23 January 2014, Varsity Online Comment Section
This was written ahead of a debate at the Cambridge Union
Britain is one of the few countries in Europe where you can send your child to private school without impunity – at least according to Anthony Sheldon (head of Wellington College), who proposed earlier this week that households who earn upwards of £80,000 should have to pay a “contribution” towards their education if they attend a top state school. This statement occurred at the same time as Becca Atkinson in the University of Bristol’s Tab – read by around 40,000 people – argued that private schools are “obviously” superior to state schools. The moral implication of these statements is plain: if parents can afford it they ought to send their child to private school in order to give the poorest children a chance.
What both these individuals accept unconditionally is that the division between private and state schools is permanent, and cannot be remedied. In doing so they compound the problem; as long as parents choose to send their children to private over state there will always have to be an attainment gap which private schools will have to win to justify their existence. This doesn’t mean that private schools are better as such: they merely have the number of staff and monetary resources to encourage those would normally not achieve get the marks and contacts they need to succeed, a luxury many oversized and underfunded state schools do not.
It would seem that a simple increase in spending on education would resolve this disparity in access and results. The difficulty is that those who are best placed to pay for this increase are usually those who enrol their children in private education and are uninterested in and unwilling to pay for an education system they have no stake in. This results in the gross divide in Britain between the private and state school which continues throughout life into university, employment, and the highest offices of state. The private sector of schooling does not create a meaningful standard against which state schools can be compared and is damaging to the state of education as a whole.
Sheldon’s comments aim barbs at the wrong group. We should not castigate the wealthy that send their children to state schools. Equality can only be achieved in education, and British society as a whole, if everyone has a vested interest in the state of education. This cannot be achieved while private schools continue to gorge themselves on the resources and individuals which would have a wider and greater impact if they could be assigned to state education.
Our current educational system starts the cycle of inequality which begins the cycle of inequality that determines the life spans of the majority of people and, as a result, education is never just a matter of transferring knowledge but determining the form of our society. As long as our education system continues to be divided between the have-and-have-nots of private and state education our society will be too.