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.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle