Is private education compatible with the idea of equal opportunity and Western capitalist society as a meritocracy?
Statistically, in the UK, the private, fee-paying, Independent School system (sometimes confusingly called the Public School system) is still responsible for educating most of our senior establishment figures: politicians, military officers, academics, and civil servants, as well as significant numbers of our most successful artists, TV Producers, writers and journalists. Our government and Independent discourse is still overwhelmingly dominated by the values and culture of the Independent School educated elite.
Attending an Independent School clearly offers significant advantage in terms of access to power, career prospects and income, and yet Independent Schools are only available to the children of a tiny wealthy elite – because of the level of fees charged and the overt & covert selection criteria that includes membership of that elite as a perquisite for entry to Independent Schools.
Yet in all countries of the Western world, including the hyper-capitalist USA of the Reagan & Bush years, it has long been accepted that a high quality education for all citizens is a base line aspiration for any democratic society. For some the presence of expensive private schools undermines this egalitarian ambition.
A high quality education for all is not just, or even primarily, an issue about providing industry with a competent work force, or about equality of life chances; it is primarily an issue of freedom and democracy. Theoretically1, in a democracy it is citizens who ultimately make decisions about who governs and the policies the elected government pursues. For this ideal to be meaningful citizens need to be informed and competent to assess the issues of the day. The ability to count, read and write are obvious and baseline skills needed for a democratic citizen but equally important are knowledge of the social, geographical and historical context in which decisions are being made and most importantly the ability to reflect, analyse and interpret facts, propositions and opinions. It is through education that democratic citizens acquire these skills.
The primary justification for private fee-paying education in a liberal democratic society is that rich people should be free to spend their own money how they see fit, and that naturally we all want to do the best by our own children and that to abolish private schools would restrict the freedom of the rich to provide the best start in life for their children. There are then secondary justifications focusing on diversity of educational models and the private schools as centres of excellence.
Setting aside for a moment the secondary justifications, I would like to ask whether we should we allow the freedom of rich people to spend their money as they wish to override all other concerns; concerns about meaningful democracy, equality and social justice for example?
Many liberals describe a vision of social justice that is based on the concept of equal opportunity. In this version of social justice societies can legitimately sustain great inequalities of income and lifestyle if, and only if, all citizens have an equal opportunity to build their own wealth and privilege, in their own lifetime, through their own hard work and the honest exploitation of their own talents.
This vision of social justice, much favoured by Tony Blair and New Labour, is often called a meritocracy and is an openly elitist economic and political model but one that justifies the privileged position of the elite by claiming that all citizens have equal access to membership of the elite based on their own merit, rather than on the wealth or prestige of their parents.
To many this intuitively sounds fair (or at least fairer than monarchy or oligarchy), but it quickly raises a number of fundamental issues:
(i) As, Ha-Joon Chang, (author of 23 Things They don’t tell you about capitalism) pointed out in the Guardian on Monday 30th August “We can accept the outcome of a competitive process as fair only when the participants have equality in basic capabilities; the fact that no one is allowed to have a head start does not make the race fair if some contestants have only one leg.”
(ii) Starting from where we are now, in the real world today, to what extent can we expect genuine equality of opportunity to ever be achieved?
(iii) Following on from that, and equally importantly, how do we reconcile the concept of inheritance with the concept of equality of opportunity?
Setting aside (i) for now (see my On The Deserving Rich post), If we allow citizens to leave substantial wealth to their children then how can we reasonably claim that those children are competing equally with the children of poorer parents?
Mind you the same question arises even if we find a way to abolish inheritance but still allow parents in their own lifetime to use their wealth to buy educational and social advantage for their children by paying for a private education.
Surely to mean anything equality of opportunity has to entail equal access to a comparable level of education for all students. If so how can we possibly justify a system whereby the highest quality of education can only be accessed by the wealthy?
Well, one argument sometimes put forward is that those attending Independent Schools are in fact the most meritocratic and thus Independent Schools are compatible with a meritocracy.
The argument runs that only the cleverest students get into schools like Eton, Harrow & St Paul’s and that it is purely coincidental that the parents of these young geniuses happen to be rich. Coincidence seems an unsatisfactory way to sustain the argument so quickly the position shifts to the notion that it is not a coincidence at all and that the children at Independent Schools are so clever because their parents were so clever – as demonstrated by their wealth and privilege. This argument is uncompromisingly elitist in that it entails the idea that the existing elite are privileged because of their innate abilities (even when the wealth of the family has been inherited for generations), and that through genetic selection this talented elite necessarily produce the cleverest and ablest children in the land. While I am sure this is a widely held believe amongst elitists I am certainly not convinced! I have met and worked with far too many charming and highly articulate but profoundly stupid Hooray Henry’s, to be convinced of the innate superiority of Independent School boys.
