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Posted by on Jun 8, 2007 in ban private schools, private education | 10 comments

Ban Private Schools?

Thanks for all the comments. Yes, Potentilla and Barefoot Bum, the “taboo” objection I had in mind is that, as a matter of fact, the lower classes are genetically dimmer, less well-motivated, etc. That’s the explanation for why the upper middle classes tend to dominate the high-status, high-earning professions. This is a juicy topic I shall return to later.

In the meantime let me respond to a few of your other comments.

Jeremy – I am talking about native, i.e. innate, wit, intelligence and drive. On the (possibly false) assumption that this is distributed fairly evenly across social classes, then we clearly don’t have anything approaching a meritocracy (given “merit” is based on the abilities etc. that the education process starts with, rather than finishes with).

This is one of the ambiguities of talk of a “meritocracy”. Seems to me it would be odd to describe as a “meritocracy” a system in which native talent etc. is distributed fairly evenly across social classes, but, because the top seven percent pay for a far “superior” education, their children end up far better educated (and/or far more confident, far better connected, far-more “posh”sounding, etc.) and as a result dominate the high-status, high-earning professions. Certainly, however you describe it, it seems to me that such a system (i) involves a great waste of native talent, and (ii) involves very considerable injustice.

Potentilla – yes – the “right to educate your child privately” objection. Well, consider an analogy. Suppose that Oxford and Cambridge decided to drop selection on the basis of academic ability (other than to a reasonable minimum standard) and select instead on the basis of cash. Their fees go through the roof, with the result that only 7% of parents can afford them. Other universities find their funds dwindling, their best staff fleeing to now-loaded Oxbridge. With their vastly superior funding, Oxford and Cambridge produce highly-polished graduates who then out-compete others for jobs, with the results that they dominate the high-status, high-earning professions.

What would be the public’s attititude to this? Many, I think, would consider this a shameful situation. The majority of the nation’s native talent would be wasted. There would also be great resentment and frustration, and a sense of a country divided. There is a very good case, I think, for preventing such a situation arising. Of course, this would involve denying rich parents the right to buy their children a superior university education, and, thereby, a ticket to the front of the good-jobs queue. To which the response of many would be “tough”. And rightly so, I think.

Some of you may think this is a bad analogy. Others may think that such an outcome (Oxbridge becoming like a private school) would be no-bad thing….

Georges – I’m making no assumptions about the motives of each and every parent that send their kid to a private school. I am only concerned with the outcome of their doing so, and the justice of their being able to do so. I am just exploring those two questions.

Some other points:

I am not assuming a private education is educationally superior (or I don’t have to, anyway). Merely that it provides a very major advantage to kids in terms of their life-chances. It may do this in other ways (i.e. not being being educationally better, but by making them sound posh and confident, making them better-connected, etc.)

I notice, by the way, that some objectors say private schools don’t provide a much better education, which is a reason for not banning them, whereas others say they really do provide a better education, which is reason for not banning them.

BTW, I am not necessarily objecting to selection. When Grammar Schools were introduced (selective, non-fee-paying) a lot of working class kids suddenly found their way into university and beyond. Perhaps that’s the way to go….

Barefoot Bum: Yes, the rich will find other ways to give their kids an advantage. And yes, Jacob, the kids of the upper middle-classes have other advantages too. A few will be able to afford to send their kids abroad. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea to take this particular mechanism away from upper-middle-class parents (if it is particularly unfair). After all, ensuring there’s no racial discrimination in the workplace won’t prevent racism manifesting itself in other ways. And fitting window locks is a good idea, despite the fact that burglars will in some cases find another way in.

I think Joe Otten’s point is a good one. Native talent is just as undeserved as privately-nurtured talent. In both cases, it’s the luck of the draw. I may find myself having to defend redistribution of wealth and other rewards towards the congenitally thick.

Lastly, the suggestion that without private schools we may never get that one wonderful scientist who will cure cancer – I don’t buy that. First, on the assumption that native talent is fairly evenly distributed across the social classes, given that only 7% of it receives a superior private education, and thus gets a vastly improved shot at getting into Oxford to study medicine, etc. then, as a result of private schools, we are currently missing out on much of the non-privately-educated 93% of innate, genius-level talent that’s out there. Secondly, ban private schools and, yes, I admit you will probably end up with some drop in the quality of education received by those applying to Oxford. But you will now be able to select for native talent far more effectively. You’ll be accepting far fewer highly-polished second-raters, and replacing them with rough diamonds. So, I suggest, the outcome at the end of university education will be much improved – many more polished diamonds, as opposed to lots of even-more-highly-polished second-raters (note that, even now, state-school pupils outperform their privately educated peers at Oxford – why? because they have more native talent.).

Remember it is the education they receive at University that turns children into doctors, researchers into a cure for cancer, etc. As long as schools are able to bring kids up to a reasonable standard, I think the gains made by having more of those with native wit and ability studying medicine and science at Oxford will more than compensate for the fact that none of them had the earlier educational advantage of going to Eton. We will have more genius-level talent working on a cure for cancer.

Also remember, as I said earlier, I would be equally happy with all schools privatized with a voucher system in place but No Top Ups (everyone has the same amount to spend). So the point about the inability of the state to deliver quality education, etc. is simply not an objection.


