By Bradley Young

Every day another political scandal makes our headlines and feelings of political powerlessness are rife. For those aspiring to work in politics, like myself, it’s especially disheartening. Those we elect to serve in our interest actually serve only their own. Just take a look at our very own Prime Minister; he sets a remarkable example of this.

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Despite all the controversy surrounding party-gate, it is sadly unsurprising. Regrettably, privilege shields power and power shields privilege. Is this just a harsh reality, or can we do something about it? Perhaps, it’s time to take it back to the classroom. 

A Rotten System.

Under no circumstances is private education fair. ‘Those who provide it know it. Those who can pay for it know it. Those who have sacrificed in order to purchase it know it. And those who receive it (should) know it. And if their education ends without it dawning on them, then that education has been wasted’.

At its core, private schooling buttresses inequality; with entry almost solely based on one’s ability to finance it. Pay your dues, else you’ll not get the benefits of smaller class sizes, better facilities, more specialised tuition, and a wider range of curricular and extra-curricular opportunities which tend to translate into better exam performances. 

Furthermore, most of the top UK universities are dominated by the privately-educated, which innately belittles the career aspirations of those from state schooling backgrounds. Over 60% of judges are privately educated; 3 in 4 of those having graduated from Oxbridge. Among these, less than 35% of judges are female, while only 1% are black.

While diversification in private schools is improving, the insulation of elitism remains an obstacle to progressive development for those more widely underrepresented and disadvantaged. It remains the case that the same kind of people get the same kind of jobs. In this light, it’s not that hard to discern why only 10 Prime Ministers to date attended state schools, as opposed to 20 who attended Eton, 7 who attended Harrow, and 3 who went to Westminster School (excluding Nick Clegg who tends to forget he was never PM)

Let me urge you to take a moment and reread that sentence and see how rotten it is. There are over 20,000 state schools in the UK, yet the same political parties have continually recycled the same polished chaps whose perception of the world is hindered by their lack of real understanding of it. A typical politician, eh? No. A typical kind of politician. In addition to their sound qualifications, privately-educated children pick up a certain level of cultural capital which they share in common with alumni past and present.

While most of us are taught in lower school to shoot for the moon, even if we miss, we’ll land among the stars, this lot tend to be nurtured as stars from the very beginning, with the privilege of knowing that the moon is nothing more than a working-class fantasy. Plus, let’s not forget that the majority of PMs educated by the state attended highly selective grammar schools; institutions which snub anyone who struggles with traditional academic skills; Thatcher attended one of these. 

Private schooling is constructed from and builds upon societal inequality; where the future of a child is predetermined by the socio-economic circumstances in which they are born into. Nothing has changed because those who walk the halls of power have been doing it since they were young. Private education has bred this sense of entitlement. 

In spite of the inherently unfair nature of private education, it is still capable of developing kind, considerate, and selfless people, and attracts many who are well-intended. Not everyone who attends private school is a bestial Boris or cocksure Cameron. Likewise, a large bulk of private schools in the UK are relatively small and innocuous local centres which scarcely resemble the likes of Eton or Harrow and there are some state schools in this country with comparable selective structures and elitist sentiments.

On the same thought, it is hard to blame those who send their kids to private school as many only want to make sure that their child receives a high-quality education. Considering that the alternative is an underfunded state sector which has been beaten to a pulp by an era of (privately-educated) politicians who knew the price of everything, but the value of nothing, it is understandable. We eventually return, however, to the same rotten issue: typical political types abusing their privileges and preserving a system of inequality. 

A Way Forward.

Even the most disconcerting facts and staggering statistics mean nothing without a solution; all bark, no bite. The time has come to tackle these issues in a new way and look for a way forward. Nevertheless, a note just before this is that private schools provide kids with unequal advantages in an unequal society. Even if this area is reformed, wealthier families will remain wealthy and poorer families will remain poor. Many more things need to be done, yet a well-funded and levelled educational system that reaches out to all socio-economic circumstances, is an important step in the right direction. 

Some of you may want to see private schools shut down permanently. In the short term, this would not be a wise choice. State schools are currently under an immense amount of pressure and have been for some time. A recent study found that 46% of state schools located in disadvantaged areas have reported difficulties finding teaching staff, compared to almost 20% in the most affluent. On top of the labour crisis, overcrowded state classrooms are also causing huge concern, with almost 1 in 7 taught in groups of 31. In the event of the abolition of private education, around 615,000 children would be displaced into the state sector, severely overwhelming it.

