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Posted by on Jun 23, 2007 in ban private schools, private education | 13 comments

Ban private schools?

It’s probably worth recapping and summarizing some of my points:

I am exploring the suggestion that we ban private schools. You have come up with a great many objections, including these seven:

1. The state cannot deliver quality education.

My response. Then let’s have a voucher system in which the state and private schools compete for children. But with NO TOP UPS. And no alternative. This allows private provision and healthy competition. But all schools remain funded by general taxation. And the rich cannot buy their children a better education by “topping up” the voucher’s value.

2. The middle classes will still have an unfair advantage by being able to move close to the best schools.

My response. We can deal with this by making the value of the voucher dependent on the socio-economic intake of the school. The more wealthy all the parents sending kids to a school are, on average, the less any voucher spent at that school is worth. Adjust the voucher values accordingly and you can make sure that the middle classes won’t clump together around the best schools. The incentive to send your kid to a school with lots of middle class kids will be balanced by the disincentive that the school will, as a consequence, be that much less well funded (note we can actually let the market determine the cash value of having lots of middle class kids at a school, and adjust funding to compensate)

3. Parents will play the system by, e.g. pretending to be poor single parents when they’re not.

My response. This pretence will give them no advantage. Think about it….

4. Funding is not the issue. It’s things like peer group etc that really make the difference to the quality of schooling.

My response. The variable value voucher system deals with this – by not just leveling the playing field in terms of amount spent on education, but also by ensuring a much better social mix. To repeat, we won’t have the middle classes clumping round all the good schools, leaving working class ghettos.

5. Banning private schools won’t have any affect on the inequalities that exist within the 93% who currently are not private educated.

My response. First, even if this was true, it wouldn’t be a reason not to ban private schools. Just because a measure deals with only one layer of inequality, not all, is not a reason for not introducing it. Second, in any case, the variable voucher system will have a major affect on dealing with inequalities within the 93%. For the richest won’t now have an incentive to buy near middle class schools.

6. Reducing the quality of education available to the top 7% does nothing to help the others.

My response. Yes it does. Half of all Oxbridge places currently go to those 7%. They also dominate the high earning, high status professions. On the assumption that native wit and talent is distributed fairly evenly across the social classes, this means that brighter, more talented children are losing out in terms of life chances because the parents of small minority paid for a superior education. By going private, you aren’t just helping your own child’s life chances, you are also damaging the life chances of other, more talented children.

7. Parents have a right to spend their money on a better education for their children, if they so wish.

My response. If buying your child a private education had no effect other than to improve your child’s education, then no doubt this is true. But what if, by buying your child a better education, you are thereby damaging the life chances of other, more talented children? Which you are.

Consider my earlier analogy: if Oxbridge adopted a private school model (i.e. dropping selection by ability and instead flogging off places to the richest 7%, who then, as a result, went on to dominate the high-earning, high-status professions) there would rightly be outrage (see my earlier post on this analogy). Such a university system would be considered grossly unjust, highly socially divisive, and, worst of all, a shameful waste of the country’s talent.

I don’t yet see why we should view private schools any differently.


  1. (3) was me, and yes, sorry, my eg of a parent pretending to be poor was wrong – I just realised that I forgot to agree with you in a comment at the time. (Parents would still put a lot of time and money into getting round the no top-ups, though).

  2. I had dropped out of this because I had lost track of all the ramifications (vinorelbine), so I’m glad you have posted a summary.I am not convinced that you have necessarily demonstrated the damage under (7) sufficiently strongly to justify the constraint on liberty. I don’t accept the Oxbridge analogy because I don’t believe that if Oxbridge did move to a purely highest-bidder (ie non-selective) model, its alumni would continue to run the country (to the extent they do now which is also a matter of fact I would want to spend more time on investigating).It’s not at all obvious to me that we couldn’t get most of the benefit you are aiming for by reintroducing selective education, with a mix of state-run grammar schools and state-funded but privately-run “direct-grant” schools. Probably with a more up-to-date and less drastically one-shot selective process than the old 11-plus.I think that if you want to demolish (7) as an objection, you both have to do more work to prove harm, and also explain why the alternative set out above is substantially less good (given that it is ceteris paribus to be preferred because of not constraining individual liberties as much).(I also still think that your solution to (2) is a tiotal non-starter for implementation reasons, but it’s irrelevant to your original proposal really, since the original proposal doesn’t make things any worse in this aspect than they are now).

