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Ban private schools?

Let's get started on examining the case for banning private schools. I was guilty of a little hyperbole, perhaps, when I set the question up. Let's look at some figures.

The percentage of children that are privately educated in the U.K. is just 7%. Yet this small minority dominate, or have a strong grip on, many of the traditionally high-status professions.
Some examples:

70% of barristers in top chambers were privately educated (only 5% went to state comprehensives). More than three quarters of judges were privately educated.

More than half the UK's leading journalists were privately educated, a percentage that has risen over the last two decades. Only 10% went to state comprehensives (the rest went to grammar schools).

A third of MPs were privately educated.

A third of the leaders of the top 100 FTSE companies were privately educated.

These figures are from the Sutton Trust. Other resources here. My guess is that you would find a similar situation in medicine, etc.

I'll briefly respond to some of your initial comments. Barefoot bum: you favour total privatization because you don't trust the state to provide anything other than second-rate uniformity.

OK then privatize all schools, and indeed, introduce a voucher system. But with NO TOP UPS. That way, we get all the variety and choice we might want, and healthy competition between schools too, if that is what you favour.

But with no top ups, all children now have an equal chance of success. The system no longer heavily favours the children of a small minority.

Curiosis suggests I must also favour banning cake because not everyone can afford it. Obviously I don't. Look, by all means allow those who have worked hard and achieved wealth, etc. through their own abilities to enjoy the rewards. Including cake.

But children who simply have their advantage bought for them have not earned that privilege.

And that privilege is at the expense of other children who may have more native wit and drive, but, because they attended a crappy comprehensive, never got the chance to thrive.

The current system, I shall argue, results in the top professions being dominated by a bunch of second-rate hooray Henries. That is not fair or just. Nor is it good for the economy. For the real talent rarely gets to work the levers of power. Those levers are worked by the second-raters whom Mummy and Daddy bought a ticket to the front of the queue.

Nor will state schools get any better while it is in the interests of all those privately educated MPs and journalists - who are busy privately educating their own children - that they not get better. For it is in their interest that state schools remain second-rate, indeed, that state schools not provide anything more than the bare educational minimum that the lower orders require for the economy to remain healthy.

If you really want good education for all, force the children of those in power to attend the same schools as the rest of us. I guarantee they'll be better overnight!

So, I have come up with some reasons why banning private schools might be a good idea. And I have, I think, dealt with all the objections you have raised so far.

But I am sure you'll have more!


James James said…
"It seems that, the children of a small minority - just 7% - dominate, or at least form a large proportion of, those in many of the high-status, high-earning professions."


"If you really want good education for all, force the children of those in power to attend the same schools as the rest of us. I guarantee they'll be better overnight!"

I disagree. You are suggesting that if children who previously attended private schools were forced to attend state schools, they would "drag" the standards up. I think the children would be dragged down to the mean.

You also imply that people currently attending private schools are more intelligent! Otherwise, how would they drag the standards up?

Of course, rich kids are not born intelligent. But they will probably become more so because they go to good schools, and have intelligent parents who help them with their work and encourage them to read books. A middle-class background is very "supportive".

"Curiosis suggests I must also favour banning cake because not everyone can afford it. Well, obviously I don't. Look, by all means allow those who have worked hard and acheived wealth, etc. through their own abilities enjoy the rewards, Including cake.

But children who simply have their advantage bought for them have not earned that privilege.

And that privilege is at the expense of other children who may have more native wit, intelligence and drive, but because they attend a crappy comprehensive, never got the chance to thrive."

Is it at the expense of other children? No. The fact that one kid goes to a good private school has no effect on the education of a kid who goes to a "crappy comprehensive". "It's absolute poverty you want to avoid, not relative poverty." We shouldn't ban private schools, we should improve comprehensives.

(And the way to do this is to get rid of the distinction between grammar schools and comprehensives, and instead allow all schools to select pupils. Get rid of catchment areas and allow children to apply to any school (so the best apply to and get into the best local school). Make the schools privately run, with the state-owned ones charging the exact value of the vouchers, so everyone can attend school for free if they want (or must). Have the government control the curriculum ((ban all religious schools, state or private)). (Admittedly this would work without top-ups. I'll have a think about that.))
James James said…
I certainly don't think you've dealt with all the objections raised so far. The fundamental one is: why does private education disadvantage state education?