The idea of closing them immediately seems unrealistic but revising the content of their registration would surely be beneficial. Accordingly, here’s the least funny joke you’ll hear all day; private schools are charities. Due to this, they are registered as charitable organisations, which makes them exempt from taxation. Charity correlates to voluntary work and the act of humbly giving. At Eton College, the highest pay bracket is £220,000-£229,000 annually, hardly a volunteer position. In practise, the charitable status is not only self-congratulatory, but also an outright mocking of all those who cannot attend – we’re a non-profit, but you’re still not welcome unless you pay us.

There are some who argue that private schools are charitable because they offer high-quality schooling to the less fortunate through bursaries. This is absolutely true for the 43,000 children in the UK who receive means-tested financial assistance in exchange for private education. Although this number is large, it overshadows the other 125,000 children who receive non-means-tested bursaries, which are disproportionately provided to affluent middle-class families. Sponsoring bursaries is like putting a thin bandage over a big gaping wound. The truth is only 1% of privately educated pupils are schooled for free. Charity! What a load of rubbish. 

As the state sector goes through a funding crisis, maybe it’s time to stop sheltering those who don’t pay a penny. Labour past and present have both advocated for a flat-rate VAT tax levied onto private school fees. Typical private school tuition in the UK costs £13,700 per year, which means a 20% levy would require an additional £2,600 annually from families. Such an initiative could raise upwards of £1.5bn which should be used to restore state education. However, this approach would be ineffective and illogical. Flat taxes charge everyone the same regardless of their affluence. We fall at the first hurdle if we consider all private school students to be the same, since the growing reality is one of diversity. There are future heirs of great wealth, sons of bankers, daughters of diplomats, but there are also those who attend private school and can barely afford to stay. 

Although the privileged and privately educated do not deserve sympathy, we should still pay attention to the illogical nature of a flat-rate tax. Subtle increases in tuition fees are not even going to bother the ultra-rich; in fact, it would likely narrow the number of students who can afford private schooling, making it more elitist. Some will gladly gobble it up, but others will be forced into oversized classrooms along with the rest of us. 

An incremental tax, however, would be highly elastic, as the tax burden could grow proportionately with the amount a private school charges. That is, the more expensive the school is, the more money would be taxed and funnelled into state schools all across the country. It is crucial to adhere to the latter part of that sentence: revenue raised by tax must exclusively go back into the state system and complete the cycle of redistribution which helps prevent legislators making cutbacks on vital services such as free school meals. It is sickening that we live within a liberal democracy where over 300 so-called representatives of the public can self-assuredly vote against providing food to poor children.  

There will be people who may still find it difficult to pay taxes, regardless of whether they are progressive or flat. In response, it is the onus of government should strive to cultivate high-grade and worthwhile state alternatives, and private schools themselves need to bear the burden of reasonable tuition adjustments. In other words, within the interim period, make sure kids aren’t thrown out of their school midway through their studies and don’t waste bursaries on students who do not need them. By encouraging private schools to make concessions or to lower their fees, this tax actually promotes parental choice as well as fund the reformation of the state school system. 

We are dealing with a culture clash, meaning there needs to be more harnessing legislation. Therefore, it should be mandatory for all UK schools, private and state, to follow a reformed national curriculum. We need to develop a structured method of delivering it, meaning all participants in education follow it. This does not imply that everyone will be taught the same things in the same way, but rather a much more rounded curriculum that is no longer bigoted and colonial in nature. This is a step towards a more inclusive, diverse, and well-rounded academic programme that teaches everyone without excluding anyone. 

And before we conclude, private schools must understand their privilege and use it for a good purpose, just as their pupils must. This doesn’t mean that they should give more bursaries. Legislation should instead close the institutional gap between private and state schools. These partnerships would be derived from localities and promote shared access to careers events, athletic facilities, uniform, and other resources brought together. Sister schools would be a significant step forward.

Quality education should be available to all no matter who they are or where they come from. We’ve spent far too long listening to those who have abused their privilege and immortalised classism.

The wealth of your family has nothing to do with the wealth of your mind. In order for state education to thrive, we must fund it through taxes, but that isn’t enough. There is much to be gained by improving uniformity between state and private schools, so that they are almost indistinguishable from one another. With that, perhaps state schools will excel, and private schools can learn a lesson in humility. 

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Last Update: February 15, 2022