The election campaign has all but ignored private education. This is odd, since it raises an issue central to the country’s future. I am not talking about equality of opportunity – about the complaint that, unlike the rest of us, Harrovians and others enjoy their tiny classes and nine-hole golf course en route to Trinity College Cambridge and life as a High Court judge.
Fairness is important, but I have in mind something of constitutional significance. In 2014, Alan Milburn’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission reported in Elitist Britain (p.10) that
‘71 per cent of senior judges, 62 per cent of senior armed forces officers, 55 per cent of Permanent Secretaries, 53 per cent of senior diplomats, 50 per cent of members of the House of Lords, 45 per cent of public body chairs, 44 per cent of the Sunday Times Rich List, 43 per cent of newspaper columnists, 36 per cent of the Cabinet, 35 per cent of the national rugby team, 33 per cent of MPs, 33 per cent of the England cricket team, 26 per cent of BBC executives and 22 per cent of the Shadow Cabinet attended independent schools – compared to 7 per cent of the public as a whole.’
This concentration of power in the hands of a tiny minority from wealthy families is a threat to democracy itself. If all the privately educated shunned the top jobs and preferred a life of fun and idleness, we might still grumble about the unfairness of it all, but anxiety about political dominance would not be an issue.
Like hereditary non-dom status, this ascendancy is a legacy from a pre-democratic age. Victorian private schools depended on Plato’s notion of benevolent Guardians to justify their role in creating leaders of the Empire. Their successors can rely on no such legitimating story today.
Instead, they find support in an English education policy we have seen crystallising over the last thirty years, and not least under the Coalition. The private sector, once so sharply divided from maintained schools, has become part of a national system ostensibly working in the interests of all. League tables rate all schools, private and maintained, by exam and test results. As examination success has come to dominate the secondary school curriculum, even the sleepier private schools have raised their academic ambitions. Parents with an eye on a good university and a good job have been attracted by their examination success coupled with wider curricular opportunities and smaller classes. They have good reason. Pupils from private schools now gain nearly 30% of A* grades at A level with only 13.6% of all A level entries.
Fifty years ago, some thought independent schools would wither away. Today, despite problems during the financial crisis and increases in fees, Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) data show pupil admissions on the rise. The blurring of the line between private and public provision via the Coalition’s policies on free schools and academies (officially termed ‘publicly funded independent schools’) has also helped them.
Nearly a century after the UK formally became a full democracy in 1928, there are no signs that the seven-per-cent’s dominance of top positions is on the wane. Recent education policy has, on the contrary, helped to cement it, as has the Conservative election pledge to remove inheritance tax from family homes worth up to £1 million. If as democrats we are disturbed by leaving so much power, generation after generation, in the hands of so few, what can we do?
The Labour Manifesto threatens private schools with losing Business Rate Relief unless they do more for state ones. But this would only reinforce their position within the national system at little cost – and with self-promotional opportunities – for themselves. Abolition would fall foul of EU legislation. I favour Harry Brighouse’s proposal for a quota system for university entrance, progressively bringing down the proportion of entrants accepted from the private sector to something close to seven per cent.
Universities may object that they should accept only the best qualified candidates: if any private school students tended to excel as scholars, it would not be right to exclude them. But higher education could have other functions than to hone the academic powers of the already excellent. Another of its aims could be to help very good but not outstanding scholars to become even better.
This move assumes that we should accept the already deep divide between universities and other kinds of post-school education, like FE and adult education. But the division is itself part of the structure that helps private schools in this country retain their dominion over our social and political life. If private education becomes more of an issue in the 2015 election, perhaps we can leave the call for a single system of post-school learning until the following one.
John White’s new book What’s wrong with private education? is soon to be published by Institute of Education Press