But even if it is true that overall the children of the ruling elite have higher IQ’s than the rest of us one would have to ask why this justifies the Independent Schools system? If the children of the elite already have a genetic advantage and the psychological and physical advantages of a comfortable and well-provided childhood what type of moral system would argue that they should then be given an added educational advantage? If we are serious about social justice surely it is less privileged children who should be given a highly focused education with high per capita budgets and small class sizes. Surely the highly intelligent children of the elite will be able to look after themselves in the big wide world and it is the less able we should be giving special provision?
The Independent Schools themselves have acknowledged the weakness in the argument of innate elite superiority by introducing scholarships for able students from less privileged backgrounds. By doing so at the very least they recognise that first class talent is not exclusively restricted to the children of the elite; that there can be talented children born to poorer parents. Unfortunately, these scholarships can only ever offer a limited improvement in equality of opportunity because due to simple economics the scholarship students can only ever constitute a minority of the students and for the rest, once certain minimum standards are met, it is the ability of their parents to pay that truly determines whether a child attends a Independent school.
It is undoubtedly true that there is a hierarchy within the Independent Schools system and those schools at the top of the pile can chose only the brightest and ablest students. But they are choosing the brightest and ablest students from the set of parents who can afford to pay the fees, not the brightest and ablest from all possible students.
For the Independent Schools to be truly meretricious they would need to be free at the point of use, or at least with a progressive fee system based on the ability of parents to pay, and open to all students who could pass the entrance exam, i.e. like the old grammar schools and direct maintenance private schools that were part of the grammar system.
But the grammar school system itself was opposed primarily because of it’s elitist nature; because by passing the 11+ already able students received a better education than their less able brothers & sisters – sometimes literally.
There were a number of reasons this was deemed to be unjust. Firstly, because surely the interests of efficiency and human compassion would suggest that more effort should be put into the education of the less able to give them the best possible chances in life. Secondly, because the method of selection at 11 was not trusted, leading to the suspicion that significant numbers of able children who would have benefited from a grammar school education were thus denied the opportunity. Related to this was the notion, proved by extensive research, that middle-class children already had an advantage over their working class compatriots because of the pre-school culture in which they were reared. Thus working-class children disproportionately failed the 11+ in relation to their innate intelligence. The idea here is that the opportunities of talented working-class children of equal merit were not equal because of factors not of their making, i.e. the cultural values of their parents, (which takes us back to Ha-Joon Chang’s point about one-legged runners).
This was important because the Grammar Schools aped the cultural, educational and social values of the Independent Schools and had some limited success in allowing their students access to the elite institutions of Higher Education and thus to the ambit of the Independent School elite. This did undoubtedly lead to a widening of opportunity for some of those traditionally excluded from the elite but far from being an argument in favour of the Independent School system the Grammar School system confirmed to egalitarians that if genuine equality of educational opportunity were provided then the traditional elite would find that their highly paid positions at the top of society were under threat from able and talented students who did not share their values.
In this vision of social justice equal opportunity to be meaningful had to include a level playing field for students from across the class divides and that the most just way to achieve this was through a Comprehensive System in which all students from all backgrounds received the same educational opportunities.
Under such a genuinely Comprehensive System the children of the elite would still be the highest achieving students, so why are they so vehemently opposed to such a manifestly just system? Could it be that the ruling elite understand only too well that a genuine Comprehensive System (with Independent Schools abolished) would mean the end of their reign. Without Independent Schools the ruling elite in the UK would be unable to sustain their self-image as a justified elite and the power structure based on the shared values and interests and friendships/enmities forged at school, as exemplified by “the old school tie” stereotype, would have been fatally undermined.
I don’t think it is overstating the case to say that no significant change to the fundamentally elitist and class bound power structure in the UK can be achieved while the Independent school system exists. And conversely abolishing the Independent Schools would be the single most transformative political act that could be envisioned, freeing our society overnight from the stifling caste system that so fatally undermines our attempts to bring about a truly creative and innovative society of all the talents and genuine equality of opportunity and social justice.
Arguments about the Independent School system are not arguments about educational values; they are arguments about power; about whether we live in a democracy or an oligarchy. The British Independent School system is designed to educate the children of established and emerging members of the ruling elite to believe that they are the born leaders of our society, that they are a justified elite, it succeeds only too well in fulfilling this function and any egalitarian vision of British Democracy has to face this fact; that no serious challenge can be made to the type of elected Oligarchy that currently passes itself of as democracy as long as the Independent Schools exist.
1 I say theoretically because it is not clear in our current system of representative party democracy that the input of citizens into government is truly meaningful. (see my On Representative Democracy post).
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