Private vs Public: The toxic education debate

The one thing that is likely to cause furor when mentioned in any English household is the debate between the private and public-school systems. This debate has been recently reignited by the revelation that 8 schools send more students to Oxbridge than 75% of all schools combined. Out of all these schools, the majority are independent and fee paying, which has caused the debate on private schooling to flare up again.

However, a major reason that private schools remain around is the competition they generate, making sure that the state schools keep up with the competition, and maintaining the education system on the cutting edge. Pure state ownership in the past, on the other hand, has been proven to cause issues, both in the stagnation of industry and lack of productivity exemplified in the Winter Of Discontent and the previous failures of English public companies.

Other arguments claim that the destroying of the private school system would simply drive rich parents to send their children overseas, and in doing so destroy our own system for no overall benefit. One may argue that if the purpose of destroying private schools is to “even the playing field”, this will, on the contrary, simply broaden the perceived gap between the rich and poor, and thus aggravate the situation.

Reasonable points in favour of the abolition of private schools have also been made, for example the critique of the existence of the so-called “Old Boys Club”, somewhat evident in the makeup of Tory MPs in the UK (around ½ of them are privately educated). This obviously reflects a class tension as well as deeply rooted social mobility issues. The days when it was acceptable for England to be governed by aristocracy have long since passed, and selection should be based on merit, not arbitrary divides of parental wealth.

This debate will not be solved by calling our current system an “Apartheid education system”, which ironically only serves to divide us further. The claim that “state school children work less hard” further angers and clouds the debate, and is also inherently false.

The division and anger that fuel the public vs private school debate in the UK inhibit informed decisions about reforming our education system from being made. Instead, we are stuck with continual wealth, class and educational disparities that occasionally steal the show  in newspaper headlines and family conversations, rather than in government policy and reform. If half of those who debate these ideas so vigorously around the dinner table acted on their beliefs for the creation of a better education system, perhaps we might have a better one. Perhaps our current maths scores would not be so dismal compared to the rest of the world (given that they are currently the worst they have been since records began).Then, perhaps, we would have less tension and debate, and for certain we would have better education.

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