Are private schools a blight on English society?

An unfair advantage that damages our society—or a quality education that produces intelligent, well-rounded pupils? Our contributors debate


Yes: David Kynaston

Most private schools are good, often excellent: places of not only a high standard of learning, but also a range of character-building extra-curricular activities. This is not something that everyone on the left finds easy to accept. Nor was it necessarily the case a generation or two ago. But now it is the undeniable truth.

So why are they a blight? In short, because of economic inefficiency, democratic deficit and social blockage.

On the economic aspect, two fundamental facts encapsulate the grotesquely distorted use of our national resources, both material and human: one in every 16 pupils goes to a private school; one in every seven teachers works at a private school. Those teachers would bring far more educational benefit to our country as a whole if they were spread evenly across our schools.

The ongoing Brexit disaster—a battle lost on the playing fields of Eton—has pointed up the democratic deficit. It is no longer possible, as perhaps it once was, to view our privately educated rulers as like Plato’s virtuous “guardians” of society. Instead, we see a caste of privileged and entitled men (occasionally women) with necessarily only limited understanding of, and empathy with, the realities of everyday life (including state education) as lived by most people.

Given their unrivalled ability at getting their pupils into top universities, in turn leading to the top, best-paid jobs, private schools act as a serious obstacle to social mobility. I mean this partly in the obvious sense of impeding upward mobility for the state-educated; but partly also in the less-publicised but equally important sense of blocking downward mobility, with many of their less able products being over-promoted to scarce places at leading universities.

No: Simon Heffer

Although just under 7 per cent of children go to a private school, 18 per cent of those aged over 16 are taught in them. No wonder, therefore, that so many of them get into good universities. In a free society the market will satisfy demand; and because of the shortcomings of state education after the age of 16, private schools do just that. Perhaps if the teachers from private schools were transferred to state ones they would raise the standards—though they might find they were dealing with children and parents less receptive to their ethos. Yet private school teachers have chosen, by definition, not to teach in state schools. Even closing private schools down would not necessarily push teachers into the state sector: some would put their considerable talents to use in more remunerative activities. Good teachers are a resource that it is beyond the ability of the state to direct.

As a grammar school boy, I have never viewed public school products as virtuous guardians of society, and I find it remarkable that anyone in the last 100 years from any educational background should. Many of these supposedly privileged people come from ordinary families who have made enormous sacrifices to buy their children a superior education. The main purpose public schools serve these days is to provide better facilities than state schools and university-grade teachers. Downward mobility remains possible for those who do not make the most of their parents’ financial sacrifice.

The best universities unquestionably take a disproportionate number of ex-private school pupils. However, that is because they seek to take students who can cope with the intellectual demands of their courses, which it is in no one’s interests to dilute. That Cambridge, for example, takes 63 per cent of its pupils from state schools suggests the private schools have no stranglehold on elite institutions. But there is every incentive for state schools to push in the same direction.


You seem to regard private school teachers as almost a separate and inherently superior breed. In fact, the net annual transfer of full-time experienced teachers from the state to the private sector numbers at least 2,000—the single largest source of their new teachers, who are understandably attracted by superior facilities and working conditions.

As for the familiar trope that many of the privately educated come from ordinary families making significant financial sacrifices, what do you mean by “many”? Certainly that applies to some, but overwhelmingly the evidence points the other way. In truth, as evaluated by family income, 75 per cent of the private school intake is drawn from the top 25 per cent of society. Indeed, our book includes a hockey-stick graph revealing that it is only when one reaches the richest 5 per cent of families that the proportion of privately educated children starts to rise—at this point almost vertically—above 10 per cent. In short, private schools are largely for children of the wealthy, often very wealthy.

At which point, defenders of the status quo invoke bursaries for the less well off. Sadly, the schools themselves are just starting to realise—very late in the day—their historic mistake: fees have risen threefold in real terms since the early 1980s, but far too much of that extra money has gone into lavish (and often educationally superfluous) facilities, not nearly enough into bursaries. Across the sector, only 4 per cent of turnover is devoted to bursaries; and only 1 per cent of pupils have all their fees paid.

If social exclusivity is somewhere near the heart of why our private schools represent a blight and badly need to be reformed, so too is access to top universities, above all Oxbridge. Such is the chasm-like resources gap between the two sectors—roughly three to one—that in effect it is a case with candidates of comparing apples and oranges. Without positive discrimination, there is nothing remotely meritocratic about that. And you should have more faith in the ability of large swathes of the 93 per cent to compete vigorously on a level playing field.


