The Private School Problem

Writing by Isi Williams. Illustration by Bethany Morton.

I’ve wanted to write an article about this issue for a long time, but was put off by the conversations I’d had with my peers at Edinburgh. I’ve had friends compare buying a private school education to buying better quality toilet paper; I’ve had friends tell me that private schools help people with learning difficulties (forgetting that only rich kids with learning difficulties can get in). Eton, Harrow and Winchester all cost around £40,000, which is £10,000 more than the average UK salary. And if you defend private education with the argument that some poorer students can get bursaries: that simply isn’t true. Many of the bursaries offered by private schools go to middle class students as opposed to working class and more disadvantaged students. Dr Anthony Wallersteiner, the head teacher of a £36,000-a-year private school in Buckinghamshire, stated that ‘a large proportion of bursaries were handed out to the ‘squeezed middle,’ being used to top up the fees for ‘children of doctors, lawyers and owners of small businesses.’ Only 5657 students, less than 1% of the total private school population, were given fully funded bursaries in 2018. Private schools do not help working class students. Period.


In a report by the Social Mobility Commission, they confirmed that just 7% of British people are privately educated but make up 39% of all top positions. And despite 88% of the British population being educated in state comprehensive schools (excluding grammar schools, which are academically selective), comprehensively educated people make up:

  • 19% of Newspaper Columnists (44% are privately educated)

  • 13% of Senior Judges (65% are privately educated)

  • 29% of Diplomats (52% are privately educated)

  • 17% of Doctors (39% are privately educated)

  • 4 out of 26 Cabinet Members (69% of Boris Johnston's cabinet was privately educated)


Private schools put children on a fast track towards high paying, powerful positions. It is shocking that if a child’s parent is wealthy, they are much more likely to be put in a position of power when they are older. And as I stated earlier, there is often the argument that buying education is like buying anything else luxurious, but that is ridiculous. Private schools do not just increase your quality of life while you’re at school, the benefits last throughout your entire lifetime. ‘A privately educated man leaving university with the exact same degree as a state-educated man will later enjoy a pay gap of some 7 to 15 percent in his favour.’ This shows that even if you have the same level of intelligence and work ethic, privately educated students go on to better paying jobs. It is a cycle of privilege which sociologists call the ‘reproduction of social class.’


It is particularly felt at Edinburgh University, where only 65% of students are state educated, compared to 93% of the population, and that includes the overrepresentation of grammar schooled students. The University of Edinburgh is also one of the UK’s two universities getting less representation, as the proportion of state schooled students has decreased each year for the last 5 years. This inspired a new society called The 93% Club, which was founded at the University of Edinburgh by Sheela Steele; it ‘is aiming to support state-educated students with the confidence, skills and resources to reach high in both their university life and future endeavours. Tackling particular imbalances at Edinburgh University and the disadvantages that state-educated students face. [They] believe in the empowerment of all students and for [them that] must include pulling state-educated students up with equitable measures.’ This is something which should naturally be provided by the University, but unfortunately has been left for students to tackle themselves.


At university, state educated students are known to outperform their privately educated counterparts with the same A-level results. ‘State school students tend to do better in their degree studies than students from independent schools with the same prior educational attainment,’ concluded a 2014 report from the Higher Education Funding Council. ‘For example, a male student who gained BBB at A-level from a state school has the same probability of attaining an upper second or higher as a similar student who gained ABB from an independent school.’ When state and private educated students are put on a level playing field, state students come out on top. There should be a higher drive from the university to take state school students with a grade lower because otherwise people are being accepted simply on the basis that their school was good and not their capacity to complete a degree well.


What is especially dangerous about private schools is that they allow upper middle class and wealthy people to head straight into highly influential jobs - jobs that influence government policy, jobs that influence the general public and jobs that have a direct influence on the lives of the working class. It creates a system where the people on top remain on top. In a survey conducted by the National Centre for Social Research ‘private education perpetuates a form of “social apartheid” and has given rise to a political class drawn from a “segregated elite” that does not understand or share the views of most people.’


Alan Bennett stated, ‘governments, even this one, exist to make the nation's circumstances more fair, but no government, whatever its complexion, has dared to tackle private education.’ And no wonder when in 2019, ‘on average 44% of politicians attended independent schools’. Only 2 Prime Ministers were comprehensively state educated - David Lloyd George, who went to Llanystumdwy National School and held office between 1916 and 1922, and Gordon Brown, who attended Kirkcaldy High School and held office between 2007 and 2010. And in 2014 when Nicky Morgan became Education secretary, every single minister in that department, the Department of Education, was privately educated. One has to wonder how this influences the way that governments view private education when they have no lived experience of the negative effect it has on state schooled students. Of course the working class and lower middle class are going to be discriminated against when they aren’t represented in politics. And of course the fairness of private schools is never going to be openly discussed.


But private schools are not, and will never be, fair. They restrict social mobility, they allow upper class students an advantage over state schooled students and they support a society where wealth and influence matter more than intelligence and work ethic. It permeates every inch of society and has an effect on every single one of our futures. If you are a private school student, I ask that you recognise the privilege you have been given and you use that privilege to fight for those less fortunate than you. Because as Alan Bennett stated, ‘Private education is not fair. Those who provide it know it. Those who pay for it know it. Those who have to sacrifice in order to purchase it know it. And those who receive it know it, or should. And if their education ends without it dawning on them, then that education has been wasted.’


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