Skip to main content

Alan Bennett: Ban private schools

Those of you that have been reading this blog for a while will know that I have spent some time arguing for the abolition of private schools. I just noticed Alan Bennett takes the same view.

By the way, today's Independent (p.2.) reports that "Students from poor backgrounds 'catch up' at university".

There's an interesting experiment going on at St George's Medical School in London, where you need only show that your A level results are 60% better than the average for your school to get in.

Yet, in their first year final exams, these students' marks were only 1 percent lower than those admitted under the standard route.

Here's a further little bit of evidence to support my earlier contention that we have nothing remotely like a meritocracy in this country. And, assuming we want those with the most native wit and talent to fly highest, nor will we until we ban private schools, which allow a small minority of parents to buy their own second-rate children a ticket to the front of the good jobs queue at the expense of more talented, but poorer, kids.

Indeed, the mere 7% of kids who are privately educated dominate the high status, high earning professions. Because they have more native wit and talent? Pull the other one...

[POST SCRIPT. Incidentally, independent schools' charitable status is justified on the grounds that they provide bursaries and scholarships for the less well off.

Couple of anecdotes for you:

(i) The two kids of some relatives of mine achieved bursaries for them to attend an independent school. But the money was pulled two years later, after the kids had bedded in. The parents now face the prospect of uprooting their children and sending them back to the awful school they fled from, or else finding the eye-watering fees. The same parents tell me they have discovered that bursaries that suddenly disappear like this shortly after the kids have become well-established is a not uncommon occurrence, and may even be a marketing strategy on the part of some schools (so beware).

(ii) The son of a friend of mine separated from his (not rich) mother got an almost full bursary at a famous Oxford school with fees of £7,000 a term. The selection process? A non-academic interview, with Dad in tow to see if the school thought the little chap would (as Dad said) "fit in". I am sure that the fact that the kid is well-spoken, his father a posh-voiced New College school boy and his grandad a Knight of the Realm won't have had anything to do with their generous support for one of the less "privileged" members of our community.

How many kids from local council estates are getting such places, I wonder?

Yes I know it's anecdotes, but I'd love to see some hard statistics on who is getting bursaries and scholarships, what the criteria are, what selection is taking place, etc.

Scholarships and bursaries are small change to these institutions. The fact that the few they do give out are being dished out so cynically in at least some cases should surely strengthen the case for at least pulling their charitable status.

I see the Independent Schools Council says they have "little to fear" from questions from the Charity Commission about public benefit. If the Charity Commission investigates more thoroughly, I suspect the independent sector has a great deal to fear. Here's the sort of question I'd like the C.C. to press: how many children from council estates receive bursaries? And what percentage of those receiving bursaries come from families where neither parent was either privately educated or attended a grammar school? I think this kind of information would be rather more revealing than just data about parental income. In particular, I suspect it would reveal that kids of the educated middle classes are actually the main beneficiaries.


Martin Freedman said…
As far as I can see the issue with private schools - which has overt selection obviously - and faith schools - many of which are offering hidden selection to parents - is that this is all about peer group selection. Research has shown that peer groups have more influence on the adult than parents. Parents may be mistaken as to how their values influence their children, it is not directly from parent to child, although that is a factor, but indirectly by selecting their child's peers by school choice.

So before examining banning private schools or not, surely we need to get our state schools in order which means dealing with the hidden selection issue of faith schools and post code selection - which is again on a lower level related to the same factors as for parents who can afford private schools - to make our state schools properly meritocratic.

One answer, I suggest, is to allow for explicit peer group selection in state schools and remove the current hidden selection via faith schools and post codes. Still is there anything wrong with local kids going to local schools? There one needs to deal with the post code premium based on perceived local school quality versus a reasonable expectation of parents for similar kids studying together.

A final point is that how does one deal with private and extra tuition for pupils in state schools, assuming that private schools are banned?
anticant said…
I shall never forget someone saying that a senior official at the Department of Education had told them: "We don't want a lot of highly educated people in this country, do we? They cause too much trouble!"
Timmo said…

I share your view that that the only non-arbitrary criterion for admitting a student into a top university is that student's merit. Consequently, the fact that the children of the wealthy chiefly get positions in top schools is unjust. So long as there is an arbitrarily privileged class, it will be impossible to offer the universal opportunity to demonstrate one's merit for professions of high caliber.

