Private schools are incompatible with ideas of equality and opportunity, writes Judy Cox
Some of the country’s most prestigious private schools have been caught out cheating in exams with senior staff forced to leave in disgrace. Eton, Charterhouse and Winchester have all been implicated in allowing students access to exam questions in advance. These scandals have once again illuminated the obscenity of the private school system.
These fee-paying schools have tiny classes, they are awash with equipment, resources and facilities, their pupils have every advantage that money and status can buy – and yet they still feel that they have to cheat. This is despite the fact that private schools have their own exams which are often set by teachers who are teaching the classes to pass them. Imagine the pressure on comprehensive schools which compete in the same league tables? Private schools are businesses that import some of the worst practices of the ruthless, deregulated business world into education. Cut throat competition shapes every aspect of this ‘education’.
No-one should be surprised that private schools cheat – the very reason they exist is to cheat, to give the rich a head start on the rest. Public schools bestow confidence and contacts to the offspring of the elite and equip them to succeed for a price and to protect them from mixing with our ‘inferior’ and ‘unsuitable’ children.
Take one example. Eaton Square is a new school which opened last month in Piccadilly. It is situated in a grade one listed building, once home to Lord Coventry and for more than a century home to the St James's Club. The school’s publicity blurb gushes, ‘Such rich and decorative surroundings will act as a constant source of inspiration and appreciation to those lucky few who will be able to call this beautiful building their school’. This historic building underwent a £5.2 million renovation, funded by a private equity firm run by a former banker at JP Morgan. A lot of the pupils live on Eaton Square, where the average home costs £16.9 million. Eaton Square school charges £22,500 a year, while nearby St Paul's charges £24,000 and Westminster School charges £26,000. Charterhouse School charges £36,000 a year for boarders.
Those parents who stump up these huge fees are not buying ‘academic excellence’. Pupils from private schools are four times more likely than state pupils to get all As at A Level. They are three times more likely to go to university. Half of those accepted by Oxford and Cambridge Universities come from the 7% of young people educated at private schools. This is not because the children of the rich are more able than others. It is simply that private schools train them to get into university. Researchers discovered that students were two and a half times more likely to be accepted by a top university than state educated pupils with the same exam grades. The parents who pay private school fees are buying privilege and exclusivity. They are buying access to the corridors of power and wealth.
Fee paying schools are at the heart of a network of relationships which sustain and nourish a system in which the elite ease their own children into positions of power and thus perpetuate its privileged position. Half the top earners at the BBC, three quarters of judges, around one third of FTSE 100 company directors and around a third of all MPs went to private schools.
Private schools are a cancer growing in the heart of the education system. Not because they cream off privileged children (we can live quite happily without them) but because they actually drain resources from the public sector. In June it was revealed that private schools would be receiving tax rebates totalling £522 million because of their charitable status. Charities can claim up to 80% of business rates they pay on their buildings. Eton College and Dulwich College are among the private schools that qualify for this tax bonanza. Eton College would have had to pay over £4million but will only have pay £820,000. State financed schools and hospitals have to pay the tax in full.
Academies are rapidly introducing some of the worst aspects of the public school system in order to fulfil Michael Gove’s fantasy of a compliant, forelock tugging school population. Thousands of parents fork out large amounts of money to buy extra tuition for their children, from a unregulated market, in the hope that they will be able to compete for university places with private school students. A top grammar school, St Olaves, failed in its illegal attempt to kick out pupils who finished the first year of their A Level courses without achieving high enough grades. The Guardian reports that thousands of young people are booted out of school at the end of year 12 so that their schools can maintain their place in the league tables and compete with private schools. A former teacher from Buckinghamshire told the paper that it was ‘general practice’ in the area. "If their grades are not good enough, they’re told to go. It’s so damaging to the students. It’s absolutely frightful."
Private schools are incompatible with politicians’ platitudinous blather about equality of opportunity and social mobility. They leech resources from the state sector and snatch university places from state educated pupils. They are a disgrace that should not exist in a democratic society.
Judy Cox is a lifelong socialist writer and speaker. Now a teacher in East London, Judy was on the editorial board of International Socialism and has written amongst other things on Marx’s theory of alienation, Rosa Luxemburg’s economic theory, William Blake and Robin Hood.