I’ve benefited directly from the inequality that private schools create – but I still think they should be abolished

Not only do they promote a sense of entitlement – they actively reward it. Meanwhile, state schools are being left behind, while the rich and powerful have an opt-out clause

Kate Townshend
Monday 23 September 2019 11:05 BST
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John McDonnell backs campaign to abolish private schools

I was once a privately educated school girl. It's a fact I don't tell people very often these days, but when I do, I still feel the need to follow it up with lengthy disclaimers: It was a day school in industrial Coventry, not Eton... I was on a part scholarship so my parents were hardly wiring in the money from some sort of tax-haven located mansion... I went to a normal primary school... sense of entitlement sold separately, etc, etc.

Ultimately, I add these caveats because I’ve come to feel guilty about this privileged start in life. It doesn’t matter that my parents came from working class backgrounds, or that they sacrificed a great deal to send me to a fee-paying school. It doesn’t matter that I understand why they made that choice – it doesn’t even matter that I understand why many parents still make that choice, desperate to give their children the very best start in life.

It doesn’t matter because however valid the reasons, however motivated by love, my parents’ decision had the desired effect. It would be utterly disingenuous for me to pretend it didn’t benefit me – that in some ways it doesn’t still benefit me. But it would be equally disingenuous for me to pretend my school – and others like it – don’t hurt society and promote inequality.

It's why I have strong feelings about the news that Labour seeks to abolish private schools if it comes to power. Perhaps because of my ambivalence towards my own educational backstory, it's a principle I'd support wholeheartedly – not because I want to tear down schools that frequently do an excellent job, but because I want all children to benefit from them.

If we’re honest, we all know that change is swiftest and most effective when those with money and influence are pushing for it. At the moment, there’s simply not enough impetus to improve state schools because the rich and powerful have an opt-out clause – the opportunity to siphon off their children into enclaves of small class sizes and specialist facilities.

Not only this, but at a point where children and young people might be particularly receptive to learning from people different to them, we cut them off from one of their key chances to actually do this. I can argue that there was some range of social backgrounds and classes at my school but realistically this was a tiny slice of society as a whole. Private schools draw visible and defined boundaries between people. And they allow those already born ahead in the stakes of influence and support to race even further to the front of the queue as they mingle with other people with power, continuing the cycle.

Ironically, it's often the right that talk about the importance of meritocracy – mostly when arguing against skewed shortlists to try to increase representation of minority groups. But this idea of true meritocracy is laughable as long as parents with money can pay for advantage. Forty-two per cent of Oxbridge places still go to pupils from private schools, and in 2017, the Sutton Trust found 29 per cent of MPs were privately-educated. Unless we are arguing that those who are privately educated are somehow coincidentally simply the best candidates for these positions, then we have to accept the simple, raw injustice of these figures.

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But most strangely of all, I sometimes think that some of those who run or graduate from private schools are particularly susceptible to the idea that maybe they simply are the best.

My experience of private schools is that not only do they promote that sense of entitlement – “I deserve to go to the best school, the best university, I deserve to get the highest paying job” – they actively reward it. There’s a brash, indestructible confidence in some private school alumni that says if you want something enough, then you can have it. It’s no wonder that it sometimes gives people permission to ignore the barriers that exist when you haven’t had the same advantages. It’s not so much of a leap from here to “poor people are poor because they just don’t try hard enough.”

Look – I’m not trying to disavow my own past. Nor do I wish to denigrate the many wonderful and caring staff that surely still work at private schools across the country. It’s not about trying to drag all schools down to the lowest common denominator, quite the opposite, in fact. Because if we can agree that many private schools do provide a standard of education that allows students to fulfill their potential, then surely we can also agree that all children deserve access to this.

A two-tier system that tips the playing field will never lead to true equality of opportunity.

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