Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Private schools and the price of privilege

I have written the piece below for the Guardian's CiF website - if you read the comments you will see it has upset a good many people.


The Price of Privilege

Good news. According to a new report some private schools are at risk of going out of business because they are, in effect, pricing themselves out of the market - let us hope the government does not apply any "Northern Rock" type support if one or two do go under. Surely all those that espouse progressive politics should rejoice at such news. After all the sad truth is that in the last 10 years the number of parents choosing to send their children to private school and not to the local - and probably excellent - comprehensive, has increased.

It does not seem to have mattered that that the fees for many private schools, which were the subject of an inquiry in 2005 by the Office of Fair Trading for potential collusion, have risen exponentially. Why? Because in the pursuit of privilege many well off (and not so well off) parents will do whatever it takes to ensure that their child starts the race to achieve success and prosperity further down the track than other children.

In fairness it is not unreasonable that any parent should want their child to do as well at school and in life as they have done themselves, often they want them to do better. In a free society if some parents choose to secure advantage and privilege by sending their children to elite schools there is little the state can do about it.

There are though, clear consequences for social mobility that many "left leaning" (and possibly Guardian reading) parents often choose to ignore. British public schools have always been a production line for the class system. They employ some of the best-qualified teachers, with as many as two-thirds educated in the top 20 British universities. They can - and do - raise their fees steadily, they select their pupils, have a growing endowment income from their benefactors and some of the most impressive sporting and extra-curricular activities.

What's more they now recruit from a middle-class obsessed by perceived educational and social advantage. Parents who are willing to take the bold decision to become part of the problem, rather than seeking to be part of the solution. I often hear some of my friends and "comrades" attempting to ease their conscience by announcing that the local comprehensive school is simply not good enough and justify their decision to go private in the name of parental responsibility.
It is also the case that because so many of these parents work in the media (or are in government) there is little political mileage in calling for the reform of private schools and more equal access to universities.

Those who do have influence, those who have a "voice" in our society have such a high stake in the current order they will seek to mobilise and organise in order protect it. For the sad truth is that when middle-class parents abandon the state sector in favour of the private, it is conservative and not progressive politics that triumphs. So if one or two private schools do end up closing then I for one will not be shedding too many tears.

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