In Defense of Fairer Access to Private Schools

An opinion piece by Mathew Parris in The Times on 14th December argued that this government should introduce and fund scholarships for 25% of attendees at private schools who could not otherwise afford to pay, thus ‘kicking down the doors’ to private education. I could not agree more, and my reasons are simple (though perhaps differing from Parris’): the state is failing to put enough money into our education system and to improve opportunities at comprehensive schools. Thus it makes private schools a preferable alternative. There is a chronic inequality in our society whereby having parents who can pay for these schools buys a pass into the higher echelons of universities and employment. It should be clear that I do not believe a system of private schools for people who can afford them is either fair or desirable. It is a sad indicator of the real failings of ‘social mobility’, which politicians of all parties claim to have facilitated in modern-day Britain, that students from financially-selective private schools continue to dominate Oxbridge entrance, the high courts, business leadership and the media, amongst other spheres (according to Parris’ article, which was based on a report by the Sutton Trust).

Yet I don’t believe that, taking my head out of a utopian society and placing it firmly in contemporary Britain, private schools should be abolished. I went to a private school (although I was once told that this ‘doesn’t count’ because it was in Birmingham – take what you will about regional inequality from that) and now I attend Oxford. Perhaps I am ill-placed to discuss this topic but, actually, I’m going to crawl out of the hole to which political correctness confines me, as a lefty, and say this: I liked my private school. I like Oxford. I think they are both great institutions at heart, even though they have left a bitter taste in the back of my mouth because I know I was grossly privileged to be there at all. I did not like them because they were cosily elitist and I wanted to gate myself off from the plebs (as Boris Johnson seemed to suggest in his recent speech about IQ). To the contrary, coming from my state junior school and as the first and only person in my family to attend private school, there were times when I found the homogenously middle-class atmosphere intolerable. So, I understand the people who say ‘we wouldn’t want to go to private school anyway’ or who think developing vocational skills might be more useful than going to university. That’s a perfectly acceptable view.

For every one of those people, however, there is a kid in a comprehensive school who would have absolutely loved some of the experiences I’ve enjoyed but who didn’t have the financial means to do so. I attended Politics Societies, debating clubs, creative writing clubs and made sets for school plays in our workshop. Through our enthusiasm and our teachers’ unfailing commitment, we created an environment which was thoroughly conducive to intellectual discussion and creativity, extending far beyond the classroom.

However, I would happily argue that 25% of my year-group were there because their parents had paid, not because they had a particularly voracious appetite for education. They could easily have been swapped with pupils from comprehensive schools who may have made more of the activities on offer. Furthermore, having a more balanced socio-economic demographic in the year-group would have created a better environment for everyone by helping to expunge those traces of snobbery, which are simply not justifiable in modern society, lingering in the air.

Yet abolishing private schools altogether is not the answer, because they provide a haven of intellectual activity that the state simply cannot afford. Abolishing private schools might attempt to send a message of ‘equality’, but in reality it would just further contribute to a culture, in this country, which, in my opinion, does not really value education (just look at the cuts to university funding and how poorly most academics are paid).

Private schools are a sanctuary for original thought, as they are independent from the shackles of the national curriculum, of learning based on pass marks and of assessment objectives. The teachers are largely free from lesson plans and targets and can pass on their wisdom organically and, usually, in a more engaging format which does not detract from the importance of their subject. They, unlike most state schools, still teach individual science subjects and Latin (despite it being regularly accused of being ‘pointless’ – what is supposed to be ‘the point’?).

The ethos of learning for learning’s sake is one I have experienced in Oxford. It is perhaps what drew me to the university in the first place. This, rather than an elitist preference for aristocratic children nurtured with the gift of the garb, is probably why the Oxbridge intake is proportionately skewed towards privately-educated candidates. The ‘polish’ that Parris talks of is not that they’ve been taught to bullshit well, but that they’ve become accustomed to thinking outside of the bureaucratic boundaries of the exam board and Ofsted, providing a much deeper education.

Thankfully, I share my college at Oxford with hundreds of students who attended state comprehensive schools, providing a happy diversity to my friendship groups and intellectual endeavours. I feel a little guilty when I hear stories of how they battled for their grades, in an environment where they were ridiculed by their peers for being clever and ambitious. They deserved better than that. My school would happily have flung its doors open to more people from less privileged economic backgrounds, but a campaign for more bursary funds whilst I was there did not raise as much money as was hoped. State-funded scholarships for 25% of pupils seems to me a happy medium between remaining 75% independent whilst also providing a private school education (which isn’t palatable for everyone) for those who deserve but cannot afford it.
FEATURED PHOTO/ Montgomery County Planning Commission