanity. If you don’t send your kids to private school all of these choices are yours.
I didn’t go to private school. My kids don’t go to private school. I’m pretty happy with how things have turned out for me and for them so far. Yes private schools do offer some real advantages. But, once you remove the input factors, they look much less dramatic. There are also some pretty major downsides for society and for individuals.
So bite the bullet and send your kids to Grange Hill. They probably won’t ever learn to wear a boater, but they might just grow up to live in a better and more equal world.