This is distinct from "Why are people with a state education at a disadvantage compared to people with a private education?" I understand that if you have a (implied bad) state education, you will probably not get as good a career as people with a (implied better) private education. But I disagree that people at a bad state school are getting a worse education because there are people in another part of the country attending a good private school.

They're not. They're getting a worse education because they go to a worse school. To improve their education, you need to improve their school, not get rid of the better one.
Anonymous said…
"Nor will state schools get any better while it is in the interests of all those privately educated MPs and journalists - who are busy privately educating their own children - that they not get better." - I take the point but you said before that only 1/3 of MPs are privately educated, are the other 2/3 being complacent in promoting state education?

I think to be convinced I'd need to know how private schools existing right now hurts the state sector. Do they really make the education worse or just crowd out after school opportunities? Surely any negative effects would be balanced out by the extra cost that educating all currently private students would entail? Or would you argue that we'd suddenly find more money was available?
Larry Hamelin said…
Elites dominate government. No, it's neither fair nor just. In other news, Earth orbits Sun.

I don't see how mucking about with the top of the school system would be effective. Until we change the underlying power dynamic, the powerful will find ways to keep their power within family and class.

Keep in mind too that, for all its unfairness, the governmental and class elite of any social system forms a social institution (and all social institutions, including the community of tenured professors of philosophy are to some extent elitist). And institutions are as much or more of a stabilizing force in a society as the raw mass of people.

If you're going to implement anti-elitist measures—and that's an endeavor for which I have considerable sympathy—you'll have to strike at the root of elitism. Unfortunately, those roots lie as much in human psychology—people like, perhaps stupidly, having the elite run things—as they do in the mechanisms by which the elite maintain power within their class.

I tend to think that sweeping reform is more effectively addressed at the lower and middle classes; the best that can be done at the top is small foot-in-the-door* changes.

I think reforms at the bottom and middle of the educational system can indeed by sweepingly addressed by the hybrid privatization I discussed in my previous comment. Consistent funding is an important component of this idea; I completely agree: No "top-ups". A school should either accept only the standard rate of funding or it accepts zero funding.

You won't get anywhere, though, by banning elite schools for the very richest. Until you take away their fundamental power, they will use it to their own advantage. Even if a ban were to pass, the elite will use their wealth and power to find a way to get around it. (Private tutors? Foreign schools? Are you going to march every rich kid to a public school in Newcastle at the point of a gun?).

Rather than banning elite schools, simply require that they reserve a substantial percentage of their student body for scholarship students (perhaps with required race, sex, class and religious representation). Again: all or nothing: Either the student pays full price or she gets a free ride.

Regulating is almost always more effective than banning. Ban, and the activity goes underground, where it is even more resistant to ordinary political pressure. Regulate, and political pressure over time can completely transform an activity or institution.

*Or the camel's-nose-in-the-tent
georgesdelatour said…
If the point is to abolish educational elites, why not set an educational level attainable by all but the severely mentally impaired? No one is allowed to leave school until they've attained it, and no one is allowed to educate themselves beyond it either. So once you've attained it you are automatically banned from all further education. Some people - the most educationally gifted - will be required to leave school at 12, while some - the less gifted - will be forced to stay at school till they're 40.

The Khmer Rouge tried something like this, I believe.
Sargeist said…
People seem to think that a better education is received by those children who attend private schools. I don't know if this is true, but it is generally believed. (NB: By "better education" one can, I think, mean that either the children are taught more effectively or they are more able to learn from even "normal" teaching in that environment.)

If it is true, then this would, I think, come about because of two (of possibly more) reasons:

1) The better teachers work in private schools

2) The children who go to private schools are more capable of learning

Why might better teachers end up in private schools then? Well, the fact that parents are paying lots of money for their children to go to the school could mean that there is much more money available in the school to pay salaries that are higher than those received by working in a state school. And people are generally going to go for the money.

Maybe I just have a poor view of mankind but I do think that very few people would turn down a higher salary if they could get it.

So, to which teachers are these higher salaries to be given? Clearly to the ones who appear to be the best at teaching. If people are going to be willing to pay thousands for their child to go to your school, you want to ensure that they "get their money's worth".

Why might children who go to private schools be more able to learn? Maybe because their parents would be rather unhappy if their thousands of pounds were wasted, but perhaps also because the class sizes are smaller owing to the smaller number of people who can afford to send their children to those schools.

