Time to close the last closed shop: Britain and Scotland’s private schools

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, 13 February 2019

Britain’s elites have never been more self-serving, self-sustaining and only interested in looking after themselves – aided by private education.

All of a sudden the subject of private schools is back on the public agenda, aided by a decade of austerity, stalled living standards and the evaporation of social mobility. This has brought home to many who would not have previously thought of it the role of private education in looking after a very select and privileged few.

Britain’s elites according to research by the Sutton Trust have 74% of judges, 71% of barristers and 71% of senior military privately educated – with 32% of MPs (figures for 2016). This has spread into the worlds of culture, entertainment and sport with 60% of British winners of Oscars and 42% of BAFTA winners privately educated along with 41% of UK medalists in the 2012 London Olympics.

The slow march to equality evident over the 20th century has now stopped and in places gone into reverse. A study of Who’s Who showed that of entrants who had been born between 1830 and 1920 50-60% were privately educated, whereas for those born between the 1930s and 1960s this was 45%, and for those new entrants of the 21st century this was still 45%.

The defence of private education is one we are all familiar with. That it is about parental choice and freedom to decide what to do with your own money. There is the argument that it encourages both competition and partnership with the state sector. And that people choosing private education are paying twice over for education through taxes and hence freeing up capacity in the state system.

Yet, the arguments against private education refute these points. They are a form of social apartheid. They represent a refusal of part of society to integrate with the rest of us. And we all lose as a society by pushy parents taking themselves and their kids out of the state sector.

A tiny minority of UK children: 6.5% are privately educated. Yet this tiny minority distorts society, politics and how we even think about intelligence and success. 24% of secondary school aged children in Edinburgh are privately educated. Oxford University’s student intake is 42.3% privately educated, Cambridge 37.4%, Durham 37.1%, Imperial College 36.5% and St. Andrews 35.6% with Edinburgh at 33.6% (2017 figures).

We as a society subsidise private education. They are charities able still to claim charitable relief when many are clearly private businesses. They can claim relief on non-domestic rates. Fettes in Edinburgh can reduce what they pay from £209,139 per year to £41,828 it was revealed in 2014 – and this when their annual turnover was just under £20 million. This works out as a subsidy from the rest of us of £167,311 per annum to an already privileged tiny group.

Once upon a time this grotesque state of affairs drew not just indignation but widespread calls for reform. It is not surprising that these were in two periods of Britain opening itself up at least to debate on radical reform: namely, during and immediately after the Second World War and in the early to mid-1960s.

George Orwell wrote in this influential ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’, published in 1941, of the need to ‘democratise [the] educational system’: ‘We could start by abolishing the autonomy of the public schools and the older universities and flooding them with state-aided pupils chosen simply on grounds of ability.’

Labour too took up a more reforming stance than in recent times, informed by Tony Crosland’s magnum opus, ‘The Future of Socialism’, published in 1956. In it he wrote: ‘We shall not have equality of opportunity so long as we maintain a system of superior private schools, open to the wealthier classes, but out of reach of poorer children however talented and deserving.

Six years later in ‘The Conservative Enemy’ he went even further: ‘The public schools offend not only against the ‘weak’, let alone the ‘strong’, ideal of equal opportunity; they offend even more against any ideal of social cohesion or democracy.’ He continued: ‘This privileged stratum of education … is the greatest single cause of stratification and class consciousness in Britain …’

Labour informed by this head of steam and the popular belief that the establishment was holding the country stood in the 1964 election on a manifesto which promised integrating private schools into the state sector. This never happened as the party’s energies were taken up with comprehensive education, implemented by Crosland. In 1983 with a left-wing manifesto the party contemplated again reform, but went down to a huge defeat. Now the issue is back on the agenda.

We constantly hear about the success of Finnish education and the transformation of their state schools. But one little examined point by its champions is that when the Finns decided in 1963 to make completely comprehensive their system they did so agreeing to phase out private education. This began to happen in the early 1970s and is one factor many Finn educational experts saw in the improvement of their school system, to the point it is studied and referenced around the world.

