Britain's elites have never been more self-serving, self-sustaining and only interested in looking after themselves – aided by private education. All of a sudden, the subject of private schools is back on the public agenda, aided by a decade of austerity, stalled living standards and the evaporation of social mobility. This has brought home to many, who would not have previously thought of it, the role of private education in looking after a very select and privileged few.
According to research by the Sutton Trust in 2016, 74% of judges, 71% of barristers, 71% of senior military personnel and 32% of MPs in Britain today were privately-educated. This trend has spread into the worlds of culture, entertainment and sport, with 60% of British winners of Oscars and 42% of BAFTA winners having been privately-educated, along with 41% of UK medallists in the 2012 London Olympics.
The slow march to equality which was evident over the 20th century has now stopped, and in some places has even gone into reverse. A study of 'Who's Who' showed that of entrants who had been born between 1830 and 1920, 50-60% were privately-educated, whereas for those born between the 1930s and 1960s, the figure was 45%, and for those new entrants of the 21st century, it was also 45%.
The defence of private education is one we are all familiar with – it is about parental choice and freedom to decide what to do with your own money. There is an argument that it encourages both competition and partnership with the state sector. And also that people choosing private education are paying twice
for education through taxes and are therefore freeing up capacity in the state system. Yet, the arguments against
private education refute these points. It is a form of social apartheid and represents a refusal of part of society to integrate with the rest of us. We all
lose as a society by pushy parents taking themselves and their kids out of the state sector.
A tiny minority of UK children – 6.5% – are privately educated. Yet this tiny minority distorts society, politics and how we even think about intelligence and success. Some 24% of secondary school-aged children in Edinburgh are privately educated. In 2017, Oxford University's student intake was 42.3% privately educated, Cambridge 37.4%, Durham 37.1%, Imperial College 36.5%, St Andrews 35.6%, and Edinburgh 33.6%.
We, as a society, subsidise private education. With charitable status, such schools can claim relief on non-domestic rates, when many are clearly private businesses. It was revealed in 2014 that Fettes in Edinburgh reduced what they paid each year in non-domestic rates from £209,139 to £41,828 – and this when their annual turnover was just under £20m. This works out as a subsidy from the rest of us of £167,311 per annum to an already privileged tiny group.
George Orwell wrote in 'The Lion and the Unicorn', published in 1941, of the need to 'democratise [the] educational system'. 'We could start by abolishing the autonomy of the public schools and the older universities and flooding them with state-aided pupils chosen simply on grounds of ability.'
In Tony Crosland's magnum opus, 'The Future of Socialism', published in 1956, he wrote: 'We shall not have equality of opportunity so long as we maintain a system of superior private schools, open to the wealthier classes, but out of reach of poorer children however talented and deserving'. Six years later in 'The Conservative Enemy', he went even further: 'The public schools offend not only against the "weak", let alone the "strong", ideal of equal opportunity; they offend even more against any ideal of social cohesion or democracy... This privileged stratum of education…is the greatest single cause of stratification and class consciousness in Britain'.
Labour, informed by this head of steam and the popular belief that the establishment was holding the country, stood in the 1964 election on a manifesto which promised integrating private schools into the state sector. This never happened as the party's energies were taken up with comprehensive education, implemented by Crosland. In 1983, with a left-wing manifesto, the party again contemplated reform, but went down to a huge defeat. Now the issue is back on the agenda.
We hear about the success of Finnish education and the transformation of their state schools. But one rarely examined point by its champions is that when the Finns decided in 1963 to make their system completely comprehensive, they did so agreeing to phase out private education. This began to happen in the early 1970s and is one factor in the improvement of their school system that is now studied and referenced around the world.
I have always thought that while private education is in principle undesirable, to pose abolition is not feasible and not an ethical thing to do. It deprives people of choice and is a curtailment of freedom. Yet, such is the closed shop of privilege that is private education – that just as we abolished the closed shop in relation to trade unions – we should do so with private education.
Reform, integration, and ultimately abolition have to be put back on the agenda. This after all is a minority who consistently refuse to integrate, who choose to work in their own ghettos and turn their backs on mixing with people from other backgrounds, marry into their own groups, and exert power over the rest of us. This is as true of supposedly egalitarian Scotland, as Alex Massie admitted, when he wrote a defence of private education and said of the privately educated: 'they are a clan – an easily identified one at that – whose members stick, and club together...the alumni of the great private schools are a tribe apart'.
Any argument that private education is connected to intelligence, wisdom and social responsibility, can be discounted by the actions of many of the products of private education. Senior politicians such as David Cameron (Eton), George Osborne (Eton-St Paul's), Boris Johnson (Eton), or Nigel Farage (Dulwich), are hardly the brightest rising to the top. The same is true of the current Tory and Labour leaders: Theresa May (St Juliana's) and Jeremy Corbyn (Castle House).
Usually private education apologists dismiss reform by promising that private education will change with various tokenistic schemes such as bursaries for some students. Then there is the hoary old line that the state should raise the standards of its schools to that of the private sector. It would be interesting to see the Daily Mail reaction to the rise in taxation needed to get state schools down to a pupil to teacher ratio of 9:1.
We do need reform of state education in Scotland along with the rest of the UK, but it is also true that the continuation of private education harms all of us. It damages our society, aids various professions, and makes some walks of life no-go areas for the majority, and so consequently, distorts public debates about success and achievement. Gordonstoun advertises itself with the strapline: 'You can't put a price on friendship. Or success'. It's clear on both counts that this is disingenuous marketing.
Private schools are multi-million pound businesses – with boarding fees at Eton coming to £40,668 this year, Harrow £40,050, £12,765 at Gordonstoun and £11,600 at Fettes – yet they are enormously sensitive to even the slightest call for reform. When Matt Hancock, then UK minister for social mobility, in 2016, called for employers to look at the socio-economic background of applicants, including educational background, the private education network went into overdrive. He was forced to retreat and talk in empty platitudes about the importance of meritocracy, another debauched word reduced to the opposite of its original intentions.
Six years ago, three private schools in Scotland – Fettes, St George's School for Girls, Edinburgh, and St Columba's School, Kilmacolm, Inverclyde – failed the charity test set by the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator. Fettes had the grand total of five pupils on full subsidised places, and this could have seen their charity status revoked, but no action was forthcoming. Yet change is coming in other ways. In April 2020, most private schools in Scotland will lose charitable relief, meaning that Fettes will lose that £160,000 per annum subsidy of its non-business rates. It's a popular move supported by 73% of Scots, according to YouGov, with only 13% disagreeing.
Orwell wrote, nearly 80 years ago, about the damage these 'festering centres of snobbery' do and dared to imagine a society in which Eton, Harrow and Winchester, were no longer conveyor belts of privilege, reaction and conservatism.
Private education in the UK has in the intervening period become even more of a social blot on the landscape. The ideal that all of our children should be educated together, experiencing a similar start in life, is a powerful and liberating one which has positive consequences for all of society. We know that this is possible because it's the experience Finland had from the 1970s onward. Like any country embarking on a bold course, they were told by vested interests that it was a diversion and wouldn't work. It wasn't
a diversion and it has
The UK is the only developed country with such a racket as the scale of private education and the grip it has on large swathes of society. It is time to raise the spectre of abolition and say to this minority that they have abused their privileges for too long and at too much cost to us as a society.
Scotland is making a small, but significant, step in the right direction, but we need to go much further. It's time to shut one of the last closed shops and think about all of our children together.