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Posted by on Jun 5, 2007 in ban private schools, private education | 22 comments

Ban private schools?

Some of you think my concern is with elites. It’s assumed I am anti-elite. Actually, I’m not.

Some of you think I want to ensure no one is educated above a certain threshold. Not so.

It is the kind of elite we have that concerns me at the moment. Many today (e.g. Tony Blair) believe we should have a “meritocracy”, with those who are most talented, work hardest, etc. rising to the top, rather than, say, those born into the aristocracy, or those who can buy the most influence.

A meritocracy involves an elite too, of course. Notice I’m not objecting to a meritocracy .

The problem is, private schools are one of the key mechanisms by which a small minority – the upper middle class – are able to pass wealth, power and privilege down from one generation to the next, forcing more able and talented children into more menial work while their own dear little second-raters get to cash-in.

While private schools continue so dramatically to distort the way native wit and talent is wedded up to reward, power and influence in this country, it is difficult to see how we can have anything approaching a “meritocracy”, if that is what we desire.

(though of course it depends in part on exactly what we mean by a “meritocracy”.)

There is one very obvious objection to what I have been suggesting that no one has dared mention yet. Who’ll be brave enough to say it?!


  1. I think it is important to consider the inherant bias that there is in the private school system (or state grammar school system for that matter) for children that have parents that take a greater interest in their educational upbringing. It is not just that their parents are rich, but it has more to do with the fact they take a bigger interest in their children’s development etc., have books around the home, talk about more ‘intellectual’ things at the dinner table. These parents would still treat their children the same way if they went to the local comprehensive school, so would they really lose out so much if they went to it? In general, it is the parents’ attitude towards the children, and the way the parents value education that is the real factor that make the biggest difference, in my opinion.It is also worth remarking on the fact that not all private schools are alike. There is a great difference between the traditional public schools and the sort of private schools that were formally state grammers, but went independent following the educational changes of the late seventies. Former grammars tend be considerably cheaper, offer a fair amount of scholarships (and not so long ago state assisted places) and usually have quite rigourous entry examinations. There are an awful lot of mums and dads that live off not much to send their children to such schools that would have sent just them to state grammars in the sixties; a time when, let’s not forget, Oxford and Cambridge didn’t have to lower their entry requirements to let state educated students in.For me though, the big deal about state vs private is: How come the old fashioned public schools are able to polish their turds, whereas the inner city comps struggle to do so? Albeit that the turds are of different sorts. It seems that no educational establishment knows what to do with children from poor backgrounds with parents that don’t care about their development, and few schools are adept at stopping these sorts of children from disrupting the development of others. That is the real educational problem that needs addressing, and I don’t think that banning private schools will make a difference to it, because people with enough money to send their children to private schools do not live in those sorts of areas.

  2. The objection is that people don’t deserve to be smart or stupid, it is outside their control, and therefore – the argument would go – a wrong basis for reward.Much the same might be said of a disposition to be hard-working. If there were some way of measuring how predisposed somebody is to hard work, their actual work could be judged against this instead of the average.I don’t think these arguments count for much – it is better to reward self-improvement than worry too much about to what extent is it possible.

  3. I’m not at all convinced that private schools are much of a mechanism.You raise one very obvious objection: What precisely do you mean by “merit”? The ability to acquire and retain money is itself a talent, a talent which is not universal even in the upper-middle classes.Another objection is this: Do we really want the government run by “first-raters”? In keeping with the observed competencies of government, i.e. consistent, rule-driven mediocrity, perhaps consistent, relatively “conservative” (in the original sense of resistant to change) second-raters are precisely who we want to dominate our government.”First raters” are notoriously egocentric, non-empathic, unsympathetic, and often narrowly focused on one field of study while astoundingly naive in other fields. I don’t mind Einstein revolutionizing physics, but who knows what kind of president—or even judge—he would make.

  4. I suspect that academic ability is more genetic than environmental, and its largest environmental determinant is diet.Psychologist Judith Harris has argued – quite convincingly – that what children get from their parents is their genes. Everything else they get from their peer group. What parents are buying with private education isn’t better teachers. It’s a better peer group.

  5. barefoot bum – Persuading people to vote for you has nothing to do with academic intelligence. People with high IQs and with low IQs all get just one vote each. Some people seem to have voted for the current US President because he seemed reassuringly stupid like them.

