If we care about democracy private schools should be an election issue

John White

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

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Posted in Education policy
4 comments on “If we care about democracy private schools should be an election issue
  1. ingotian says:

    Seems to me that there is a confusion here between democracy and fairness. Democracy does not of right result in fairness. It is to be hoped that it might make things fairer overall but it’s not the same thing. If we are worried about power concentrated in too few hands there is just as big a case to be made about Oxbridge, wealth in general, the power of the civil service, multinationals, etc etc. I don’t see much practical prospect of banning private schools in a democracy. You’d end up having to ban private tuition, sending children abroad to be educated and home education. In a liberal democracy none of those things are likely to happen. Probably why no party is making an issue out of it this election. The snag is that the state education system is bogged down in so much well-intentioned bureaucracy that resources get inefficiently used. Fixing state education to allow it to compete better is the strategy for the mainstream parties but the catch 22 is that political interference is the problem as much as the solution. There is also the argument that it is know who more than know how. It might just so happen that well connected families send their kids to private schools but its the connections not so much the standard of education that matters. If so banning private schools even if it was possible would be unlikely to make much difference. Correlation and causation are different too.

    • John White says:

      I agree there are other forms of excessive power that need tackling, but that’s no argument against doing something about private schools.

      I agree with you, too, that in a democracy private schools should not be banned. That’s no part of my argument.

      Fixing state education to provide the tiny classes and nine hole golf courses would take a century or two. A quota system has more going for it.

      • ingotian says:

        A quota system is arguably unfair on those that don’t get accepted as part of the quota. You just suck a few more individuals into “the ruling classes” Why should child A benefit from this and not child B? If it is limited to the very, very bright, probably these kids will get to Oxbridge and the relevant benefits of those social networks in any case. If the aim is to stop private schools having excessive power I don’t see this having anything other than a marginal effect. Could even result in giving them more power if the most talented state school kids get diverted into that system.

  2. John White says:

    It’s not sufficient as a way of reducing the democratic deficit caused by private education. I’d also favour raising inheritance taxes.

    And should we also think of a quota system for elite state schools as well as private ones?

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