Ad­van­tages en­joyed by pri­vate schools sim­ply can­not be jus­ti­fied

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Pri­vate ed­u­ca­tion, as il­lus­trated by this ar­chive pho­to­graph of young men at Eton Col­lege, per­pet­u­ates an in­equal­ity that sits atop the cri­sis in so­cial mo­bil­ity. to pri­vate schools. In medicine, the re­search found that 61 per cent of our high­est-paid doc­tors were ed­u­cated at in­de­pen­dent schools and al­most one-quar­ter at­tended a gram­mar school.

The re­main­der, less than one in five, were ed­u­cated at a com­pre­hen­sive school. Hav­ing briefly oc­cu­pied the moral high ground in ac­knowl­edg­ing gross in­equal­ity, Mr Gove, like many com­men­ta­tors on the Right, re­treated be­hind an old con­ser­va­tive re­doubt: that it was the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the state sec­tor to get its act to­gether to match the ex­cel­lence of the fee-pay­ing sec­tor. How this was to be achieved few were able to say; just so long as a so­lu­tion doesn’t dis­man­tle the priv­i­leges of the elite.

In Scot­land, af­ter al­most two decades of left-wing gov­ern­ment, there has been vir­tu­ally no at­tempt to ad­dress the un­fair ad­van­tages en­joyed by the lit­tle group of schools that least de­serve them. In­stead, there is a sense that abol­ish­ing this ad­van­tage af­fects a rel­a­tively tiny num­ber. Yet, as the Sut­ton Trust re­search shows, the sys­tem of pri­vate ed­u­ca­tion is de­signed to en­sure that po­lit­i­cal, fi­nan­cial and cul­tural in­flu­ence re­mains within the gift of the few.

This ed­u­ca­tional in­equal­ity sits at the top of the cri­sis in so­cial mo­bil­ity.

“So­cial mo­bil­ity” is the po­lite term for sim­ply “get­ting ahead”. In the UK a list of fac­tors is key to “get­ting ahead” or achiev­ing a de­gree of suc­cess. Merit, hard work and a level play­ing field do not fig­ure near the top. Noth­ing out­weighs un­earned priv­i­lege, in­her­ited wealth and the where­withal to avoid pay­ing tax or de­cent wages.

The So­cial Mo­bil­ity Com­mis­sion’s State of the Na­tion 2016 re­port warned that the im­pact of such in­equal­ity and un­fair­ness was “not just felt by the poor­est in so­ci­ety but [was] also hold­ing back whole tranches of mid­dle as well as low-in­come fam­i­lies – these tread­mill fam­i­lies are run­ning harder and harder, but are stand­ing still. The prob­lem is not just so­cial divi­sion but a widen­ing ge­o­graph­i­cal di­vide be­tween the big cities – Lon­don es­pe­cially – and too many towns and coun­ties across the coun­try are be­ing left be­hind eco­nom­i­cally and hol­lowed out so­cially.”

The re­port points out that the UK is be­ing harmed at ev­ery level be­cause the ma­jor­ity are held back from ful­fill­ing their po­ten­tial by an­cient bar­ri­ers gov­ern­ing ac­cess and the abil­ity to in­flu­ence. The in­flu­ence of a pri­vate ed­u­ca­tion – grossly dis­pro­por­tion­ate to the num­bers ben­e­fit­ting – per­vades all of this. It pro­vides the cor­ner­stone and the foun­da­tions for en­sur­ing that only very few from amongst the masses will ever get to be ad­mit­ted to their sanc­tu­ar­ies, and cer­tainly too few to ever cor­rect the im­bal­ance.

The claims to jus­tify these tax ad­van­tages – that they of­fer bur­saries to pupils from dis­ad­van­taged ar­eas – are eas­ily de­bunked. The Scot­tish Coun­cil for Vol­un­tary Or­gan­i­sa­tions (SCVO) high­lighted the 2015 Scot­tish Char­ity Reg­u­la­tor’s re­port into 32 fee-pay­ing schools. This found that the me­dian amount of in­come these char­i­ties spent on means-tested bur­saries was 6.1 per cent. The me­dian per­cent­age of pupils re­ceiv­ing means-tested bur­saries was 10.2 per cent.

Ac­cord­ing to the SCVO, “this means that ac­cess to the ser­vice pro­vided by these char­i­ties is in 90 per cent of cases re­stricted to those that are wealthy. For SCVO this is not char­i­ta­ble ac­tiv­ity”. Those who glibly pro­nounce on the weak­nesses of com­pre­hen­sive schools rarely get be­yond ex­am­i­na­tion re­sults to the con­di­tions of se­vere eco­nomic and so­cial depri­va­tion sur­round­ing these schools. It’s im­pos­si­ble for chil­dren to com­pete against the abil­ity to pay for ex­pen­sive pri­vate tu­ition and the com­fort of know­ing that their home will al­ways be heated and that there will be de­cent food on the ta­ble. Yet these fac­tors are hardly ever taken into ac­count when as­sess­ing a pupil’s aca­demic pro­fi­ciency. Are we re­ally say­ing that most of the bright­est peo­ple in so­ci­ety hail from priv­i­leged and af­flu­ent homes?

No one ought to be sur­prised that some of Glas­gow’s most suc­cess­ful gang­land firms have men and women man­ag­ing suc­cess­ful prop­erty and busi­ness em­pires. Many were ef­fec­tively dis­carded by so­ci­ety and groomed to ex­pect lit­tle but penury and drudgery; merely to get by rather than “get ahead”. They were nonethe­less smart enough to know that the way so­ci­ety was ar­ranged gave an un­fair ad­van­tage and un­earned riches to a gilded few at the top.

Pri­vate schools feed into this. They ex­ist to en­sure that power and in­flu­ence, and the money to buy both, re­main the pre­serve of a ca­bal. That the state, whose re­spon­si­bil­ity is to the many and not the few, con­nives by grant­ing tax ad­van­tages on spu­ri­ous grounds is in­ex­pli­ca­ble; that a state run by a gov­ern­ment end­lessly pro­claim­ing equal­ity and fair­ness is a scan­dal.

The tiny per­cent­age of the pop­u­la­tion who at­tend these schools are taught by teach­ers whose ed­u­ca­tion was bought and paid for by the rest of us. Let fee-pay­ing schools ex­ist in Scot­land but let them also pay for the ed­u­ca­tion of their teach­ers.

Pic­ture: Hul­ton Ar­chive/Getty

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