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  7. I can think of bunch of objections, but i don’t see why posting any of them would require even the slightest bit of “courage” as hinted by the OP…I’m not English so i don’t know what kind of Taboo there is in the UK… If i have to guess, I would have to go with… Meritism promotes Eugenics? Hell, i don’t know, I can’t think of any objection against banning private schools that is both obvious and is a tabooin some way.

  8. Um, I’m guessing a slippery slope to a polarization between the rich and poor?Being born rich is a ticket into an aristocratic education, (i.e. private schools) but the average class has only a ticket into mainstream education. Seeing as knowledge is power, the rich will only get more and more powerful until…We return to Victorian Times, where the rich Scrooges pick on the poor, even if capable, citizens like the clerk.By the way, Barefoot Bum, “first-raters” tend to get power-hungry and egocentric like Scrooge, but so can “second-rater” school bullies and “third-rater” thieves and robbers. Oh, and Einstein was actually once offered presidency.

  9. Georges’ point is good: “What parents are buying with private education isn’t better teachers. It’s a better peer group.” Private schools are just better schools. To ban them, as I have said already, will not improve state schools.Stephen said: “private schools are one of the key mechanisms by which a small minority – the upper middle class – are able to pass wealth, power and privilege down from one generation to the next, forcing more able and talented children into more menial work while their own dear little second-raters get to cash-in.”Okay, let’s ignore hereditability of intelligence or better parenting, and assume that some people at private schools are not as good as some people from state schools. How is it that they get better jobs? The answer is that when they leave school, they are more intelligent. Private schools are better – they have to be, otherwise no one would use them.Jacob said: “How come the old fashioned public schools are able to polish their turds, whereas the inner city comps struggle to do so?”Exactly. Yes, Stephen, private schools do let the upper middle class pass on their position in society to their children, but they do it by making their children the best. Employers give jobs to the best people – they don’t care what school you went to. Why is it that even if some people at private schools are “turds”, they can get good jobs? It is because when they leave private school, they are no longer “turds”.Your proposal to make private schools illegal would indeed stop this, but only by dragging middle-class children down to the level of education of everyone else. As such, I think your proposal is immoral, as per the earlier Paul Graham quote. Abolishing private schools and dragging middle-class children down to the level of education of everyone else would eliminate relative poverty of education, but it wouldn’t actually improve the absolute lot of people from state schools.You need to make state schools better, not private schools worse (which is what turning them into/replacing them with state schools would do).Although I expect you disagree with this, Stephen. Your previous quote, “If you really want good education for all, force the children of those in power to attend the same schools as the rest of us. I guarantee they’ll be better overnight!”, suggests that you think making (implicitly, more intelligent) children attend state schools would drag the standards up.

  10. I said “dragging middle-class children down to the level of education of everyone else would eliminate relative poverty of education, but it wouldn’t actually improve the absolute lot of people from state schools.”Well actually it might, but only because person A who otherwise would have been outcompeted at a job application by person B, could now get the job. But stopping person B from going to private school doesn’t make person A better at the job. And if you allow free movement of labour from abroad, then A and B (now both going to state schools) are outcompeted at the job by person C who went to private school abroad!

  11. The “obvious” objection that no one is sufficiently brave to mention might be that the children of the upper-middle class might be genetically superior and thus deserve their inherited privilege. The obvious counter-argument is that scientific evidence for this position is woefully thin. “Intelligence” and “talent” are poorly defined, extremely hard to measure, and the genetics underlying how our brains work is completely opaque.

  12. I think it’s still being taken far too much for granted that private schools are actually a causal mechanism enabling the “the upper middle class… to pass wealth, power and privilege down from one generation to the next.”Being almost entirely self-educated, I’m not at all convinced of the causal efficacy of education to do much of anything. I know too many highly educated people who can’t think their way out of a wet paper bag, and many people without much formal education who have mastered complicated technical fields.Education isn’t really bad or useless, but I think its value is very much overblown. I’ve personally trained many recent college graduates in computer programming. The skill set they’ve obtained from their education is usually a decade or more out of date, far more theory-oriented than is useful in actual practice, and they usually have little actual understanding of the underlying theory, having simply memorized the theoretical findings of others.I estimate that whatever relevant skills they’ve obtained in four years (and sometimes six to ten years) of schooling could be established in 3-6 months of training.Neither do I find that college educated people have all that much intellectual breadth. They’re somewhat more broader-minded than non-graduates, but there’s a big component of self-selection: I’ve found that people who received a “free” college education (cough George W. Bush, Yale B.A., Harvard MBA) are usually more narrow minded than those who worked or sacrificed for one.Even in the more “egalitarian” United States, a college education seems to indicate only that the candidate had either the will or the inherited wealth to get through four (or more) years of unproductive time.

