Private education vs state education: a social divide that must be eliminated

When will there ever be a level playing field?

After my parents dropped me off at university, my very first meeting with one of my year group, went like this.

I was walking towards the Porters’ Lodge when a tall bloke was coming towards me. He held out his hand, told me his name, and then said, “Who are you?” When I said my name, he asked: “Where are you from, Chris?” I replied “Barrow”, as in Barrow-in-Furness, in Cumbria.

He looked puzzled and inquired: “Which house?” I started to say my parents’ address, and he laughed. “I thought you said Harrow. I went to Harrow and didn’t recognise you.” With that, he moved on.

I offer this tale because it brought home to me the gulf that existed between my background and his. I went to a state grammar (now a comprehensive) in the north; he’d been to Harrow School. He was just about the first public schoolboy I’d ever met. It was the way he oozed self-confidence that got me. My school in Barrow simply did not produce people like him.

I realised very quickly that while we were all equal in the eyes of the college and the outside world, we were not equal at all. Some students, the ones who had been educated privately, were on a higher plane. They appeared to know more about the world; they’d been on more school trips; they could engage, seemingly on the same level, with the dons; they had met famous people (some of them alumni) who had been into their schools to talk to them; their teachers had top-class degrees from the best universities; they had been properly taught in different sports (often by a former star of the sport); they already had established friends and networks at the university.

They did not shy away from declaring their ambition: they were heading for the top, as their forebears and older siblings had done before them. They possessed a sense of entitlement that we lesser beings simply did not have.

Given their so obvious advantages, it comes as no surprise then to read the latest study from the Social Market Foundation showing that children from fee-paying schools will have earned almost £200,000 more on average than state school pupils by the time they reach middle age.

I was extremely fortunate. I went to a grammar that behaved more like an independent school. I discovered that I could hold my own with the products of the country’s most expensive schools.

But it should not be like this. It is not right that some children enjoy privileges and greater opportunities just because their parents happen to be wealthier. It is unfair, divisive, and plan wrong.

As Sir Peter Lampl of the Sutton Trust charity that commissioned the Social Market Foundation report says, the £200,000 figure (£193,7000 to be precise) fuels a “sense of outrage at the waste of talent in Britain.” That’s the loss, the scandal: the generations of children prevented from realising their potential simply because they went to state schools.

Anyone who supposes that fee-paying schools merely achieve higher exam results (which they do) is deluded. A private education is about conveying much more. It conveys attributes that are bound to be more attractive to prospective employers: interviews well; holds conversation; prepared to challenge and debate; gets on with clients; presentable; access to contacts. 

Armed with that lot, it’s no wonder that former public school pupils are able to command higher salaries. The problem for the country is that the cycle is self-perpetuating.

Somehow the circle has to be broken; we need to achieve social mobility. In an ideal world, there would be no fee-payers at all. They should be abolished, their sumptuous facilities turned over to a grateful state sector.

Whether any left-wing government would have the nerve to propose such a move is unlikely. Not only does the Left contain many senior figures who were themselves educated privately, provoking charges of rank hypocrisy, but legally, it would be a minefield.

Restoration of grammar schools would alleviate the problem, but reluctantly, I have to accept that this does not look a realistic possibility. Supplying places at public schools to children from disadvantaged backgrounds has promise, but it’s hard to see how it would ever reach sufficient numbers as to make deep inroads.

No, the only solution is for state schools to raise their game, for the Government to pour in far greater resources than it does at present. It isn’t, though, only a question of funding. It’s about smaller class sizes (in which children can talk to the teacher on a one-to-one basis), getting people who have done well in their careers to go in and recount their experiences, developing old boy and girl societies, upgrading the arts and sports facilities, persuading the best qualified teachers to eschew private for state.

More than that, however, it’s encouraging middle-class parents to reject the public school option. As the fee-payers become ever more expensive, that may be a less daunting challenge than it seems. If those high charges are coupled with the realisation that Oxbridge and other universities may not be the guaranteed destination they once were, then, maybe, just maybe, the yawning chasm might begin to shrink.

I thought it might have altered by now. But a Prime Minister, an Archbishop of Canterbury, and a Mayor of London who were all educated at Eton tells me something different.