  3. I just realised that we might be at cross-purposes on the Oxbridge thing. I am assuming that the “people who run the country” who were educated privately were educated in selective private schools primarily, often, highly selective ones. Perhaps you aren’t.

  4. I notice Stephen repeating a claim which I thought I’d already refuted. I’m going to state it as crudely as possible, so if I’ve misunderstood it he can correct me. Here goes:If the most wealthy, most articulate, most able-to-get-what-they-want 7% of the population are forced to send their children to state schools, they will – whether they like it or not – have no choice but to use their advantages in life to raise the standards of all state schooling, for the whole school population.What evidence do we have that these people will behave in the way Stephen thinks they will? Many government policies, such as the US policy of “busing” children to desegregated schools, have led to outcomes quite different from those that were hoped for. They misjudged how people would respond to the policy in practice. So I’d like to see Stephen offer some hard evidence for the proposition outlined above. Needless to say, I think Stephen’s wrong. Here’s why:93% of parents currently use the state system. This already includes significant numbers of wealthy, articulate and able-to-get-what-they-want parents. I see no evidence that these parents are behaving so as to improve state schooling for the children of the poorest, least articulate, and least able-to-get-what-they-want. I can see a lot of evidence that they are doing the exact opposite. Social mobility is actually declining within the 93%. And I would argue that the behaviour of the most wealthy, most articulate, most able-to-get-what-they-want parents among the 93% who currently use the state system are our best guide to the likely behaviour of the 7% who don’t, if we try to force them into it. Stephen thinks his voucher scheme will effect a sudden 180-degree transformation in the behaviour of both groups. But he offers no evidence for this belief.I’ve suggested in previous posts that we may be misunderstanding what parents are really trying to do. We know they buy expensive houses in the catchment areas of “good schools”. Well, there are “good schools” with clean classrooms, nice new textbooks, friendly teachers and so on even in the poorest, most run-down slum areas. But what these parents are really after is schools with “good students” – or to put it as crudely as possible, schools without “bad students”. More than anything they want their children to grow up alongside the “right” peer group, and away from the “wrong” one. That’s what they put themselves to incredible trouble, both personal and financial, to achieve. I’m not saying I agree with them: I don’t. The Marquis of Blandford went to Eton and still turned out a messed up junkie, after all. But I think that’s what most of them are really doing, and the effort and self-sacrifice they put into it is truly astonishing to behold.Can Stephen’s voucher system make it impossible for them to carry on doing this? I really don’t think so. It’s generally agreed that “busing” in the US caused many white middle class families to flee to the suburbs, and sometimes even to remote exurbs – to defend their children through sheer distance. Again, I don’t agree with what they did, I merely point out that they did it. The evidence in Boston is pretty conclusive, for instance. Some middle class Londoners are already choosing to move to places that are up to a two-hour train ride from central London – I’ve seen two books detailing the towns, their distance from the railway station, the quality of local schools etc. I’ve even met a family who’ve relocated to Catalonia, where their children attend the local English language school. The father works five days in London, then flies home on Friday night for the weekend. As EU citizens they can attend UK universities later, if they qualify, on the same terms as students domiciled in the UK. If people are prepared to go that far for their children, I simply don’t think Stephen will be able to stop them.

  5. I notice you drawing the comparison with Oxbridge again, which I think is inappropriate. ALL children of the appropriate age HAVE to have a secondary education, regardless of their academic ability or their parents’ wealth. It’s the law, and has been for ages. Everyone agrees about this, even as they disagree about the merits of Comprehensive schools, A.S. Neill-style hippy schools, boarding schools, Steiner schools, Montessori schools, single-sex schools, religious schools or whatever. But University education is strictly rationed, according to educational attainment. Again, everyone agrees about this. Your opponents are not suggesting that children whose parents can’t afford to pay for private schooling should be denied a secondary education; and you are not suggesting that those children who fail entrance exams should be denied a secondary education either.

