Private gain, public pain
This weekend I will be speaking at the Battle of Ideas in a session called Public Education; private harm? I re-named my speech “Private gain, public pain” An outline of my contribution ( improvised on the day) is below:
Private gain, public pain
Quite clear that fee charging schools are very good for some people.At Eton for example fees are £30,000 a year, plus extras, which is above the average income,There you will benefit from a teaching ratio of 8 pupils to 1 teacher. Average in state sector around 26:1
You can play polo; enjoy boating lakes, recording studios and a fully equipped theatre.My local London day schools charge around £18000 a year –almost three times the funding per pupil that my own children’s schools received. It is a similar story across of range of other private schools, less exclusive maybe but essentially the same message.Parents who can afford to pay a lot. Can attempt to buy their children a fast track into the best universities and a head start in life.
Actually I think it is probably less straightforward than that in practice. Children from similar backgrounds can do just as well in good state schools, so people may be wasting their money.There are also some quite bad fee charging schools.The best of the private schools are always used to typify the entire sector and the worst of the state sector is often used to damn everyone else.
This is partly a product of key figures in the media who have a vested interest in talking down a system they have rejected for their own children. But back to the point: While private schools may have benefits for some of their customers. I believe we can establish beyond doubt that they are bad for society.
Noticed an interesting new marketing development in the fee-charging sector, which is to claim that their schools are in fact diverse inclusive communities.In fact some claim to be more inclusive than many state schools.A case of protesting too much maybe? Notice the evidence to back that up is never produced.
How many children eligible for the pupil premium, current main indication of deprivation, are there in the fee-charging sector? At what level of income are most bursaries set? How many are full bursaries?We don’t really know any of this information on a school by school basis.
And as I suggested in the Guardian recently, it should be a statutory requirement for the private schools to produce that information if they are continue to benefit from charitable status. In fact all the evidence points in the other direction to the “inclusion” argument.
The head of King’s School Ely let the cat out of the bag recently when he said that private school fees are now pricing middle class parents out of the market. In another revealing interview a representative of the Association of Governing Bodies of Independent Schools explained to the Third Sector magazine that private schools “had to be run as a business”
The governors are also directors of the company he explained and as such their principle responsibility it to maintain the school as a viable concern. Well if the middle class parents are priced out of this competitive business model, what chance is there for a family on a low income?
The truth is that fees are rocketing beyond the means of the average family. Entry is linked to selective tests so very unlikely to benefit the really disaffected and poor. The children from the chaotic households who don’t get breakfast or even have a bed to sleep in.The children whose parents wouldn’t even know where to find a private tutor if they the money to pay for one.The children in care or with emotional or behavioural difficulties.So it is nonsense to claim that fee charging schools are inclusive.
They are exclusive – deliberately so – and that is bad for society. Public pain.
As Anthony Seldon, head teacher of Wellington explained, schools like his are contributing to a form of social apartheid. In a variation on the same theme the Head of C o L told me that in the capital it is a form of racial apartheid.
And this goes to the heart of why private schools are bad for society and cost the tax payer dearly.They act as a break on social cohesion and social mobility.They cream off able students and aspirant parents from the state system and reduce every other child’s chance of being educated in a real comprehensive school.And comprehensive education is still internationally acknowledged to be the best route to high outcomes for all children rather than simply an affluent few.
But above all fee-charging schools divide young people by race, class and family income at a time when more than ever we should be bridging those divides.We are facing a huge challenge in society with the gap between the rich and the poor refusing to shift.People are facing unemployment, cuts in public spending and pay freezes. Making ends meet is increasingly difficult for many families.
Yet they see those with advantage and money continuing to reap disproportionate rewards.We shouldn’t underestimate the impact that resentment will have on social cohesion.No one is pretending that schools alone can override the huge inequalities in society. But schools can create powerful bonds. Schools can help to overcome prejudice and lazy assumptions about class and ethnic background.They can act as a mirror to the sort of society most of us would like to see.One in which children and young people can share their common humanity rather than see each other as rich, poor, chavs or snobs with the inevitable ill will that breeds
The simplest way to judge any society is through its education system. Does it offer an equal chance to all. Or does it merely confirm existing deprivation or privilege? One that divides children so starkly according to their background is one that is failing.One that allows a tiny but powerful elite to profit at the expense of the rest can only be bad for society.Private gain, public pain.