Wherever you draw the line, fee-paying schools fall on the wrong side

6 04 2015

Let me start with a statement. I am a firm opponent of elite, fee-paying schools on the grounds that their existence is an offence to both equality and meritocracy.

Fee paying schools in the UK educate less than 8% of the population, yet 71% of senior judges, 60% of those holding senior positions in the financial services, 54% of FTSE CEO’s, 53% of senior diplomats, over half of the House of Lords and a third of the current cabinet have been schooled in this way. It is perfectly clear that this is inequitable.

Why, then, do they still exist?

There have been many opportunities, particularly since the end of the second world war to either abolish them completely or to curtail their influence. None have been taken and governments of all hues have failed in this regard, both north and south of the border. In fact in the 1960’s, with the British Empire and the institutions that underpinned it disappearing, public schools with their fondness for cold showers and team sports over science and technology, had become a bit of an anachronism. A commitment to meritocracy in education was meant to ensure a fairer distribution of life chances. Entry to higher education would be determined not by family connections but by passing examinations which would be open to all. A system would exist that would allow children from socially and financially disadvantaged backgrounds to compete on a level playing field, so to speak, and to flourish. Meritocracy, in this sense, was supposed to benefit natural born talent. There is an argument to be had as to why natural talent is valued higher than the application of hard work upon lesser innate ability, think George Best and Bobby Charlton, but that is for another day.

Meritocracy in the sense that was intended, was not achieved. I confess that I should have been more sceptical and much earlier. In the 1970’s family friend and MP for Stoke South Jack Ashley visited my parents home and was massively supportive of their decision to send me to the newly established local comprehensive school. I was later told that one of his own daughters was studying at The Sorbonne and another was educated via Grammar School. Hypocrisy continued. In 1996 Harriet Harman, then Shadow Secretary of State for Education chose to send one of her sons to a selective school outside her local borough of Southwark. Meritocracy didn’t, however, fail due to the hypocrisy of some parliamentarians. It failed because the children from more affluent homes were best placed to benefit because they had the support of their parents. Some parents invested time and effort in developing the talents of their children, while others could not or did not.

Indeed my own parents were able to make a choice, one which is not open to all. My father moved job and into a part of the country that still operated selective education in order that my brothers and I could complete our education at grammar schools. In many cases, the meritocracy introduced into the education system simply widened the divide between children who did and who didn’t have parental support.

I was at a conference recently looking at women’s experience of sectarianism. Everyone in the room agreed that sectarianism was a bad thing and that greater integration of communities would lead to a better understanding of each others circumstances and life experiences and would help to alleviate the antagonism between different communities. Yet the vast majority sent their children to faith schools – on the grounds that they were, supposedly, better academically. Beyond Scotland, there are more and more cases of parents moving house to be in the catchment area of certain state schools or who are sending their children to faith-based schools irrespective of their own religious beliefs, or absence thereof.

There we have the reason.
Fee paying schools are simply an extreme example of parents exercising parental choice; they exist so that parents can use their wealth to secure career advantage for their children. But is this a good enough reason for such schools to be allowed to persist?

As a society we accept, as a given, that parents favour their own children over other peoples children. When we are doing things for our children it is easy to feel that we are being generous and are behaving entirely morally. Who doesn’t want the best for their kids? Returning to Harriet Harman by way of illustrating the point, she said “I think parents will understand we had to make the right decision for our child and that we would have been less than human if we had done anything else.” We feel that we should do as much as we can to gain advantage for our children and society is largely supportive in this regard. Harriet Harman wasn’t sacked. Selfish gene theory insists that this apparently altruistic behaviour towards our own offspring, and the feelings of wellness that it confers in the parent, are essential evolutionary traits in ensuring gene transmission to future generations. Additionally, it is very common to hear parents saying that they want a better life for their children than they have had; a sentiment rarely, if ever, challenged. Making choices that benefit just our own offspring rarely feels like selfishness, but in reality that benefit is often gained the expense of others. Even if another isn’t immediately or directly disadvantaged, we are gaining relative advantage by putting distance between our children and others.

Yet, most of us also feel that it is wrong that children from poorer backgrounds do not have access to at least some of the life chances as the rich.

What we have, therefore, is a conflict between the desire of parents to confer advantage on their offspring and needs of a fair and just society.
On the one hand parents as individuals feel that they have a right, a right that is rarely challenged, to do whatever they can for their children.
On the other hand is the desire in society for equality of opportunity for all.

Where, then, do we find balance between these two competing elements.
In practice there are already some constraints on parental choice. It wouldn’t, for example, be acceptable to disobey the law in order to confer advantage. How far can parents be allowed to improve their own children’s prospects before equality of opportunity is compromised? How about buying a pony? Is that acceptable? Paying for flying lessons? Paying for piano lessons? Since the supply of goods and services are limited helping some children to obtain them necessarily restricts their availability for others.

Not everyone can have a yacht but does that mean that no-one should have a yacht?
Better, perhaps, to consider a fair chance and fair society rather than equal chances and an equal society?
Not everyone can have a yacht but perhaps we should try and arrange things so that all those who want access to a yacht can at least learn how to sail?

Returning then to fee paying schools. Segregating children along the lines of wealth runs counter to the idea of a fair or an equal society. It creates unequal opportunities and unequal outcomes, as demonstrated by the numbers of alumni holding positions of power; positions from where they can, and do, create more inequality.

Let me end with a statement. While I am unsure as to where the lines of parental advantage should be drawn I remain convinced that fee-paying schools fall over the boundary. How they could be abolished, I’m not sure. I suspect if an attempt were made to close them they would move, like most of the money that supports them, to some offshore tax have.

The answer is to work to create a society with equality of income and wealth where it would be much harder for parents to purchase privilege.

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