Some fairly ridiculous claims about private schools have been making their rounds on social media for the last few days, courtesy of Anthony Wallersteiner, headteacher of a £12,000-a-term school.
The head of Stowe School compared claims that privately-educated pupils ‘being accused of dominating the top jobs and stifling social mobility’ to Nazi discrimination against Jewish people in the Third Reich of the 1930s and 40s.
Wallersteiner went on to claim that parents of some pupils had complained to him about their children being denied places in Oxbridge because of ‘social engineering’.
Almost a third of MPs were privately educated
These claims are highly loaded and problematic – likening the children of privileged parents to a discriminated minority who would go on to face genocide, amidst rife reports of anti-Semitism in the media, demonstrates use of politicised language to stifle genuine conversation about the nature of private schools, while also diminishing the true atrocities genuinely discriminated peoples face. This is also an ultimate demonstration of class, race and white privilege – a wealthy man, who no doubt reached his social status to some extent through his innately privileged heritage (being a member of the majority), complaining that institutions are perhaps going some way to redress the balance of power in this nation.
What’s more, his incredulous statements appear entirely fabricated. Studies estimate that almost a third of MPs in the House of Commons were privately educated, while The Sutton Trust found last year that 1,310 Oxbridge students over the last three years went to private schools – in the same time frame, 2,894 other schools sent 1,220 pupils between them.
But this article isn’t about Wallersteiner’s ludicrous views, though they do an excellent job at framing the entitled mindset which stew in the Bell Jar bubbles of private schools. This article is about why private schools need to be abolished.
A quick note on terminology: the British institutions commonly referred to as ‘private’ schools tend to be, officially, ‘public schools’. This is an archaic, though historically legitimate, term, contrasting them with local schools – public schools took anyone from the country, providing they were willing to pay the school’s (usually hefty) fines. The reason I have opted to use the (technically incorrect) term ‘private school’ in this article is because the phrase ‘public school’ serves to diminish the exclusivity of these institutions. By referring to these schools as ‘private’, I seek to highlight the true extent to which they divide society.
This is not to say that all independent schools should be outlawed, and I appreciate that schools which get little or no subsidy from the government necessarily must charge tuition fees. However, there is a big difference between a specialist college or an independent school trying out an independent, modernised curriculum, from wealthy parents sending their children to ludicrously-charging institutions to grant them a classist advantage in life. Eton, Harrow, St Paul’s are the factories of Prime Ministers, Heads of States and CEOs.
Of course, there will always be the argument that people who have earned a lot of money have a right to spend their money how they please, and if they choose to give their child a head-start in life, why shouldn’t they? This ignores the fact that children of higher-class parents are already considered more employable, often regardless of their education, beginning a vicious cycle which enforces a glass ceiling on the rest of the population. Children of wealthy parents already have a head start in life.
Private schools suck valuable resources out of the public reach, enforcing class divides
Private schools pull in the best teachers from around the country (or world), ensuring that their pupils receive a world class education. This in itself is not a problem: the goal of every school is to enhance their students’ education by only hiring the most competent and experienced instructors. But, existing in a private sphere, these schools suck the resources out of the public reach, enforcing class divides. It is natural that good teachers will opt to work for the institution which offers them the most competitive salary, but, charging termly tuition fees which are often higher than the annual fees of universities, private schools can afford to offer incredibly high wages to teachers which comprehensive schools simply cannot.
The class divisions this encourages is most evident in the areas the private schools are located themselves. The country’s two most infamous private schools, Eton (Prince William, Prince Harry, David Cameron) and Harrow (Winston Churchill, Lord Byron, Jawaharlal Nehru), are both situated within the immediate vicinity of relatively disadvantaged areas.
Slough, next door to Eton, has a lower percentage of economically active people, and a much higher percentage of a population with no qualifications, compared to the average for the British South East. Meanwhile, the London Borough of Harrow is ranked within the bottom four for categories such as housing delivery, low pay change and council tax support; Hillingdon, its immediate neighbour (which contains Boris Johnson’s constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip), has the 3rd-lowest attainment of target GCSE grades for disadvantaged pupils in the whole of London.
Even if pupils manage to leave private education without an entitled attitude, they leave with a portfolio of nepostitic contacts
Figures about inequality aside, there is little argument to be made against the idea that private schools foster a privileged mindset, a prep-school for the Oxbridge bubble which so often infests Westminster. Walk past Harrow or Eton on a school day and you’re more than likely to see a parade of Little Jacob Rees-Moggs trooping by in their top-hats, archaically droning PR in stark contrast to the geographic urbanised Estuary English of their would-be peers. We are all a sum of the people we know, and standing toe-to-toe with princes and sons (discrimination based on the sexes in private schools is a separate, though relevant, issue entirely) of bankers and politicians must inevitably contribute to one’s worldview, encouraging a privileged mindset. Even if pupils manage to leave private education without an entitled attitude, they leave with a portfolio of nepotistic contacts which no doubt contributes to their increased chances of employment as mentioned above.
The public sphere is drained through tax cuts enforced on it by people who were once students at private schools
Of course, abolishing or publicising private schools will not provide an overnight solution to inequality, but it may serve to be a step toward reducing class prejudices and encouraging social mixing. The country’s best teachers will return to a truly public resource tool, and competition for the best teachers may encourage schools to further improve themselves to attract true talent.
But there will always be supporters of private schools, just there will always be supporters of private healthcare. These supporters are the people who believe that a private sphere of social services should exist for the people who can afford them in an increasingly unequal society, while the public sphere is drained through tax cuts enforced on it by people who were once students of these very same institutions.