Private schools are often held up as the elitist materialisation of inherited wealth and upper-class toffs: a symbol of inequality, white privilege, and people who simply think they’re better than everyone else.
Some passionate critics of the private education sector believe that these institutions only exist to serve the elitist few. Some have chosen to emotively describe private schools as a form of “social engineering” which allows the rich to get a firmer foothold in positions of power.
The solution in the eyes of these campaigners is simple: abolish private schools, and then we can begin on the road to equality.
There’s no point denying that there’s an inequality of attainment in the UK, as well as some serious issues with social mobility and educational structures. But the myth that private schools are the key cause of these issues is, worryingly, deflecting from the real issues.
This myth is dangerous, demonising and incorrect.
Let’s consider, for a moment, one potential alternative. What might the world look like if we were to attempt to bring independent schools into public ownership, or to simply abolish them? Use your imagination and let’s see what that might look like.
Education is currently the second biggest spending commitment of the treasury after health, costing the taxpayer £90bn a year. A report by Oxford Economics found that private schools save the Treasury £3.5bn a year by taking students that would otherwise be studying in state-funded education.
Additionally, they generate about £4.1bn in tax revenue and are some of the biggest employers in smaller regions. So when Mr Corbyn tells you that teachers in the public sector aren’t being paid enough, there’s a good chance that it’s about to get worse.
Even if by some longshot we concluded that abolishing private education was still worth doing, we must consider how we would go about doing so.
On top of the revenue loss and indirect economic consequences, such as job losses and private schools’ spending on local businesses, we would have to generate huge funds to bring the schools into public ownership.
This inevitably spells out a radical tax hike, meaning that those who weren’t paying for these schools in the first place will now start doing so.
This also means bringing them under the national curriculum, which they are currently exempt from (aside from certain checks and regulations). This would, sadly, be a huge loss for the diversity of education which the private sector provides – diversity not offered by a lot of public schools.
Independent schools always had the ability to keep alive any subjects which the state did not deem worthy of funding. But now that they don’t exist, and the public schools are starved of funding, say goodbye to art and philosophy.
So was it all worth it? Did we manage to eradicate at least some inequality? In terms of attainment, yes. The students who worked hard in private education and were developing and achieving will no longer benefit from the resourceful schooling that they had paid good money to access.
The talent of true pioneers has been chained into conformity. The disadvantaged hopefuls on bursary schemes must now be reintegrated into the grey, homogenous and underfunded schooling system.
The reality is that social immobility and inequality of opportunity are more products of economic conditions than they are of the type of school you went to.
The real disparity of attainment is actually within schooling systems, rather than across them. Those on low incomes will still continue to achieve low grades, and children in the worst-off areas aren’t suddenly going to get a fresh injection of schooling quality.
The vision of an egalitarian utopia that brought us to this point has, in fact, achieved the exact opposite of what they set out to do.
It’s important that we look past perceptions of pigtail coats and white stale men with no concern for anything but themselves. Private schools are not always the elitist cesspit that people like to think they are. In fact, I learnt a great deal about compassion and diversity from private education.
When we see private schools for what they really are, and what they really do, a desire for choice, aspiration, and a more well-off society will prevail.