Editor's note: this article was written in October 2019. Look out for our next issue for diagnosis and discussion of December's general election calamity.
Writing: Rufus Pickles
Hidden away on a Harvard campus in 1971 a little known but enormously influential philosopher, seen by many to be the father of modern political theory, published a seminal and groundbreaking work called A Theory of Justice. In this magnus opus John Rawls sought to answer the millennia-old question of what a fair society looks like. The most memorable and enduring part of his philosophy is his thought experiment called the ‘original position’ where individuals find themselves behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ without knowledge of anything about themselves or their background. In this state of neutrality and separated from their own class, race and other biases people are able to reason objectively about constitutes fairness. Rawls posited that in this hypothetical situation individuals would choose principles of justice that include fair equality of opportunity for all. It is here where we must start our discussion on the problem of private schools in modern Britain and Labour’s policy to abolish them.
In Rawls’ scenario if you didn’t know what your educational start in life would be, you’d be highly unlikely to elect for a society with a two-tiered education system where the size of your parents wallet determines whether you go to a local state comprehensive that can’t afford to hire cleaners or a school like Eton that has produced twenty prime ministers. Modern day Britain has nothing even resembling fair equality of opportunity and private schools are a major culprit. Children who attend them have 300% more spent on their education than those that attend state schools. 41.8% of Oxford’s students are from private schools when only 7% of British children are at private schools. Even more startlingly: Oxbridge takes on more students from eight private schools than it does from 3,000 state schools. This is all being written by someone that attended a private school and saw first-hand the ridiculous degree of educational privilege that thousands of pounds of school fees can buy; from small classes to great teachers and rigorous workloads. Over a pint at a pub in Edinburgh’s Southside a friend of mine who went to school at a state comprehensive in the Scottish Borders told me that, in contrast to the confidence and ambition that private schools imbue in their pupils, he was always told: ‘if it all goes t*ts up you can go to college’.
Against accusations of injustice the defenders of private schools and beneficiaries of privilege have indicted Labour of getting rid of good schools and ‘abolishing excellence’ as the headmaster of Eton told the Guardian last month. Why remove quality from Britain’s education system and why will this improve the lot of those that are not able to attend private schools? This however is completely besides the point. As stated above the question of private schools is primarily a matter of basic fairness that all normal human beings have a sense of. Whether or not Eton turns out star pupils that go on to achieve great things (or not in the case of two of our last prime ministers) is irrelevant to whether our current education system is fair. As Rawls writes towards the beginning of A Theory of Justice: ‘Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought...laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust.’ The reason why lies at the heart of the social contract around which our society is based, as mentioned above. If no one knew what their educational start in life was then no one would agree to having an education system that gives some a massive head start over others- because it’s just not fair to those who don’t manage to get that start.