Home | Policy & Reform | Private school-educated scholars denounce old boys’ and girls’ clubs
Wellington College - David Kynaston's alma mater. Image: Wellington College

Private school-educated scholars denounce old boys’ and girls’ clubs

Most future wealth – at least in Western nations – will be inherited. But billionaires still put their children in the best position to grow their fortunes by enrolling them in private or elite public schools. Bill Gates sent his three children to Lakeside School, the same private Seattle school he attended. Or, if they’re eccentric like Elon Musk and perhaps want their kids to become self-made titans, they might even create their own school for their children. In sum, for the very wealthy, and even the upper-middle class, a conventional education for their offspring often doesn’t suffice.

This has consequences for the 99 per cent, in that it perpetuates unequal conditions. Francis Green and David Kynaston have written a book in the hope of helping rectify this. In Engines of Privilege: Britain’s Private School Problem, the professor of work and education economics at University College London Institute of Education and the historian and visiting professor at Kingston University say that “there is an irrefutable link between private schools and life’s gilded path: private school to top university to top career”.

In their view, private schools create an “educational apartheid” despite existing “in a society that mouths the virtues of equality of opportunity, of fairness and of social cohesion”.

In addition to criticising the status quo, the authors, both of whom were privately educated, offer solutions to it. Presenting the book at the London School of Economics’ International Inequalities Institute, Kynaston highlighted that it was borne out of frustration about inaction on the subject. He acknowledged, however, that the “plates are possibly shifting in an anti-privilege direction”.

Gilded pipeline

Depending on who you believe, unlike in Australia, in the UK there is a vastly disproportionate amount of spending on private schools. A sixth of public funding for schools is directed to them, despite only 6–7 per cent of students attending them. This means, Green said, that private schools receive 300 per cent more funding than public schools.

Also dissimilar to Australia, in the UK, studies have shown that students who attend private schools perform better academically than their public school peers, controlling for all factors, including socioeconomic status. Not only is this inequitable, private schools also have a pipeline effect, whereby their students are twice as likely to attend higher ranked universities like Oxford, Cambridge or Russell Group members, and in turn, be paid more and progress further up career ladders. Green furnished examples: private school-educated 25-year-olds enjoy an estimated 17 per cent wage premium, which increases as they age. In 2016, a third of MPs and CEOs of the top 100 companies had attended private schools. Three quarters of judges and generals, and 40 per cent of the ‘500 most influential people in Britain’, too, shared this privilege.

He preemptively addressed a counter argument offered by private school advocates: bursaries. “Only 4 per cent of private schools’ total turnover goes into them, and only 1 per cent of students attend them for free,” he said.

Effect on the 93 per cent

Kynaston outlined three major effects of the gilded pipeline. The first, ‘systemic inefficiency’, involves a wasteful allocation of resources. For instance, he termed a situation wherein a private school has 20 playing fields and a nearby public school has one “sheer extravagance”. This is not necessarily hypothetical: an actor friend of his recently performed at a private school in Kent. When he arrived at the gates and asked the security guard for directions to the theatre, the guard replied: “Which one?”

Echoing Green’s earlier remark, Kynaston further noted the ‘positional effect’ of private schooling. “It moves you up the ranks … It is education of a private, not broader, social value,” the Wellington College alumnus said.

Then, as also prefaced by Green, there is the effect of private schooling on representative democracy – the ‘democratic deficit’. When every minister in the education ministry is privately educated, as was the case until 2014, it arguably undermines the ‘representative’ element.

Above all, Kynaston argues that the provision of private schooling is unfair. He shares this view with 63 per cent of people, according to the results of a representative poll he and Green commissioned.

A fairer way forward?

The authors believe the above-mentioned issues can be addressed under a ‘fair access scheme’, which would mandate that a third of a private schools’ students come from public schools.  They argue that this proportion should be increased over time, leading to a “game-changing” outcome.

“Private schools wouldn’t be a few working class kids struggling to find their way among toffs,” Green said.

This idea is hardly pie-in-the-sky, Kynaston added. Finland abolished private schools in the 1970s, to impressive, albeit arguably uniquely Finnish academic outcomes.

Reflecting social democratic ideals, he said it is fundamentally about balancing liberty and equality.

“Education is different in kind from other purchases. Unlike a house or a car, it helps to determine the shape of society,” he said.

“In this case, equity for the 93 per cent outweighs liberty for the 7 per cent.

“If politicians have the nerve and the vision, there is backing for it.”

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One comment

  1. It is good to see Australia provides a different view than UK. Hope, with more funding Australian public schools can thrive

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