A Defence of Private Schools

By Angus Kennedy

Kevin Rooney wants to start a fight to ban private schools (1)(2). To give every child an Eton. To storm the Bastilles of private education and appropriate them in the name of social justice. To abolish them, and then invade them. Rooney seems to have a real love-hate relationship with private education. Arguing that all children ‘are born with the potential to achieve great things’ he wants to remove the inequalities of personal wealth that gives only one child in many the educational opportunities they all deserve. While I support the idea that a society can and should strive to provide a truly excellent Eton-standard education for all, I draw back at the idea of banning private schools in particular and, more broadly, at the view that inequalities of wealth are the real problem we face today: especially with respect to education.

Firstly, I should put my cards on the table and say that I was privately educated in secondary school. Thanks to the sacrifice of a single mother working for a charity, I got to learn Latin and Greek at school—and go to Oxford to study classics. Supporting an inspiring slogan like ‘Etons for all’, however, should not be couched in terms of arguing for ‘equality of opportunity’ for children with respect to education. Right now, this can have no substance other than effectively calling on the state to intervene to override, to alleviate, to apologise for, the normal operation of the market. At a time when the tendency of the state is towards increasing intervention into our basic freedoms, attacking the limitations of the market may not be as progressive as it sounds.

When Rooney argues for putting ‘higher quality of education for the wealthy’ on the table, this can only play out one way: removing it from the wealthy. Which is to deny the right of some people to set up a business (or in many cases a charity) that charges a fee for services—in this case, a high quality education. It means denying other adults the right to spend their money on such services. It is not clear why they should lose the freedom to spend and consume as they see fit. Because they are being selfish? Failing in civic responsibility, is the state to take them over its knee? In the name of ‘equality’, the right to exchange goods freely in the marketplace—the fundamental bedrock of equality in a capitalist society—is to be abolished. So why stop there? Private music teachers? Go whistle. Private language tutors? Au revoir. Private health-care? Join the waiting list.

This is the equality politics of ‘that’s not fair’. In a society so anti-consumption, so accepting of the limits to growth, the cry of why cannot I have what he has—aspirational on the face of it—is no sooner uttered than it turns into the envious whine of if ‘I cannot have it, then neither will he.’ This is—beneath the stirring rhetoric—a tacit acceptance of our society’s failure to provide excellent universal education for all. It does not speak to raising up the level of education to the best examples we have on offer. It does not offer us all more Etons. In fact, it serves to undermine our equality before the law.

You do not have to believe that private schools are right and good to be opposed to calls for the state to ban them. That is, to dismantle private institutions and remove their freedom to choose which pupils to take. This is to attack fundamental freedoms (of association, or not to associate) which are based on the ability to discriminate: we will only take children who are Catholic or Muslim; or wealthy; or good at rugby; or, indeed, on their merit. These are all legitimate criteria for a private institution. It is that ability to discriminate that makes private schools independent in a powerful sense. One of the good things about private schools is their independence from more than minimal state interference. They are normally free of Ofsted inspections, for example, one of the most destructive elements of contemporary education. They do not have to follow the national curriculum. They are free to educate as they see fit, they are free to exclude pupils as they see fit, they are free to reject worthless qualifications as they see fit. They are judged on their results by the market and trust me that—whatever the limitations and they are many—of the market, they are as nothing compared to those of Ofsted. The market at least reflects in some sense our social relations, and has more humanity in it than the mentality of government box-ticking.

We should also be aware that banning private schools would tie in nicely into a lot of policy circle initiatives gaining influence at the moment. When James Purnell MP, director of the Open Left Project, says that ‘Labour has sometimes been too hands off with the market and too hands on with the state’, he is seeking to intervene against market outcomes that he does not like, yes, but he is also giving up on the ability of the market to deliver higher incomes and prosperity for us all—in the context of a complete absence of any alternative to the market. In this context, that means: Labour has poured resources into state education and the only reason it can think of that they are not delivering the results is because some 7% of rich kids are so distorting the playing field that they deserve to be handicapped for a change.

As independent institutions, private schools, much like the Catholic Church, are a grave source of concern for those who monitor and graph inequality. They appear as dinosaur bastions, unacceptably elitist throwbacks, who stubbornly insist on old-fashioned teaching instead of child-centered learning. They are seen as exclusive, discriminatory, hierarchical, and old-fashioned. Such language is used to present attacks on independent institutions in the name of the excluded ‘victims’ of their unacceptable prejudice. But we are not made victims by not going to public school. Nor would the Chinese and Indian students who increasingly attend them be better off were they denied entry. Rather, the continued existence of independent schools teaching an elite education is precisely what gives rise to Rooney’s desire to have Etons for all. To ban them would be to remove that possibility, that thing to aspire to, that itch to get in and raise yourself up to the level of those elites.

I would have more sympathy with the argument if it were turned on its head. Let us make state schools more independent. Fund them by all means, do stop them from discriminating on entrance, but let the state be hands off. Increase the numbers of teachers. Introduce a high-minded liberal knowledge-centred curriculum. Invade and abolish Ofsted. That would seem more in the right direction than what can only be in reality a cynical effort to paper over real differences in wealth and privilege in our society with the language of ‘equality of opportunity’.

Equality of opportunity is not the same thing as equality of condition—having the same level of access to resources—and neither does it target privilege. Rather, it seeks to locate social problems in the socially-excluded who are then given ‘opportunities’ to help themselves. This is what Labour now refers to as “active equality”: giving people “power to shape the outcomes they seek”. That those outcomes may represent inequalities is then justified as a reward for their talent. Thereby entrenching inequalities. Focusing in on the talent and potential of every child is both discriminatory against the privileged children and secondly narrows the definition of equality down to just being a reward for talent.

There is a more important argument to be had about education today than trying to reignite a class war against the toffs. The report of the Sutton Trust stating that the children of the poorest families fall behind a full year by the time they are five may not be as sensationalist as the claims of Iain Duncan Smith that the brain sizes of deprived nursery children are “three times smaller than they should be”. Both, however, represent the same set of assumptions so prevalent at the moment, which holds that deprived children are almost irretrievably damaged long before they reach primary school. It is, the implication is, the fault of their parents for not sufficiently aping middle-class behaviour. Not that they are financially deprived so much as they are emotionally deprived: their families are apparently short on cocoa, cuddles, and very hungry caterpillars at bedtime. Being working class these days seems more of a qualitative than a quantitative failing.

This is the ground on which we should fight for a better education system. Reject out of hand the idea that parents, or teachers, are failing their children. Argue that we are capable of improving education through building a better system with more resources for all. Reject the idea that quantitative improvements matter less than the tender ministrations of state therapists or behaviour management neuro-psychology gurus. Do not accept the limitations of the way things are now and seek to lessen the impact—that is to shut off the possibility of dreaming great dreams. Game changing goes out the window in favour of making the present more bearable.

There is an argument for not settling for what we have. Letting our dissatisfaction look for ways to create the genuinely and radically new. And that would mean really aspiring to a great education for all.

Footnotes

(1) Kevin Rooney, ‘Why private schools should be banned – written by a teacher’, timesonline, 22 December 2009
http://timesonline.typepad.com/schoolgate/2009/12/why-private-schools-should-be-banned-by-a-teacher.html
(2) Kevin Rooney, ‘Why we should ban private schools – the last word! Kevin Rooney hits back….’, timesonline 21st January 2010
http://timesonline.typepad.com/schoolgate/2010/01/why-we-should-ban-private-schools-the-last-word-kevin-rooney-hits-back.html

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Written under a Creative Commons License, with edits: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0/

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