The upshot of this is, to me, that the children are not necessarily going to be any more intrinsically intelligent, but given a good environment and teachers motivated by wanting to do a good job, people may well in general do better than those elsewhere.

Of course, I can also think of contradictory reasons!

Maybe those people with more money actually are more intelligent? The higher paid jobs might require more intelligence of their workers. Intelligence might be a bit hereditary, leading in turn to children of richer parents being brighter themselves.

I went to a set of state schools, and I did several GCSEs a year early, got 13 of them in the end, 11 of which were As, as did a number of my friends, and our school was generally regarded as "a bit rough".

So, what am I trying to say? Maybe run schools privately but fix the teachers' salaries so they can't poach people?

Private education seems barmy to me, though, in that the state ought to say "this is the best education curriculum we can come up with, so this is the one you should teach".

Maybe I'm a bit of a totalitarian at heart after all.
Larry Hamelin said…
A big part of the issue is that in many ways, the correlation between school and government participation has nothing to do with education.

It's a trope in Yes, (Prime) Minister that the civil service is dominated by Oxford and Cambridge classics scholars (and the Minister is openly mocked for having a degree from the London School of Economics, an otherwise fine University). The ability to conjugate Greek verbs has nothing to do with bureaucratic ability; clearly this requirement is about promoting a specific ethical view and consistent economic and social class loyalties.

In a sense, I sympathize with the desire to subvert obvious elitism: Why should any non-meritocratic elite dominate the government or civil service?

In a sense, though, I'm also sympathetic to elitism: Being an American, especially today, does not endear me to either the political or ethical virtues of the common people. Having negotiated my way through the vagaries of a homeowners' association, I've developed an appreciation for the limitations of direct democracy.

Be that as it may, I think the symbolism of the school is just as powerful as what is actually being taught, even socially. The trouble with attacking symbols, of course, is that as soon as one symbol is overturned, another takes its place, so long as that which the symbol represents still has currency. Knock out the private schools, and, so long as a real elite actually does exist and wishes to maintain economic and social class loyalty, some other symbol will immediately spring in place.
georgesdelatour said…
Hmm... I made the above post to show what education would be like if its sole goal was the suppression of elites. I think Stephen isn't objecting to educational elites. He just wants the elites to be meritocratic rather than plutocratic in origin. It's important to separate Stephen's objection to fee-paying private schools from advocacy of "non-selective" education - what in the UK is called "comprehensive" education. Lenin, for instance, believed in hyper-selective education based purely on merit - the antimatter of "comprehensive" education - but was fervently opposed to private education. He believed this was what Marx meant by "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs". The old Soviet system, in which gifted children were separated and hothouse nurtured from a very young age, was excellent at producing gymnasts, ballet dancers, concert pianists, mathematicians, chess champions etc. Then again, the old Soviet system had so few opportunities for becoming wealthy through business, and many people chose continuous higher education to avoid military service. So you can't separate Soviet education from the broader picture of Soviet society.

Here's a few additional points I'd like to make - in no particular order:

1. Stephen may be right about barristers and others coming predominantly from private schools. But if he looks at the Sunday Times Rich List - of the 500 wealthiest people in the UK - a very high proportion of them left school at 15. Posh and Becks may be far wealthier than the entire teaching staff of Oxford University.

2. We all assume that an education system should be judged by how it caters for the broad mass of humans that pass through it. Why? Imagine an education system where the one child gifted enough to find a cure for AIDS or the H5N1 Flu virus is deterred from her studies because of bullying and peer pressure. The consequences for the whole of humanity are terrible, even if that education system raises more kids up from being call-centre operatives to being estate agents.

3. No educational regime has all the answers. We need innovation in teaching methods, where people try out new and even cranky educational ideas. Think of A.S. Neill and Summerhill. Neill could never have put his ideas into practice in a regulated state system. Summerhill is, today, a fee-paying private school. Maybe only comfortably-off Bohemian parents will volunteer their children for such non-conformist schooling, at least initially.
Anonymous said…
If it is so good to go to a private school, than why not privatize the whole system? Public education in and of itself is a monopoly, and should be BANNED, because it causes a lot of problems. A fully private education system would HELP these kids you talk about, instead, they get stuck in the coercive unionized monopoly of the US Public Education system.
Stephen Law said…
Hi anonymous

That's just a series of assertions. Why not actually deal with my arguments?

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