Against Stigmatisation of Private Education

In light of OULC’s campaign to ban private schools, I decided to write about the more rarely discussed part of the private schools debate- that of stigmatization. I’m not here to discuss whether we should abolish private schools; that’s a separate debate on policy. I want to argue that the climate of stigmatizing private school education which is arguably prevalent in Oxford student discourse is not a helpful or just attitude to spread.

On the very basic level, such stigmatization constitutes reverse discrimination. It might be justified in light of the privileges that privately-educated students got, but that doesn’t change the fact that such attitudes and immediate assumptions when we meet someone who attended one of these ‘elite’ institutions are by definition a prejudice. When someone is embarrassed to say they are from a state school, we think this is a remnant of the old-fashioned thinking and an evidence of the ills of elitist private schools. Yet, when people are embarrassed to admit they went to a private school, which in our current climate happens more often, such psychological discomfort is treated as normal.

Apart from the fact that there is obviously a double standard, we should address the issue of choice and whether it’s fair to judge people on the factors beyond their control. First of all, there is the obvious fact that for most going to a private school wasn’t their decision, but their parents’ (unless we suppose that most 11 year olds are deeply concerned about what type of school they go to). Surely, we shouldn’t judge people by the decision that their parents made; hopefully, that’s not too controversial. More importantly, however, if you were given the chance to study at a better school and you had a full awareness of the implications, wouldn’t you take it? I’m not sure whether the thought: “there are so many underprivileged people out there, I shouldn’t take the opportunity I have since it’s not fair that I have it better than them” is good for the society. Privilege is a very relative term and all of us are more privileged than someone out there. By the same logic, we shouldn’t eat well knowing there are thousands of starving people, especially in less developed countries. If you do buy into the logic, why did you decide to come to Oxford, which makes you so much more privileged than everybody else? Surely, the better mentality is to make the most of the advantage you have and then use what you gained to help others. If you don’t have much yourself, it’s more difficult to promote positive change.

Apart from the issue of choice, there is the fact that in our public discourse private schools as a category are often generalized. Not all private schools are rich, posh and offer good quality education. There are some which hardly get anyone into university and are plagued by problems such as drug use (although some better quality private schools suffer from this too).

If we are sticking to the definition of private schools as those institutions that send a disproportionate amount of students to top universities, there is still an issue with generalizing someone’s background based on this. I met quite a few people who were upset by the stereotyping of private school students, saying their parents took on double jobs and poured all their money into their kids’ education because they valued education above everything else. But, clearly it doesn’t imply wealth. Such attitudes within the family may imply a higher cultural capital which is no doubt important, but doesn’t necessarily depend on the type of school parents send their kids to.

Another point to be made is that in the competitive private schools (which are the ones people tend to focus on), the expectations are higher; students do get better advantages, but they have to work too (it’s naïve to assume that just by virtue of attending a good private school, you gain the skills and advantages with no effort on your part). I didn’t go to a private school, but from a personal experience I always found it amusing that my first years in England were not as academically challenging compared to my primary school years in Russia even without knowledge of the language since the expectations in my comprehensive state school were much lower than in a gymnasium (Russian equivalent of a grammar school). It seems a fair assumption that just as in the case of grammar schools, good private schools are more demanding of their students; thus, assuming that those who went through private education didn’t have to put effort into their education is naïve. Furthermore, seeing that those people will not be contextualized to their advantage, they are under more pressure to have an excellent academic record which, of course, private schooling helps them with, but it’s not an automatic guarantee of being accepted into a good university.

All of this is not to say that snobbery should be encouraged or tolerated, but merely to point out that prematurely judging people based on their background is unfair both when we talk about state-educated students and when we talk of those from private schools.

Moreover, a trend that is not too hard to notice in the media today is that educational backgrounds are often mentioned, especially if someone expresses a controversial view. The type of school you went to seems to suggest a certain type of character. Such stereotyping can be and is sometimes used to undermine or fully discredit someone’s views.

If the argument is that it shouldn’t matter and that we shouldn’t make assumptions based on someone’s educational background, which is presumably what the more left-leaning of us are trying to promote, then why are we perpetuating the importance of educational background in discourse? Naturally, some would like to point out the disparities in backgrounds to re-establish some sense of justice, yet in doing so we often undermine the attempts to make it matter less.

Image Credit: Martin Kraft