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Opinion | It's time to abolish private schools

Does private education foster inequality amongst students? Here's what Josh thinks...

By Joshua Edwicker, Fourth Year, Global Political Economy

I approach this article with a certain element of trepidation, the debate surrounding the abolition of private schools is one which proves emotive on both sides. As such, I wish to pre-condition this article with two salient pieces of information, firstly, I was privileged enough to attend a private school which has inspired my belief that they should be abolished as I cannot equate my personal luck with the inability of 94% of society to receive an equally privileged education. Secondly, I understand the rationale of parents who choose to send their children to private school within the current system; the understanding of many, that such a choice is in the best interests of their children, is a rational one, and this is why it is a choice which must be taken by the state.

 Two key premises support the argument for the abolition of private education:

a.     Equality of opportunity

b.     The best possible education

I contend that private education removes the capability of our society to operate within either of these ideals. Firstly, equality of opportunity. Private education makes a mockery of the notion of equality of opportunity. Throughout the UK, 6.4% of English pupils, 4% of Scottish pupils, 2% of Welsh and less than 1% of Northern Irish students inhabit the private sector, however these students enjoy access to 15% of the total resources available to the educational sector. Private schooling creates a tiered educational system where on the one hand, private school pupils are educated in smaller classrooms (15/class), with access to more personable education. On the other hand, state school students inhabit an educational system which has been pushed to the very brink throughout Conservative austerity, where class sizes average 27 pupils.

 Additionally, private schools have access to a teacher for every 8.6 students, compared to the 17.6 students in state education, thus explaining the level of burnout within the state education system amongst teachers, undoubtedly affecting abilities to teach. To add to this concoction, greater availability of private mentorship, extra-curricular activities and interlinked networks of current students’ parents and alumni mean private school students begin life with a vast head start over their state-educated peers.

The resultant inequality within society is stark. In 2018, 48% of private school students achieved A* & A’s compared to a national average which was 22% lower. This invariably translates into the opportunities of students post-education, which University they are able to enter and subsequently the access to the highest paid job’s. The Sutton Institute found that between 2007-2017, there remained around a 21% gap between private and state school intake into Russel Group Universities. This gap has fallen in recent years, with the University of Bristol now intaking 71.3% of students from state-education in 2021.

The reality of private school is that it deprives most within our society of an educationally equal playing field. There exists vast inequalities in our society, based on social class, ethnicity, sex and sexuality but education remains the single most important factor for social mobility. By rejecting appeals to neo-liberal marketisation of education for one based on meritocracy, Britain can create a society with greater social mobility and fairness.

Bristol Grammar School, a private institution in the city / Megan Ioannides

A 2018 study by  Uchida within Economic Theory illustrates that the social mobility within a society is heavily influenced by what is labelled a ‘mismatch of talents’. Uchida proposes that a gap between state and private investment in education reinforces this ‘mismatch of talents’, consequently showing that dynamics of social mobility are determined on where political power exists. For example, where political power of the working class is strong there exists strong methods of redistribution – namely investment into state education. In contradiction, where political power is dominated by the privileged, there is a reduction in the investment into state education.

Following 13 years of Conservative Government, it seems apparent that political power in this country is monopolised by the privileged, consequently, in line with predictions by Uchida, we see low levels of investment into state education and subsequent negative correlations with social mobility. This is where premise two enters the fray, the abolition of private education will improve education in this country for a number of reasons.

Firstly, in relation to the study by Uchida, the standardisation of education within this country will elicit the politically privileged to become stake holders within the system they govern. Currently, there exists limited personal motivation for the most privileged in our society to enact the necessary changes to our state education system, which remains wholly inadequate. Why? Because if you are privileged you can avoid personal interaction with the state system altogether and send your children to private school.

Secondly, the abolition of private schools provides a symbolic commitment to the idea of equality itself; it would thus promote further social cohesion. I contend that the purpose of schooling is two-fold, one part being academic, but an equally crucial aspect being social. The breaking of socio-economic barriers in the form of education would prove invaluable to avoid the insulation of the privileged in society from society as a whole. We must move away from a society which defines personal value in the form of economic position and the amalgamation of state and private systems into one national system would be an effective way of symbolising this. To create a cohesive society, one which is defined not by the contents of a parents bank account but by content of character, we must strive to avoid the type of socio-economic division and insulation created by private education.

Finally, taking a needed break from the philosophical basis of my argument, I focus on the material, the case-studies where abolition of private school has worked. In Finland charging tuition fees for school education is prohibited within the constitution; the Finnish education system was labelled the ‘best in the world’ by the World Economic Forum in 2018. Finland’s students start education at 7, and have a much lower burden of homework in comparison to the UK, however the main reason for their success according to the OECD is their focus on equity.

The task of improving education in the UK is one which requires a holistic enterprise, it is not enough to abolish private schools and not improve state investment into education. The British education system requires widespread change, a drive for appreciated and well-paid teachers, the provision of new school buildings, but crucially it must be a system defined by equality where all in society are stake-holders working in unison for a more equal and prosperous future.

Featured Image: Megan Ioannides

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