We have been asked to address the question of whether public schools are a blight on the country. They are not. The 7 per cent of children educated in them would, if suddenly forced on the state system, cause it to collapse. Taxes would have to increase to fund all these extra school places and not, we might presume, just for the rich elite. Public schools, by turning out high-calibre products, provide some of the leaders of the next generation: if they produce more than their share of university entrants, they also produce more future wealth creators and higher-rate taxpayers. They also provide consumer choice; but unlike luxury goods in a shop, which are only available for those with the money to buy them, they have the facility (through the much-derided bursary) to provide to people who could never afford them.

I don’t regard public school teachers as a superior breed. But the fact that 2,000 teachers move from the public to the private sector annually reinforces my point that it would be a devil of a job to force them back. One must presume that this exodus of teachers doesn’t regard the public school system as a blight, but that they are doing society as well as themselves a service by lending their talents to them. My own experience as a parent of two boys at a Clarendon school was that those parents who confirmed the sacrifice trope (beaten-up old cars, cheap and cheerful holidays) were a substantial minority: the super-rich a considerably smaller one. Some schools operate on a shoestring and can only afford the smallest bursaries. But the rich ones help a significant minority of parents: one in five pupils at Eton receive a means-tested bursary, averaging a 66 per cent reduction in fees. Of course, if we still had direct grant schools, and had more grammar schools for clever boys and girls, the private sector would be much smaller than it is today, though that would doubtless annoy the opponents of private education even more than the status quo.


You misunderstand. I am not proposing that existing private schools be suddenly moved entirely to a non-fee-paying basis. But yes, our book does advocate reducing the amount of fee-paying education. One route lies in lessening demand through fiscal pressure (current Labour policy is to impose VAT on school fees) or greater use at top universities of contextual admissions (taking account of candidates’ socio-economic background). Another lies in a significant proportion of state-funded places (whether through the Sutton Trust’s Open Access Scheme or the Fair Access Scheme proposed in our book) in order to broaden the social composition of the schools. All these are perfectly achievable policies—if the political will is there.

The fundamental unfairness is not going miraculously to disappear without that will. The history of missed opportunities (mainly in the 1940s and 1960s) makes that abundantly clear. The greater provision of bursaries by the schools themselves will take decades to make any real difference to social exclusivity, which despite your impressionistic evidence is overwhelmingly where we are now; while the sharing of resources, often anyway done on a commercial basis, represents only a minute fraction of the overall resources gap. Of course there are inequalities within the state sector (as indeed there are within the private sector). But they are as nothing compared to the morally inexcusable inequality between the two sectors.

For ultimately, education is different. Because of the way it so intimately determines the very nature of society—including the whole of people’s lives and life-chances—it is a unique kind of purchase. Do we privilege the right of the 7 per cent to make unfettered that purchase? Or do we privilege the right of the 93 per cent to enjoy the same opportunities as all their fellow citizens? Liberty and equity: the balance is always there to be struck. At the moment, in this most critical of areas, we have got it badly wrong.


Putting VAT on school fees would certainly drive a huge number of parents away from the private sector. Fees would increase by far more than 20 per cent because schools would also lose VAT exemptions on all the products they buy in. This would place an unbearable burden on the state system and any extra government revenues would be insufficient to pay for the new school places required. Further, curbing other tax perks would establish that the provision of education does not have an inherently charitable aspect—setting a chilling precedent for other charities with educational missions.

The Assisted Places Scheme, started in 1980 under Thatcher, allowed children whose parents could not afford a private education to go to private schools if they did well in an entrance examination. Around 6,000 children a year benefited. When the Blair government abolished it in 1997 it put social mobility into reverse. But the scheme proves that independent schools can be harnessed for the social good if it is done right.

You use euphemisms at the conclusion of your argument to disguise the fact that only a degree of coercion incompatible with a free society can alter the balance between the two sectors. If the left had not abolished assisted places and closed down most of our grammar schools the inequalities would be nothing like they are today. That damage is reversible; it should not be compounded by attempting to rectify matters by pushing illiberal policies. That would truly be a blight on our society.


Source: Prospect Magazine