Advantages enjoyed by private schools simply cannot be justified
The Herard Scotland, by Kevin McKenna
The pattern of unearned privilege at the heart of British life was laid bare in an article a few years ago. “It is remarkable how many positions of wealth, influence, celebrity and power in our society are held by individuals who were privately educated,” the writer observed. “More than almost any developed nation, ours is a country in which your parentage dictates your progress. Those who are born poor are more likely to stay poor and those who inherit privilege are more likely to pass on privilege in England than in any comparable country.”
The author was that dangerous radical, Michael Gove who, at the time of writing, was education secretary in a Tory government. Since then his observations have been underpinned by continuous research conducted by the Sutton Trust educational charity. Its latest survey showed that, although only seven per cent of the UK population is privately educated, 71 per cent of our top military officers attended a fee-paying facility. In the legal profession 74 per cent were privately educated, while 51 per cent of leading print journalists went 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 iniquity sits at the top of the crisis of 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.