I have always thought that while private education is in principle undesirable to pose abolition is not feasible and not an ethical thing to do. It deprives people of choice and is a curtailment of freedom. Yet, such is the closed shop of privilege that is private education – that just as we abolished the closed shop in relation to trade unions – so we should do so with private schools.

Reform, integration and ultimately, abolition have to be put back on the agenda. This after all is a minority who consistently refuse to integrate, who choose to work in their own ghettos and turn their backs on mixing with people from other backgrounds, marry into their own groups, and exert power over the rest of us.

This is as true of supposedly egalitarian Scotland, as Alex Massie admitted, when he wrote a defence of private education and said of the privately educated: ‘they are a clan – an easily identified one at that – whose members stick, and club together … the alumni of the great private schools are a tribe apart.’

Any argument that private education is connected to intelligence, wisdom and social responsibility, can be discounted by the actions of many of the products of private schools. Senior politicians such as David Cameron (Eton), George Osborne (Eton-St.Paul’s), Boris Johnson (Eton), or Nigel Farage (Dulwich) are hardly the brightest rising to the top. The same is true of the current Tory and Labour leaders: Theresa May (St. Juliana’s) and Jeremy Corbyn (Castle House).

Usually private education apologists dismiss reform by promising that private education will change with various tokenistic schemes such as bursaries for some students. Then there is the hoary old line that the state should raise the standards of its schools to that of the private sector. For a start, it would be interesting to see the ‘Daily Mail’ reaction to the rise in taxation needed to get state schools down to a pupil to teacher ratio of 9:1.

We do need reform of state education in Scotland along with the rest of the UK, but it is also true that the continuation of private education harms all of us. It damages our society, aids various professions and walks of life becoming no go areas to the majority, and consequently, distorts public debates about success and achievement. Gordonstoun advertises itself with the strapline: ‘You can’t put a price on friendship. Or success’ but it clear on both counts this is disingenuous marketing.

Private schools are multi-million pound businesses – with boarding fees at Eton at £40,668 this year and Harrow £40,050 – and £38,295 at Gordonstoun and £34,000 at Fettes – yet they are enormously sensitive to even the slightest call for reform. When Matt Hancock, then UK minister for social mobility, in 2016 called for employers to look at the socio-economic background of applicants, including educational background, the private school network went into overdrive. He was forced to retreat and talk in empty platitudes about the importance of meritocracy, another debauched word reduced to the opposite of its original intentions.

Six years ago three private schools in Scotland – Fettes, St. George’s School for Girls, Edinburgh, and St. Columba’s School, Kilmacolm, Inverclyde, were found to have failed the charity test set by the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator; Fettes had the grand total of five pupils on full subsidised places, and this could have seen their charity status revoked but no action was forthcoming.

Yet change is coming in other ways. In April 2020, just over a year away, most private schools in Scotland will lose charitable relief, meaning that Fettes will lose that £160,000 per annum subsidy of its non-business rates and have to operate on a level playing field with state schools in this respect. It is a popular move supported by 73% of Scots according to YouGov with 13% disagreeing, and the more wealthy people are the more they support this change.

Orwell wrote nearly eighty years ago about the damage these ‘festering centres of snobbery’ do and dared to imagine a society in which Eton, Harrow and Winchester were no longer conveyor belts of privilege, reaction and conservatism.

Private education in the UK has in the intervening period become even more of a social blot on the landscape. The ideal that all of our children should be educated together, experiencing a similar start in life, is a powerful and liberating one, which has positive consequences for all society. We know that this is possible because this is the experience Finland had from the 1970s onward, and they like any country embarking on a bold course were told by vested interests it was a diversion and wouldn’t work. It wasn’t a diversion and it has worked.

The UK is the only developed country with such a racket as the scale of private education and the grip it has on large swathes of society. It is time to raise the spectre of abolition and say to this minority they have abused their privileges for too long and at too much cost to us as a society.

Scotland is making a small but significant step in the right direction, but we need to go much further. It is time to shut one of the last closed shops and think about all of our children together.