  13. I only just got to this series of posts, so I was disappointed to see that georges and the barefoot bum beat me to the obvious point. However, I can add something by disagreeing quite strongly with bb’s contention that scientific evidence for this position is woefully thin, if ‘this position’ can be defined as the argument that IQ has a very large heritable component and also correlates strongly with success in life. See here for a good summary.I also disagree with Stephen’s hypothesis that requiring all children to be educated in the state system would drag standards up. I agree with bb that rich parents would just evade the compulsion. But I am also perfectly convinced that the state is not clever enough to organise a school system which is at once optimal (or even anything approximating it) even in average utilitarian sense, let alone for every child, whilst at the same time being consistent across geographies. (I base this opinion on my own experience as a senior manage, and on my extensive knowledge and experience of a related problem, the NHS).EVEN if you could force the children of the rich into state schools (by kidnapping, perhaps?), all that would happen is that the particular schools into which they were forced would improve in ways that benefit the particular children. You’re going to kidnap them AND spread them out evenly across the country? AND stop the schools streaming by intellignce? AND ban private coaching out of school hours (look at Korea, where childrens’ real schooling is ALL done privately after school hours, in order to get them into Seoul National University).

  14. I hope every would agree that streaming by intelligence is an excellent idea, regardless of this debate.

  15. Also, a technical point. The people running the country at the moment are of an age to have benefitted from the old direct grant school system. For instance, I was privately educated in that I went to what is now a private school. But I went there on a full state scholarship. (I am 44 and I was in the last year of intake to direct grant schools, I think). I have no idea whether this effect is taken account of in the stats you quote, nor what size it would be.

  16. I’m not a cognitive scientist, so I will merely note that the idea that “IQ has a very large heritable component and also correlates strongly with success in life.” (a) is controversial in itself (see, for instance, The Mismeasure of Man by S. J. Gould) (b) does not establish by itself any causal mechanism, and c) the idea that “IQ is an imperfect measure of g is tautological, since g is defined as a statistical correlation between different tests, including IQ tests.

  17. (a) controversial, yes, but not amongst scientists maybe so much as you think; see here for example. SJG was, of course, a palaeontologist, so well out of his field when writing on this topic(b) not as I wrote it certainly; I would need to research further, although my vague recollection is that there are studies which appear to show some causality(c) read Wikipedia on ‘general inteligence factor’ for a better explanation than I can be bothered to type. Also links a good article from Scientific American at the bottom.Of course, all the psychologists and intelligence researchers could be fooling themselves….

  18. “can’t be bothered’ sounds rude doesn’t it; soz; just that I am having a tired day

