Roar writer Maisie Allen on why she believes the UK should abolish private schools to create a fairer, more equal education system.
The UK has a long–standing tradition of private schools, with institutions like Eton and Harrow constituting some of the oldest and most prestigious schools in the world. Despite the prestige bestowed on them, and the notable alumni they churn out (current Prime Minister Boris Johnson among them), their existence hints at a more sinister manifestation of social inequality.
The recent A-Level grading fiasco has brought their existence to the forefront of conversations on educational access and equality. An algorithm created by England’s exam watchdog Ofqual saw top grades at private schools increase far more than their state school counterparts, disproving to many the notion of education as a great equaliser. As such, is there a place for private schools in the UK anymore?
Initially set up as charitable institutions to educate the children of the “poor” in the Victorian era, they began to charge fees in such a way that their education became only feasible for the upper and middle classes. Nevertheless, many of these schools have maintained a “charitable” status, which means they do not pay the full business rates in the same way state schools are required to.
Whilst some schools claim that they make up for their charitable status by providing a number of free places through means of scholarships and bursaries, these places only account for approximately 1% of the current privately educated population.
This already means that state schools are more financially disadvantaged, thus impacting on the resources they can provide to their own pupils, and usually manifesting in larger class sizes, less money for extracurricular activities, or even a lack of maintenance for school facilities
This has a knock-on effect on how pupils then progress to post-compulsory education, and the attainment gap between state and privately educated students widens significantly. Despite only 7% of pupils attending private school in the UK, approximately 42% of Oxbridge places went to private school pupils.
Whilst an Oxbridge place is not the sole epitome of success by any means, the fact that the majority of applications there come from a group of eight disproportionately independent schools is deeply unsettling.
This is where Ofqual’s exam grading algorithm failed in the run-up to results’ day, by “streamlining” grades based on schools’ past performances. Statistics on the number of students gaining places at top universities, suggesting a high standard of A-Level grades that would have been achieved, help solidify a positive school reputation. They, therefore, become more marketable to prospective parents and education quickly becomes a competitive commodity.
As stated above, privately educated pupils are more likely to gain places at so-called elite universities than their state school counterparts, which in turn leads to a domination of careers across the public and private sectors.
The reason for this is that alongside a more stable learning environment, private schools come with their own alumni network. This means many pupils have access to leaders in their potential career fields in a manner that would be difficult to acquire for many state school pupils.
It is also worth noting that, in this context as well, boys who are privately educated gain an advantage over girls in later years when in the workplace due to these “old boys” networks’ that they have had entry to since their school years.
Many see abolition as an approach which is inherently destructive and believe that a softer approach such as the removal of independent schools’ charitable status would still financially benefit the UK economy. But options like these fail to address the systemic inequality rooted in the UK’s wealth gap.
When the average annual fee for one student at a private school is estimated at over £14,000 , almost half of the average household wage at £29,000, the discrepancy is clear to see. Critics of private school abolition propose that sending their child to a private school is a choice that everyone can make, but the wage figures tell a different story.
This exposes a deeply entrenched class system of wealth inequality that many like to pretend doesn’t exist, as the top 10% of earners can effectively buy their child’s way into a more affluent life.
Therefore, by abolishing private schools, we can begin to unite our education system. By integrating all schools whether independent, state-selective, or non-selective, we ensure that their pupils’ background doesn’t have to wholly define their academic potential.
Abolition is about creating a more diverse range of networks, a fairer way to share resources and improve quality of learning. As a society, we would be doing future generations a disservice if we failed to try to give them a life that is more equal, and education is the first step for this.