Private Schools? Do we admire, emulate or abolish?
A sociological perspective.
Private schools divide opinions. They’ve recently become talk of the town, or nation with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour stating they would abolish the independent sector. Outcries of over 600,000 students being without a school; children & grandchildren of many of those who serve at Westminster too. Private schools divide opinions, divide education & therefore divide society.
Labour Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner launched a passionate critique of private schools.
I’m not actively going to hide behind a moniker or an @ sign in an attempt to retain objectivity. I was ‘that guy’ who wrote in his final ever undergrad exam that, and I quote, “Michael Gove is an ideologically obsessed zealot”. That was actually my final ever sentence as an undergrad. I left with defiance. My upbringing, school, teachers, family, peers, many Poets, Rappers, Musicians as well as religious & historical figures have shaped my identity. My Grandad (May God bless his soul), he was staunch Labour supporter who worked in as a Brick Setter. Albeit some 50 odd years later, I was the first to go to university in my family. Social mobility was slow but my state education provided. So objective? In a true Weberian sense, perhaps not. Yet, aiming to start conversations that matter, absolutely!
What’s the issue?
State & independent schools have lived side by side for hundreds of years. Rich & poor have lived side by side for even longer. I suppose after 40+ years of neo-liberal economic policies & approaching a decade of austerity, we’ve become somewhat comfortable/accepting of inequality. I usually hear “we can’t be equal, we are all different”. I won’t attempt to go into the theological debate about equality & equity either. But clearly private schools have ruffled feathers.
The statistics are stark. It doesn’t take a Socialist to acknowledge/accept a chasm in fortunes for those attending state & private schools.
• 7% of all children in the UK are private schooled.
• 32% of MP attended private schools,
• 61% of Senior Doctors,
• 71% of Senior Army Personnel,
• 48% of top Civil Servants,
• 51% of top Journalists,
• 42% of BAFTA Award Actors,
• 70% of top Lawyers.
Private schools tend to have:
• Greater funding,
• Better facilities,
• Smaller teacher to student ratio,
• Smaller class sizes,
• Strong academic cultures,
• Greater independence in terms of curriculum freedom,
• Free of Ofsted, league table & other marketisation policies.
A Sociological Look:
I will, for the sakes of my readers, kind of homogenise the Functionalist/New Right view into one.
Functionalist Sociologists like Davis & Moore would say we live in a meritocratic society. Anyone can succeed if they put in the hard work thus children attending private schools are able to do so because their parents put in the work. It’s reward for generational achievement. State schools also operate on this meritocracy principle & yes, if a parent who attended a state school wanted to send their child to a private school, then why not? So technically ANYONE could send their child to a private school? This is despite their social class, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or ability. If you work hard enough, you just can. This is a belief that so widely held by so many. Parents have the right to chose & getting rid of private schools will only reduce choice & stop people acting upon their rights to educate their children how they see fit.
If you have the means to privately educate your children then who should stop you? We all want our own children to have the best opportunities to achieve. With or without Bourdieu’s cultural capital, it’s embedded in our minds that private schools are better than state schools. No need for a pot of caviar, a broadsheet or a visit to Tate Modern to confirm this.
That ‘M’ word! Good heavens! Marxists believe private schools should be abolished. Marxists such as Althusser would say schools are part of this ‘ideological state apparatus’ which is governed by the economic base (superstructure). Private schools help make sure the Bourgeoisie retain their apex position at the top of society. Whereas state education corresponds with capitalism, ensuring what Willis once famously said ‘working class kids getting working class jobs’.
Marxists would suggest that, in typical conflict theory verses, that private education is a mechanism of allowing the Bourgeoisie to attain the best positions available in capitalism. Dare I say, the statistics we looked at early perhaps suggest exactly this!
A teachers view:
Class warrior or not, I firmly believe in the power of education. I believe in the system. But wouldn’t it be fab to have a more equal playing field? Instead of scrapping for resources, we could have better facilities. No more penny pinching for glue sticks, asbestos in ceilings, classes of over 30 students. Wouldn’t it be better if state education had less red tape around it? Less tick boxing, more control over its curriculum & yes, less or no pressure about Ofsted.
A lot of us, including me, state education gave me unbelievable opportunities. But the system won’t run on belief or sentiment. We need funding to give these kids a real chance. A class of 10 students would thrive with a Teacher that isn’t so overwhelmed with workload. Less governmental control may even allow teachers to innovate & when trusted, given the chance to create engaging curriculums & promote a love for learning. May be ‘race for the top’ and assessment driven pedagogy could be overthrown for a more holistic & skills centred educational experience.
I’m not saying private schools are evil or parents who send their children to them should be sanctioned. But the state sector needs an equal amount of love, affection, commitment, support & funding for teachers to be able to do their jobs properly. Don’t we all want to be social mobile? And the kids we teach to be socially mobile too?
Looking at both Functionalist & Marxist perspectives, you can see merits & pitfalls in both arguments. Yet I think the Labour movement to abolish private schools has a huge symbolic sentiment.
Richard Tawney in 1932 referred to social class as the “hereditary curse” of the British education system. Really since World War Two, every government has intervened to tackle inequality either through compensatory education programmes or greater equality of opportunity. But class inequality, which all good Sociologists will tell you, permeates through racial, ethnic & gender lines, remains a cause of inequality. Tawney was writing in 1932 but this curse carries on. Working class kids (measured though the gradient of Free School Meals data) continues to show that poorer kids do worse than wealthier ones.
A real dialogue has began about class inequality. Although an idealistic view, giving every child a chance to attain a good quality education is the utopia for educationalists. How we do this remains an open question. But abolishing private schools may be a reflection of societal hostility at prolonged periods of inequality, politicians that don’t reflect our concerns & a two-tier education system that continues to dictate & control the agenda in the bulk of our major social institutions. With social mobility remaining static & funding in schools may only increase to support recent teacher pay rises, something needs to be done.
Although Corbyn’s Labour Party may not be everyone’s cup of tea but at least we’re now talking about social class, privilege & inequality over our evening brews. It’s an uncomfortable conversation for many but one that is so long overdue.
Thank you for reading.