In defence of private school

Sitting in the sumptuous surroundings of the College dining hall at Eton this weekend, where I had been invited by a friend to the 'Masters' Dinner Night', the conversation turned, somewhat inevitably, to the ethics of private education. The guest opposite me, a state-educated merchant banker, was insistent - despite evidently enjoying the meal - that Eton and its kin should be shut down.
Loosely, his arguments and my rebuttals ran as follows:
Private schools are enemies of social mobility
True, some private schools, particularly those in the lower echelons, are too ready to dish out places to the dim but monied. But things are changing and already have changed in a good number of schools. The role once filled by the Grammar Schools of enabling clever children, of whatever background, to break into the educational elite is now increasingly being filled by the independent sector. At Eton plans are well underway to move to an entirely needs-blind recruitment system that will allow anyone, of whatever background, to enjoy an independent education. Even at my own school, a much more modestly endowed institution, a sizeable number of pupils are on handsome bursaries. I can think of scores of pupils since I fell into the sector in 1999 who have been afforded a considerable leg up in life through attendance made possible by such schemes. More of it could go on, agreed, but to paint independent schools as the baddies is entirely wrong - they do, proportionately, more than their fair share of good.
Private schools undermine state schools
Whether there's any truth behind this statement, I know not. But even if there is, I balk at the idea that success should be dismantled in order to save the blushes of those in less successful establishments (state or independent). As Lincoln pointed out: "You can’t make a weak man strong by making a strong man weak."
A more positive approach would be to try and emulate the success of independent schools by beating them at their own game. This doesn't necessarily, by the way, mean selection. Many independent schools, including the one I currently work in, are determinedly non-selective. Parents choose them for other reasons such as:
  • their willingness to lay on an all-round, out-of-hours fully immersive education,
  • the lack of militancy amongst the staff,
  • a common-sense approach to educational fads and bureaucracy etc.
I would argue that independent schools are vital in providing an alternative to the bland one-size-fits all, must-have-your-learning-objectives-on-the -board tedium that infects too many schools in the state sector. State schools in their turn, far from feeling undermined, should face the competition head on and learn from it. The clamour for closure smacks of sour grapes.
Private schools entrench privilege
Here, to be fair, my interlocutor was firmer ground. It was hard to argue against this point when so many of the nation's movers and shakers come from the very school we were dining in. But I don't think that this success need be denigrated, nor do I think that the grip of independent schools on public life need necessarily persevere. Malcolm Gladwell points out that seedbeds of success can crop up in the most unusual of places. Long streams of winners arise as much from the particular mix of individuals in a locale as they do from the peculiarities of funding arrangements. An inspirational coach can set in motion a positive feedback loop in which wealth and privilege is largely an irrelevance. Witness the number of first-class rugby players, for example, who have emerged from the 'bog standard' Woodlands School in Coventry or the cluster of celebrities all attending the Liverpool Institute in the 1960s. The fact that Eton, even amongst public schools, is SO dominant in public life seems to suggest that there is more than just the fact of its independence needed to explain why it is so successful. I'd wager that there is something about the confidence, the connections and the particular mix of staff at Eton that engenders its success in public life. I don't think it's healthy to have too many at the top from the same school, but my solution wouldn't be to shut it down but to better try and emulate it.
It is the government's business to ensure that no-one gains an advantage as a result of dispensing their wealth on education
Here the inconsistency of my merchant-banking chum reached its apogee. On the one hand he was quite happy to defend his right to buy a bigger house and/or a faster car than others but when it came to education he thought that no-one should have the right to decide how to spend their money. I was left wondering where this position stops. Is it always wrong to try and seek to gain a competitive advantage through education? If so, should all those who have spent money or time in later life furthering their education be feeling guilty for doing so? Personally I would rather live in a society where difference: financial, social, cultural and educational was the norm. Soviet era tower-blocks make me shudder, as does the suggestion that all schools should be the same. I live in a modest flat, others (many of them merchant bankers!) live in far more salubrious surroundings. I work in a small, provincial independent school: others work at Eton. Rather than puckering up in an envious rage though I think it far more healthy to quietly work at making the best of what I've got....
The rather revolting picture of me that heads this post is suggestive of some of the things that, rightly, enrage the detractors of independent schools. Despite appearances, though, attending private school didn't leave me with a sneering disdain of those less fortunate than myself. I strongly believe that everyone should be given a fair crack of the whip. That said, I am convinced that private education has its role to play in seeing that this happens, in continuing to spread UK PLC's soft power around the globe, and in keeping the educational establishment on its toes. Tearing it all down in the name of progress would be a heinous act of state vandalism.

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