  6. Hi Stephen,Lots of questions:Does your view on banning private education extend to private health care?What do you think of this a ‘well known’ argument quoted in “After Virtue” (i.e. not necessarily MacIntyre’s own view): “Justice demands that every citizen should enjoy, so far as is possible, an equal opportunity to develop his or her talents and his or her other potentialities. But prerequisites for the provision of such equal opportunity include the provision of equal access to health care and to education. Therefore justice requires the governmental provision of health and educational services, financed out of taxation, and it also requires that no citizen should be able to buy an unfair share of such services. This in turn requires the abolition of private schools and private medical practice.”You previously said you thought people should be free to spend money they had earnt on themselves, but not on schooling because then it was some children getting the benefit of money they hadn’t earnt themselves. They were getting an unfair advantage, an unequal opportunity early in life. This doesn’t apply to health care, which is used throughout life.What do you think? I would say that while absolute poverty is bad and everyone should have a basic level of “opportunity”, I don’t have any problem with “relative poverty” (because it’s not poverty). People wouldn’t be buying a greater share of government service, they’d be buying an alternative to government service. I think the same applies to education. (I’m reminded of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1961 short story, “Harrison Bergeron”, where everyone is handicapped to the lowest common denominator.)A friend of mine says: “I could use state health-care, but I don’t need to. It’s not a problem for me to pay, whereas if I use the NHS I’m depriving a bed of someone who really does need it.” If everyone stopped using private health care, the NHS bill would go up or average service would go down. Allowing private health care essentially makes the tax system more progressive, where rich people pay for services they don’t use. Forcing them to use them would make the tax system more regressive. Surely this applies to private education?It seems you’re against the passing on of advantage to children. Does this apply to all advantage? Would you favour a 100% inheritance tax, or 100% of all money above a certain amount? Is any inheritance an unequal opportunity?(The phrase “equal opportunity” seems to me to be easy to misuse. Lots to pick apart in the quote from MacIntyre above.)

  7. Also:”I’m reminded of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1961 short story, ‘Harrison Bergeron’, where everyone is handicapped to the lowest common denominator.”If it could be proved that the existence of private schools did not make state schools any worse, would you still oppose them? ((As I have said, going to private school frees up money for state school pupils, so actually makes state schools better in that respect.))

  8. Hi. The answer is “yes”, for reasons I’ve already mentioned. See point 6.

  9. Re point 6: If there was no such thing as university, would you still think so?For example, private schooled people get better jobs on average: are they “depriving” state schooled poeple of those jobs?Also, what about inheritance tax and private health?

  10. Hi HugoNot sure I understand what’s behind your question. My position is: the current system of private schools is grossly unjust, highly socially divisive, and, worst of all, a shameful waste of the country’s talent. If there were no universities, but these facts remained unchanged, then my objection would obviously remain too. But perhaps you’re thinking if there were no universities, these facts would change?Private health care and inheritance tax are separate issues, and the arguments will be a little different. Haven’t thought enough about those topics to have a worked out view. But I might yet take the view that private health care should be banned, and that inheritance tax should be 100%.

  11. Explanation of my question: Part of your point 6 was that private schools do indeed reduce the quality of education of others by reducing their chance of getting into better universities.If universities didn’t exist, would you stand by this sort of point? I.e. Private schooled people get better jobs on average: do you think they are “depriving” state schooled people of those jobs, just as they are depriving them of good university places?

  12. Hi Hugo. I see. well, if the result was that kids with far greater native talent ended up in menial jobs while privately educated second-raters took the best-paying, most important jobs, then, yes, my objection would stand.

  13. Georges is right to point out that geography is at the root of the matter. Although I don’t agree with him that parents are necessarily wrong in considering a child’s likely peers. I know that’s something that will be on my mind just from personal experience.Unfortunately, schools tailor their approach to education with their expectations for the majority of the pupils attending. If the majority of pupils come from an area where academic expectations are low, the education they receive will be tempered in a manner that simply aims to make the best out of the likeliest opportunities available to them. A ticket into the local college or tech &c. If anything, it’s this presumption regarding the accomplishment of students that’s the problem, not whether one goes to a private school, a comprehensive or a state-run grammar.I went to what was regarded as a ‘good’ state secondary school and did fairly well (I thought) in my GCSEs. I then transferred to the nearest grammar school only to be made aware that I was, in fact, as daft as a biscuit. I learned that my comprehensive had basically cherry-picked all the easiest examining boards for the exams I had taken. Two years of playing catchup in a competitive environment – as opposed to an environment where academic success earned you a bloody nose and kick in the balls – made a serious difference to the outcome of my education (a PhD from Bristol on a subject I received an ‘N’ in on my A-Level prelims). Funny thing is, my grammar school was flat broke compared to both the newly opening sixth form college at my previous school, and the local tech (the former failed to opt out at the right time, I think).It seems to me that there is a lot more wrong with the education system than the fact that only rich people can afford to send their kids to private school. Surely it’s better to build first – i.e. sort out the disaster that is the current state-run education system – before we start tearing things down and possibly succeeding only in reducing standards further?

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