  19. My two children both go to private schools. I’m going to tell you why I chose to send them there, because I don’t recognize the reasons in Stephen’s arguments.When my eldest son was coming up to five I started looking round schools in London. I went to visit the nearest state school. It seemed pleasant enough. It had a 78% Muslim intake. It seems that most of the non-Muslim parents in the area were putting their children into Catholic and C of E schools, and this was concentrating the children of Muslim parents in one school. Clearly Islam will be a significant factor in the future UK, and my son will have to learn much about it. But this felt like I’d be sending him to a de facto “Muslim school”. And I didn’t want that. I wanted to send him to a truly secular school.My wife is of Catholic cultural origin, though not religious, and, at her suggestion, we got him into a Catholic school that was supposed to be good. I pulled him out after two weeks because I felt his reception teacher was a sadist and the head would not impress on her the need to change her attitude.I found a state school with a completely secular outlook, which I loved. There was just one problem. We didn’t live in its catchment area. The catchment area has the most high property prices in the whole of London. The mortgage repayments on a family home in that catchment area would have cost me far more than the school fees now cost me at a private school. I have since discovered that many people rent one-bedroom flats inside the catchment area, then, when their children are safely enrolled, sneak back to a cheaper post code. I was not so devious. But I was learning.The best of the remaining state schools was a C of E school. So I, together with my Jewish friend, took our two sons to the local church every Sunday and sang hymns, just until the local priest had signed the relevant forms. The priest knew what we were doing. So that school was where my son wound up.But I was still searching. There was a private school I really liked, for reasons exactly opposite to those Stephen imagines. I had been to a Grammar School, and my parents had taught me to believe that society was like a huge Matermind contest, in which the highest scoring candidate got to be Prime Minister. I passed exams and got to Cambridge University. But I feel I didn’t start to live and learn about life until after I graduated. And I have since worked with plenty of self-educated people who left school at 15 or 16 and who seem wise and well-adjusted.In the state sector, league tables are distorting educational priorities. School music for instance, is really suffering. And I value these things as much as good A-level passes.I wanted a school which had a more relaxed, Bohemian ambience, with plenty of arts activities, which wasn’t obsessed with league tables and exam results. There’s a private school in North London, where A.S. Neill had taught before founding Summerhill. Its ethos is a bit “hippy”, and is entirely secular. This is where I wanted my children to go. And finally I got them in.I’d like to point out one thing to people who want to abolish private schools. Don’t assume that the direction of the resultant state monopoly schools will be left to people who think like you. It’s in the nature of politics that they can fall into the other side’s hands (just as, say, Margaret Thatcher could put Ian MacGregor in charge of the National Coal Board). My wife is Polish, and we may be taking the children to Poland for a while. The current Polish government is enforcing mentalist psycho-Catholicism and homophobia into the state system. Private schools are simply the only option for us there.

  20. Well, perhaps privately-schooled scholars really are often better graduates than state-schooled ones…? This whole issue doesn’t seem to make much sense. Take the barristers, for instance. The question is why 70% of them come from private schools.If it is because they are genuinely better graduates (a distinct possibility, given the superior schooling assumption), then you have your meritocracy already. All that would need tweaking is the admissions policy – those who get the chance to attend these centres of excellence should be chosen without regard to their class. On the other hand, if it is because of some snobbish selection policy, whereby only privately-schooled candidates are considered for ‘barristerhood’, then the schools themselves are blameless. The fault lies with whoever chooses the barristers.In neither case will banning private schools help in the slightest. (In the latter case, you will at least have removed a label by which the snob could select candidates. But as always, if the attitude remains, so will the result – some other label, like residential area, parental profession, old boy status, etc. will no doubt be used instead…)

  21. you have your meritocracy already. Not so. It could be that not-quite-so-bright +middle class + private school is better than brightest + working class + state school, but still not as good as brightest + working class + private school would be, nor as good as brightest + working class + new-improved-Law-state-school.Just for completeness, as far as I can see no-one has advanced the whole libertarian self-ownership “why the ** shouldn’t people be entitled to spend their money as they please” line of argument. Kantian as opposed to utilitarian, perhaps, since the children on the rich would be being treated as means to the advancement of the children of the poor, roughly speaking. I think I would probably want to defend this position, with some caveats, , but luckily I don’t need to decide, since I think the proposition fails on entirely pragmatic and empirical grounds anyhow.

  22. Is Stephen objecting to all forms of non- state controlled education, or simply to schools that charge money to accept pupils?If he is opposed to all non-state controlled education, he must be confident his state has settled on an approach to education that he’s happy with, and that political see-sawing is unlikely to change the fundamentals of this consensus.I think there is no such consensus.For myself I oppose all forms of selection – except for the one form of selection people who say they oppose selection actually mean. I oppose selection on the basis of parents’ religion (or their ability to feign it). I oppose selection on the basis of house prices. This is MASSIVELY the most important form of educational selection in England – far more than private schools. House prices in the catchment areas of “good” state schools are on average one third higher than would otherwise be the case, for instance. And if Stephen’s objection is to schools charging money to accept pupils, how does he feel about estate agents effectively charging it instead? At least school fees represent money spent directly on education. In the state system, middle class parents are buying advantage, but not one penny of it is going into school buildings, teachers pay or books. It’s all going into Building Society profits.There’s a telling remark made by George Walden. He pointed out that under Margaret Thatcher the Conservatives denationalized state industries, smashed the trades unions, but they never touched comprehensive schools or tried to reintroduce grammar schools. Why? Because they knew it was the Tory-voting middle classes who were the biggest beneficiaries of he comprehensive system.

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