  1. “Suppose that Oxford and Cambridge decided to drop selection on the basis of academic ability (other than to a reasonable minimum standard) and select instead on the basis of cash. Their fees go through the roof, with the result that only 7% of parents can afford them. Other universities find their funds dwindling, their best staff fleeing to now-loaded Oxbridge.”I’m not convinced by this analogy. I agree that other universities’ best staff would move to Oxbridge, because they would be paid better. In this way allowing some universities to charge more would cause the standards of other universities to drop (because they don’t have the best teachers). (This could be developed into an argument for paying state school teachers much more, rather than banning private schools. (All this extra money being spent on state education – where’s it going? Could lots be diverted to raise teachers’ salaries?))But the part I don’t agree with is “Other universities find their funds dwindling”. Why? This is a repeat of my previous objection that allowing private schools doesn’t reduce the quality of education of people at state schools.Also:”(note that, even now, state-school pupils outperform the privately educated peers at Oxford – why? because they have more native talent.)”Could we have a reference? I’m not denying it, but a reference would be useful.

  2. Hi CagliostI am not saying other universities find their funds dwindling as a result of Oxbridge adopting the private-school model. They just do find themselves increasingly hard-pressed, financially. You know, like state schools currently are.Think of my analogy that way. It still works, I think. The system would now be not only deeply unjust, it would be socially and economically unhealthy compared with what we have now.However, I think a good case can be made for saying that the situation re the quality of education in state schools would substantially improve if private schools were abolished. As a causal consequence. As I said, force the children of the most affluent to attend the same schools as the rest of us, and I think you’ll find them improving tout suite! I’ll argue this a bit more later.Re state school undergrads outperforming private-school kids, I’ll look for a ref. I am confident about it though….

  3. Well, I would be much happier with a privatised supply, voucher-funded no-top-up system.Your Oxbridge analogy doesn’t do it for me, again on an issue of (hypothetical) fact rather than principle. I am sure that it if Oxbridge went to a purely who-can-pay-most model, it would not mean that the top professions became dominated by stupid rich kids (speaking as one who has done a lot of graduate recruitment). Even if we suppose that Oxbridge actually graduated the stupid ones, many of them would fail at interview, and even more in the first couple of years in the job, so Oxbridge would rapidly lose its current status as a marker of “more likely to do well than ex-poly”.I know this is not a full answer to the issue! just dropping in in the middle of doing something else.BTW, have you addressed my technical issue below? (It may not be possible to disentangle).

  4. You have a too-strong premise in your argument: It’s not necessary to assume that “innate talent” is equally distributed across classes; it’s necessary only to assume that such talent is substantially less concentrated across classes than is educational opportunity.I remain unconvinced on several points:How does the concentration of private-school graduates relate to class and money concentration in various occupations? We might find of those 7% that half were scholarship students.What occupations show these sorts of concentrations? You mentioned mid- to high-level civil service occupations (counting judges as civil servants). What are the ratios in technical and private managerial occupations?If the ratio (or the argument) is focused primarily on the civil service or government two questions immediately spring to mind: Do we actually want the most innately talented people in government? Also, how do elected positions relate to civil service positions? Elections are, to some degree, a measure of the people’s desires—perhaps people like having a class bias in government in general. (I suspect, however, on no other basis than a decades-old TV comedy, that we’ll see public : elected :: private : civil-service.)Private schools might well be a mechanism to push the upper and upper-middle classes into government, or they might simply symbolize class. I’d like to see evidence that they are actually a mechanism.

  5. I think, however, you could make a much simpler argument at a more fundamental level: Education as a fundamental civil right.More or less without regard to consequentialism, every person deserves as much education as he or she is innately capable of making use of.

  6. There are good general argument in favour of abolishing the Monarchy. I’m very sympathetic to them. But there are individual monarchies (say, the Netherlands, or the Nordic monarchies) which are arguably nicer societies than individual republics. That’s why anyone proposing to abolish the Monarchy has to have a clear idea of what kind of republic they wish to replace it with. In Australia, opinion polls show most people want a republic. But when they had a referendum, people voted to keep the Queen, because the kind of presidency on offer seemed worse.Similarly, if you’re going to outlaw private education, you’re going to have to argue for a particular vision of state monopoly education. It’s no use saying we’ll abolish private schools, and only decide what kind of state schools we want later.I noticed you didn’t address my point that, right now, the biggest single way people pay for education is by buying a house in the catchment area of a “good” state school. If I was prevented from paying for my son’s private school, I know I would have taken out a bigger mortgage and moved to the catchment area of the secular state school I liked.You have to think about how parents will behave in practice. There were excellent arguments in favour of banning alcohol in the USA from 1920 to 1933. Just so long as you ignored human nature.

  7. “the situation re the quality of education in state schools would substantially improve if private schools were abolished. As a causal consequence.”Well, the profits of Easy Jet would definitely rise if we abolished Ryanair. It doesn’t mean you’d have more satisfied passengers overall.You seem to be arguing that if we have a single monopoly supplier of education, whose customers (Parents) have no choice but to use it, that supplier will be more willing to listen to its customers than it is at present.Can you give one example where a state monopoly has behaved like this?

  8. Sorry to keep posting. The middle classes who currently use the state system buy better education on the sly, by finding “good” state schools and buying overpriced houses in the catchment area. None of this raises the general quality of state education – quite the reverse. So I can see no reason to assume that forcing even more middle class people to use state education will make them fight for better state education for others.My mother was in an NHS hospital, her condition completely misdiagnosed. I read up on it, and got her moved to a really good NHS teaching hospital, where she was operated on successfully. My efforts definitely benefitted my mother. They did not benefit the majority of NHS patients.

  9. Question: Are we all presuming here that the job of the state is to promote fairness? Why shouldn’t the state, instead, seek to raise standards across the board? I’m not arguing against fairness here, but of the two, the second seems to be a more productive goal.

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