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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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.