Would the abolishment of private schools really make a difference to education or to our perception of ourselves as being one nation? Alan Bennet believes it would. In a recent article, the celebrated playwright argues that fusing the private and the state sector would bring class divisions closer to being obsolete as well as giving us a sense of a unified society. At present, he says the distinction between children based on their parents’ income is “just wrong”.
Would it make a difference? Would collapsing Eton into a comp really change anything? I doubt it. If the nation wanted a greater sense of unity via education, it could have one, tomorrow. Parents could elect to send their children to comprehensive schools, and the private schools would close. People are perfectly free to do so. They will not, of course. Because there are reasons why parents separate their children from other children. Reasons to do with class, culture, power, status, and to be fair, education standards, and a whole host of other topics that are generally not discussed because of the political storm that would arise.
There’s been an argument that has circulated for decades that private schools should be abolished because this would mean that those ambitious middle-class parents would ensure that the state system delivered for their children and, like smaller boats being dragged along in a the wake of a larger boat, for other children too – the rich would probably get expensive private tutors anyway so aren’t part of the argument. To me this delivers a massively, patronising insult to parents that send their children to state school implying as it does that they lack the necessary ambition to make the state system deliver for their children. But, that aside, there’s also an assumption that it is always parental pressure that creates a better school. It doesn’t.
Parental pressure cannot alone create smaller class sizes or ensure that there are teachers or resources for all areas of the curriculum. Parental pressure can frighten a teacher but it cannot produce a better teacher and it can’t have one teacher sacked and another hired. So, parental pressure has its limits. Anyway, private education is run broadly along the same lines as state education, and there’s little pressure to change it just so long as it’s better than the state sector and has more of its pupils going to top universities. So, radical re-structuring by parents is not on the agenda either in or out of the state system, and would be unlikely to be effective if it were.
If abolished, the private sector would appear in another form: group tuition by expensive tutors; outreach courses by certain institutions that were prohibitively expensive, or ‘companies’ with specific training courses, again costing money. It would have to be an authoritarian system to enforce the one system, and the authority that enforced that system would no doubt be corrupted by the same desire to seek an advantage for its children; it’s natural, and because it is natural top down political reform is completely ineffectual. There is a rule in politics: don’t fight nature; you never win.
By this term ‘nature’ I mean, people wanting the best for their children using the resources they have – not that inequality is somehow ‘natural’ or monetary wealth makes someone superior, genetically or otherwise. Circumstance is the great benefactor in human life.
If it is the case, as I believe, that environment is by far, and I really mean by far and away, the greatest determiner of what a person can achieve in life, then surely creating an educational ‘eco-system’ in the state sector that matches that in the private sector is the way forward. Instead of looking upon two systems that build in inequality, we in the state sector should be looking to find innovative ways to provide a service equal or superior to anything else on offer.
This may require a series re-examination of the structure of schooling in the state sector – an over-crowded, struggling-for-resources state school is never going to provide the value that a well-funded private school does given the added social problems, to a greater or lesser extent, that a state school will face. However, that is the challenge, and we’ll know we’re successful when the private school sector withers because parents will not pay for an education service for their children when they could get an equal or superior one for free.