However, I am concerned that your proposal to ban private schools is not sufficiently radical. For instance, one of my fellow students here at Indiana University came from Japan, which has a nominally merit-based system of admission to schools. However, in practice, children from wealthy parents are able to attend "cram schools" which ultimately mean that they dominate the best schools in the country. If we want to eliminate the evils that come with private schools, then we need to not only restructure the educational systems of our respective countries so that they are nominally merit-based, but also make other kinds of changes that prevent the system from becoming a de facto class based one.
Anonymous said…
I did, in one of those panics London based parents are prone to, have a bit of a look at bursaries for private secondary schools. What struck me was that they appear to cover less than the full amount of fees so leaving a big shortfall for parents to make up every term. That immediately excludes a a big chunk of us. Then add in the fancy uniforms, trips etc and, especially if you have more than one child, it just isn't an option. And anyway, you need to be a pretty clued up parent to negotiate your way through the labyrinth of entrance exams etc. And for most bright working class children their parents won't be clued up in that particular way. I was helping on a school trip yesterday - my middle child's class were visiting the Tutankhamun exhibition at the Millenium Dome. A number of his bright classmates (eight and nine year olds) exclaimed with wonder at the delights of the tube station - they'd never been on the underground despite living on the Central Line. These are not children whose parents are going to be searching out a school for them. They'll go to the local one where they may thrive or get lost, and of course, they deserve the best.
Anonymous said…
I rest again on the issue of social expectation. If parents don't value education, or fully academically motivate their child, their child will not be likely to work their hardest, or strive for particularly deemed "high-status" careers. If children are amongst other children of parents with the same attitude, who is going to motivate them? How can teachers motivate children fully therefore, if children and parents alike have this attitude? Then, what happens to the children that want to do well? What happens to the boy, Johnny, with poor parents, but who encourage him to become a doctor, when he's in a school with this sort of environment? Social conformity may make him decide he does not want to be a doctor.

On the other hand, take a good grammar school in a wealthy area full of educated people. Social expectation says to aim for a similarly academic career as the parent. Most of the children are brought up with certain expectations, and an academic career is seen as attainable and worth it. Within this environment, yes, it would be so much easier for Johnny to achieve his dream of being a doctor, and the same in the independent sector. It's no surprise therefore, that parents move house to put there child into a better environment, some end up paying for this. To quote martino:" but indirectly by selecting their child's peers by school choice."

Social expectation needs to be eradicated.The first step in my opinion is to eradicate private schools, introduce more grammar schools, and eradicate the "local area" selection procedures to "split up" expectation and balance it out. This way, the poorest children from the poorest areas, would meet children from very wealthy backgrounds who would normally have been privately educated, and be influenced by their "expectations." The next step would be to eradicate class-based expectation and tell everyone to learn for the love of learning- do something you enjoy! Try your best at school! Perhaps local authorities could arrange talks in schools with a higher percentage of poorer children, in order to motivate them and their parents. Perhaps all schools should have a stronger, more heavily enforced ethos to ensure that all children, so not expect what sociey destines, but expect their best.
Anonymous said…
* ps sorry take away grammar schools
Anonymous said…
having been to both a private school and a state school, i would say that the only difference was in the attittude shown by children and teachers, so i would say that instead of banning pfrivate schools, more focus should be made on choosing the best teachers, and the ones with npositive attittudes to pass on their positivity,and ending the anti-achievement feeling in many state schools
Anonymous said…
Whilst I don't agree with banning private schools, I do feel very strongly about the bursary issue, having just had my daughter's full bursary significantly reduced only a year after she joined the school. The reason seems to be that I am no longer a sexy single mother, and even though our household income is not proportionally more, the loss of my 'needy' status of being on tax credits previously means that my daughter is no longer so deserving. Outrageous.

Popular posts from this blog


(Published in Faith and Philosophy 2011. Volume 28, Issue 2, April 2011. Stephen Law. Pages 129-151) EVIDENCE, MIRACLES AND THE EXISTENCE OF JESUS Stephen Law Abstract The vast majority of Biblical historians believe there is evidence sufficient to place Jesus’ existence beyond reasonable doubt. Many believe the New Testament documents alone suffice firmly to establish Jesus as an actual, historical figure. I question these views. In particular, I argue (i) that the three most popular criteria by which various non-miraculous New Testament claims made about Jesus are supposedly corroborated are not sufficient, either singly or jointly, to place his existence beyond reasonable doubt, and (ii) that a prima facie plausible principle concerning how evidence should be assessed – a principle I call the contamination principle – entails that, given the large proportion of uncorroborated miracle claims made about Jesus in the New Testament documents, we should, in the absence of indepen

What is Humanism?

What is Humanism? “Humanism” is a word that has had and continues to have a number of meanings. The focus here is on kind of atheistic world-view espoused by those who organize and campaign under that banner in the UK and abroad. We should acknowledge that there remain other uses of term. In one of the loosest senses of the expression, a “Humanist” is someone whose world-view gives special importance to human concerns, values and dignity. If that is what a Humanist is, then of course most of us qualify as Humanists, including many religious theists. But the fact remains that, around the world, those who organize under the label “Humanism” tend to sign up to a narrower, atheistic view. What does Humanism, understood in this narrower way, involve? The boundaries of the concept remain somewhat vague and ambiguous. However, most of those who organize under the banner of Humanism would accept the following minimal seven-point characterization of their world-view.

Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism refuted

Here's my central criticism of Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN). It's novel and was published in Analysis last year. Here's the gist. Plantinga argues that if naturalism and evolution are true, then semantic epiphenomenalism is very probably true - that's to say, the content of our beliefs does not causally impinge on our behaviour. And if semantic properties such as having such-and-such content or being true cannot causally impinge on behaviour, then they cannot be selected for by unguided evolution. Plantinga's argument requires, crucially, that there be no conceptual links between belief content and behaviour of a sort that it's actually very plausible to suppose exist (note that to suppose there are such conceptual links is not necessarily to suppose that content can be exhaustively captured in terms of behaviour or functional role, etc. in the way logical behaviourists or functionalists suppose). It turns o