Tackling the damage done to the UK by private schools
Readers respond to an article by John Harris claiming Britain’s current crisis is rooted in the power of our public schools
John Harris suggests that obliging elite universities to admit no more than 7% of their students from private schools would obviate the need to abolish these socially and culturally damaging institutions (Britain’s crisis is rooted in the power of our public schools, 18 March). This argument assumes that the ability of the most prestigious of these schools to promote their pupils into elite positions in society is based upon the quality of the education they offer when, in fact, their power is essentially social and derives from the kind of pupils who go there in the first place. A landmark research project, carried out by Reeves and Friedman at the LSE in 2017, showed quite conclusively that pupils attending one of the nine original “public” schools handed over to the rich by the Clarendon Commission of 1861 are overwhelmingly more likely to join the ruling elite than pupils of other schools, whether private or state, quite regardless of their academic achievements. The quality of education offered by these schools is beside the point.
Also, the 7% who attend private schools account for around 30% of A-level grades, chiefly because most private schools are academically selective, so any ceiling set upon the numbers admitted to elite universities from private schools should be set at 30% rather than 7%. Many Oxbridge colleges already admit 70% or more of their students from state schools and it is high time that all of them were required to do so, but Harris is naive if he thinks that this would seriously challenge the power of our ruling elite. The most effective means to tackle the problem is to follow the example of the Finns and make it illegal for any school to charge fees. Such a policy could see the best private schools incorporated into the state system, while schools which offer little beyond straw boaters and nicely piped blazers would just disappear.
Campaign for State Education
• John Harris is correct in his analysis. However, the negative influence spreads far wider.
I spent almost 40 years at a fairly senior level in the civil service and witnessed firsthand this British phenomenon. People so lacking in self-awareness that they were unable to admit failings yet were promoted way beyond their ability. Catastrophic mistakes and errors rewarded with further promotion and bonuses and an inability to understand the needs of the public they served. All of this exhibited by the private-school-educated, who seemed to live a charmed life untroubled by the realities of life affecting the rest of us. The highest levels of the service (and I suspect most UK businesses and institutions) are largely populated by, at best, lacklustre folk; at worst, incompetents. Is it any wonder we are a failing state constantly at odds with ourselves and the rest of the world?
Driffield, East Yorkshire
• John Harris is right to highlight “the unbroken English link between private education and power”. However, the interview with Estelle Morris (‘This is an end of tether moment’, G2, 18 March) shows that he is wrong to say that there is “no need to abolish private education”. Estelle Morris reminds us that the English state-funded education system is impoverished and broken, despite the Conservative government’s almost ceaseless “trotting out of the trite defence … that school funding is at its highest level”. She calls for a renewal of “energy and ambition” for our state education system, but how will this happen when the parents of more than half a million privately educated pupils, and tens of thousands of teachers, have effectively absolved themselves of all responsibility for caring about what education is like in England for everyone else? John Harris calls for a “deep cultural change” in this country and that is clearly what we now need, but that will not happen while what Estelle Morris rightly calls the “inbuilt inequality” of our education system is allowed to continue.
Little Bradley, Suffolk
• Those working in the world of independent education are used to having many of society’s ills laid at their door. Adding Brexit to that pile is the daftest and most desperate yet. I should know. I am both director of the schools’ representative body in Scotland, but also a veteran of 25 years’ engagement with the EU and chief campaign spokesman for Scotland Stronger in Europe in 2016. The idea that the families, teachers, support staff and schools dotted around Scotland are complicit in any way in the purist fantasies of a couple of dozen far-right/left ideologues and their spivvish backers is as needlessly offensive as it is outdated and wide of the mark. You can ask many of them directly when they march through London on Saturday. It is notable – in these fraught and finger-pointing times – that no one (rightly) brings up the educational background of Davis, Fox, Stuart, Duncan Smith, Dorries, Stringer, Bridgen, Francois, Field, Leadsom, Baker, Patel etc.
Director, Scottish Council of Independent Schools
• John Harris’s attribution of the ills of Brexit to public schools in general and Eton in particular is a narrow-minded genuflection to an old left shibboleth that warrants a great deal more close investigation before arriving at trite conclusions. Even if we accept the premise of his path of inquiry, Theresa May went to a grammar school in Oxfordshire that turned into a comprehensive while she was a pupil; and in case Harris hadn’t noticed, old Etonian Rees-Mogg appears to be losing the debate.
• John Harris is perfectly correct to link the Brexit debacle to the influence of the public schools. The products of these establishments – almost uniquely in Europe and the rest of the world – generally suffer limited emotional development. Especially if they have been boarders from perhaps the age of nine, they suffer from underdevelopment of the emotional/intellectual process that leads them to have a lack of empathy, which damages their long-term personality development. This is almost an evolved form of attachment disorder.
This served well for the colonisers of the Victorian period, who needed to suppress emotions in pursuit of conquest and repression, but it fails a country in the early 21st century. A country can surely not afford the disruption produced by this dysfunctional group that hinders the life opportunities of the 90%-plus of the population that does not belong to their caste and unfortunately has such little contact with them in daily life to appreciate the damage they cause.
Dr Tony Morgan
• I have a proposal: beginning with the next election to the House of Commons, only one ex-pupil per school shall be eligible to stand for election to house for or during the course of each single parliament.
Hunmanby, North Yorkshire
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