Is private school like "social leprosy"?

You wouldn't feel guilty about buying a house, a car, or a holiday, so why feel guilty about paying for your children's education? Well, here's why.

Tim Hands, the head of Oxford’s Magdalen College school and the upcoming chair of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, has hit the news declaring that parents are being made to feel guilty about sending their children to private schools. (Obviously not guilty enough not to do it, but whatever.) It was “illogical”, he said, that buying a house, car, or holiday was seen as acceptable but paying to educate a child privately is not.

I didn’t want to be the one to break it to Headmaster Hands, but here we go. A holiday is different than a private education. Stay with me, Tim! Allow me to explain. 

(Full disclosure: I’m writing this having only gone to state school. I did go on to spend six years at university studying the politics of equal opportunity in education. You know the sort, Tim. One of those universities that are 30-50% filled with ex-public school pupils, despite the fact that only 7% of the population go to them. But we’ll get onto that.) So, why is a holiday different than a private education?

A holiday can be really nice. But that’s about it.

Who wouldn’t want to buy a holiday? They’re great! You can put your toes in the sea without getting a lung disease or see things other than what’s near your house. But once you’ve bought and gone on your holiday, there’s not much to show for it, is there? (Other than some fading tan marks and photos that no one wants to see.)

Buying an education, on the other hand, statistically leaves you with a lot to show for it. You see Tim, unlike a holiday, a good education is nice in itself but, more importantly, leads to other nice things. Like the best university places, the best jobs, and the best income. It’s what you call a positional good, Tim. It helps get you somewhere.

(Perhaps this was the source of confusion when you thought private education was like a car, Tim. When the salesman sold you that car by saying “Oh, that’ll get you places!” he meant that in a very literal sense. When people talk about the lack of social mobility, on the other hand, they’re not talking about the difficulty the working class have in transporting themselves between social activities. They’re talking about the way in which the social class you were born into still largely determines where you end up. Social mobility is actually different than the sort of mobility you get in a car. One let’s you drive to the gates of Oxford University. The other one lets you through them.)

Me having a great holiday does not make your holiday worse

Now, I’d really like it if we could all have a great holiday (and, if I was lucky enough to be one of the few going to St. Lucia rather than Skegness, I might think about measures I could take that would allow everyone in the future to get on my plane), but at least me having a great holiday wouldn’t actively make someone else’s worse. Or, more accurately, help ruin a person’s holiday who’s already having a worse one than me. (Because it seems particularly selfish of me to see that you’re already having a less brilliant holiday than me, and then doing something that makes yours worse so mine could be a bit better. And that’s important, at least if I care about anyone’s holiday but mine.)

That’s the thing with private education. It doesn’t just give your children a great education. It actively makes other children’s worse. (Creaming off the middle class children, and perhaps more importantly, their parents.) Children who, just to make it more galling, have already got less advantage than your own. It doesn’t just give your children more chance of grabbing the best university places, the best jobs, and the best income. It reduces the chance of other, already less advantaged, children getting them.

More than 7% of the country can afford a holiday 

And that’s the crux. Private education would be less of a problem if life’s prizes weren’t limited. Or, if they were limited, but everyone could afford the schools that helped children win the fight for them. Unlike holidays, only the privileged few can afford to buy their children a private education. But then, if more could what, would be the point? (We’d have some sort of horrible comprehensive system where rich children had to be taught next to poor ones! Paying for that, egalitarian but futile, would soon lose its edge.)

The fun thing about advantage is that, by nature, you have it and others don’t. If everyone had the best, the best wouldn’t exist.

Who knows, Tim? Maybe one reason you like St. Lucia is because you know everyone else is in Skegness. Maybe you think you genuinely deserve to grow up in the sun while others see their drizzle turn into a flood.

I’m sorry people like me are making you and your friends feel like “social lepers.” Enjoy that education. Sorry, holiday! Comfort yourself you’ve at least got a tan. Other people’s children are looking rather pale.

Young boys make their way to class at the prestigious Eton College. Image: Getty

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.