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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In your 30s? You missed out on £26,000 and you're not even protesting

The 1980s kids seem resigned to their fate - for now. 

Imagine you’re in your thirties, and you’re renting in a shared house, on roughly the same pay you earned five years ago. Now imagine you have a friend, also in their thirties. This friend owns their own home, gets pay rises every year and has a more generous pension to beat. In fact, they are twice as rich as you. 

When you try to talk about how worried you are about your financial situation, the friend shrugs and says: “I was in that situation too.”

Un-friend, right? But this is, in fact, reality. A study from the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that Brits in their early thirties have a median wealth of £27,000. But ten years ago, a thirty something had £53,000. In other words, that unbearable friend is just someone exactly the same as you, who is now in their forties. 

Not only do Brits born in the early 1980s have half the wealth they would have had if they were born in the 1970s, but they are the first generation to be in this position since World War II.  According to the IFS study, each cohort has got progressively richer. But then, just as the 1980s kids were reaching adulthood, a couple of things happened at once.

House prices raced ahead of wages. Employers made pensions less generous. And, at the crucial point that the 1980s kids were finding their feet in the jobs market, the recession struck. The 1980s kids didn’t manage to buy homes in time to take advantage of low mortgage rates. Instead, they are stuck paying increasing amounts of rent. 

If the wealth distribution between someone in their 30s and someone in their 40s is stark, this is only the starting point in intergenerational inequality. The IFS expects pensioners’ incomes to race ahead of workers in the coming decade. 

So why, given this unprecedented reversal in fortunes, are Brits in their early thirties not marching in the streets? Why are they not burning tyres outside the Treasury while shouting: “Give us out £26k back?” 

The obvious fact that no one is going to be protesting their granny’s good fortune aside, it seems one reason for the 1980s kids’ resignation is they are still in denial. One thirty something wrote to The Staggers that the idea of being able to buy a house had become too abstract to worry about. Instead:

“You just try and get through this month and then worry about next month, which is probably self-defeating, but I think it's quite tough to get in the mindset that you're going to put something by so maybe in 10 years you can buy a shoebox a two-hour train ride from where you actually want to be.”

Another reflected that “people keep saying ‘something will turn up’”.

The Staggers turned to our resident thirty something, Yo Zushi, for his thoughts. He agreed with the IFS analysis that the recession mattered:

"We were spoiled by an artificially inflated balloon of cheap credit and growing up was something you did… later. Then the crash came in 2007-2008, and it became something we couldn’t afford to do. 

I would have got round to becoming comfortably off, I tell myself, had I been given another ten years of amoral capitalist boom to do so. Many of those who were born in the early 1970s drifted along, took a nap and woke up in possession of a house, all mod cons and a decent-paying job. But we slightly younger Gen X-ers followed in their slipstream and somehow fell off the edge. Oh well. "

Will the inertia of the1980s kids last? Perhaps – but Zushi sees in the support for Jeremy Corbyn, a swell of feeling at last. “Our lack of access to the life we were promised in our teens has woken many of us up to why things suck. That’s a good thing. 

“And now we have Corbyn to help sort it all out. That’s not meant sarcastically – I really think he’ll do it.”