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Why Britain’s private schools are such a social problem

Private schools tend to be richly resourced and expensive, so those children lucky enough to attend them normally receive a good education, with academic advantages enhanced by a range of extra-curricular activities. But while this might be great for private pupils these schools pose a serious problem for Britain’s education system and society.

Britain’s private schools are very socially exclusive and there is no sign that attempts to mitigate this exclusivity through means-tested bursaries are working. The scale of bursaries is far too small to make a difference – just 1% of children go for free.

The exclusivity stems from the enormous price tag of private schooling. Fees average £17,200 a year per child, and are much higher for boarding schools. Some question whether the schools offer much in return for this parental investment: “Let them waste their money” writes one contributor to the Dadsnet internet forum – convinced from his experience that the quality of a private education is nothing special. But research indicates otherwise.

Large-scale studies confirm the clear academic advantages to be gained from going to a private school in Britain. This holds true, even after allowing for children’s prior abilities and for the fact that children tend to come from affluent family backgrounds. At each stage of education the progress made by the privately educated is modestly but significantly above that of state-educated children on average.

Better jobs with more money

Privately educated children also enjoy the many extra-curricular activities on offer. And they get all the guidance and advice they need to “work the system” in order to improve their chances of getting into a top university. The privately educated are twice as likely as similar state-educated children to achieve a place at one of Britain’s elite universities.

For fee-paying parents, nothing is guaranteed. But there is no doubt that their children’s life chances are bettered when they spend a part of their wealth in this way.

Private school students face a dizzying choice of after-school clubs and activities. Shutterstock

This private advantage in Britain is unusual. In many other countries where there are an appreciable number of private schools, the fees – and the resource gaps between the private and state schools – are far lower. With the exception of some developing countries, you do not find much evidence of children at fee-paying schools doing notably better academically than other children.

Educational advantages naturally give Britain’s privately educated a huge helping hand in the labour market. Put bluntly, going to a private school gets you a job with higher pay. How high depends on age, gender and time period. Some estimates of the premium are as much as 35%.

Unfair and unequal

Only 9% of the overall population in the UK are privately educated, but they occupy an especially high proportion when it comes to positions of public influence: a third of MPs and top business executives, half of cabinet members and newspaper editors, three-quarters of judges –- the list goes on. This disproportionate influence on society detracts from Britain’s democracy.

Part of what comes with a private education is “positional”. It enables pupils to jump the queue for many of the high-status rungs of British society. Of course, this is privately advantageous, but socially it is of little overall value if others are held back.

This is enormously unjust in a world where education is so important to people’s life chances. Indeed, 63% of those recently contacted in a poll agreed it was unfair that “some people with a lot of money get a better education and life chances for their children by paying for a private school”. Only 18% disagreed.

The famous Eton College in Windsor, which charges up to £12,910 per term – with three terms per academic year. Shutterstock

A good deal of private school spending, especially by the wealthier schools, is plainly extravagant: “Luxury country clubs with quite a nice school attached,” is how one journalist describes what private schools have become. Some of the resources devoted to Britain’s elites would go a lot further if directed instead to the educational needs of children from low-income families.

In our recent book Engines of Privilege the historian David Kynaston and I state the case for reforming these schools. Some proposals we set out would discourage parents – reducing the advantages of paying for private education. Other proposals would seek to partially integrate the private and state sectors to help change the social composition of private schools. Either type of approach would make a real difference.

Ultimately though, making these schools available to a wider and more representative population and making education less unequal is critical for the better functioning of society. Though such a move will not be easy, as there are vested interests capable of blocking policy changes. But as our book shows, serious reform is possible if there is sufficient political will.