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The 7 per cent problem

Public life in Britain is dominated by the privately educated. What can be done to change a system that favours the children of the affluent?

This book’s preface begins with what I’d call a dinner party disclaimer. “We were both privately educated,” write the authors. “Our children have all been educated at state grammar schools; in neither case did we move to the areas (Kent and south-west London) because of the existence of those schools.” Honestly, we didn’t mean to favour highly selective education for our kids. [Apologetic shrug.] It just happened.

Given Francis Green and David Kynaston’s chosen postcodes we will never know how they’d have fared in the great bourgeois lefty conscience test. To wit: do I send my child to the huge, underfunded, local comprehensive or stump up for small class sizes, brainy, well-motivated peers, acres of grounds and limitless opportunity? I say this not to score a cheap point. But because the desire to leverage our own children the best possible education is the crux of the “private school problem”. And it makes hypocrites of many parents including Diane Abbott (City of London), Shami Chakrabarti (Dulwich College), many Guardian writers (such as Polly Toynbee), and me.

Moreover it answers the book’s fundamental question: why, in a democracy perpetually wringing its hands about social mobility, do schools that educate just 7 per cent of the country but account for 74 per cent of judges, 71 per cent of generals and 29 per cent of MPs still exist? Because while public opinion favours reform or even abolition, when it comes down to late-night, guilt-wracked decisions the answer remains: “If you can afford it, why would you not?” Plus for millions, like me growing up in Yorkshire, who had never met a public school alumnus, sending your kids to Eton and thus entering the elite is a dream akin to owning a yacht or dating a supermodel. When Stephen Geddes, the son of a supermarket worker from Dingle, Liverpool, was accepted on a scholarship to Eton, the online comments were not, “Why are you perpetuating entrenched inequality?” but, “Well done, young man. The world is your oyster.” As if he’d won The X-Factor or the lottery, which in every sense he had.

As Engines of Privilege explores, the public schools appear to left-wing politicians a delicious, low-hanging fruit. Only up close are they revealed as prickly and poisonous. As with House of Lords reform, ministers end up parking the issue in a “maybe later” file and get on with less emblematic but easier matters. Anthony Crosland ripped up the grammar schools, those great social mobility engines for the less wealthy. But his “we must grasp the nettle of the public schools” rapidly switched, as one adviser put it, to fear he “might impose unfreedom” on how parents spent their money.

First, for the majority of the population who have never set foot in a modern public school, Green and Kynaston outline exactly what is on sale for an average £14,500-a-year secondary day place or £30,500 for boarding. In contrast with the austere but erudite institutions that turned out imperial servants via cold showers, rugger and Latin, the offspring of the rich now enjoy the educational equivalent of a VIP departure lounge. My own sons’ alma mater has just built a cloud chamber particle detector and its new sixth-form common room resembles an Apple store. Nonetheless the school relentlessly taps me up for donations. For what? A Hadron collider, a helipad, a spa?

Public schools spend three times as much per pupil than state schools: much of this is on lower teacher ratios and resources. But a huge amount is splurged on egregious projects to compete in the glossy prospectus arms race to attract rich, especially Russian or Chinese, parents. (“You should always have a building on the go, like your knitting,” says the high mistress of St Paul’s Girls.) Eton has an Olympic grade rowing lake – in fact the actual 2012 Olympics were held on it. Stowe has an equestrian centre, golf course and nightclub apparently kitted out from the remnants of Crazy Larry’s in Chelsea. St Paul’s Girls has a restaurant whose typical menu includes Spanish smoky samfaina with eggs and rocket. Rooms at Roedean are en suite with, according to Tatler, “chic interiors, designer lighting and sea views”. Private schools in London have 59 theatres compared to 42 in the West End. (The auditorium at my sons’ school, more state-of-the-art than the Young Vic, was dark between student productions yet, astonishingly, never lent to local comps.)

These extraordinary facilities, from dojos to recording studios, are the reason public schools have started to produce not just Boris or Blair, but actors such as Tom Hiddleston, Damian Lewis and Benedict Cumberbatch, rockers Mumford & Sons and Chris Martin, plus a third of 2012 Team GB medallists. An old Etonian once marvelled to me how his school was superb at spotting any flicker of obscure talent, from model-making to water polo, and fanning it into a blaze. Which is why top schools now achieve excellence in fields they would once have deemed beneath them.

Driven at times by rapacious illegal price-fixing, fees have risen relentlessly to pay for such baubles. Which means that while 30 years ago typical private-school parents were ordinary professionals, now seven out of ten come from the top quarter of the income spectrum.

With their facilities, excellent teachers (attracted by better pay and shorter terms) plus academically selected pupils from affluent, aspirational families – who can be unceremoniously booted out if falling grades imperil a school’s league table place – and the connections to game the university system, no wonder private schools get 40 per cent of Oxbridge offers and their alumni end up running the country.

Of course, as Alan Bennett said in a speech at Cambridge University in 2014, it’s unfair: “Those who provide it know it. Those who pay for it know it. And those who receive it know it, or should.” The question is what to do with these purring engines of privilege? Green and Kynaston quote a Labour education minister’s civil servant in the 1960s: the government, he said, couldn’t decide whether “these schools are so bloody they ought to be abolished, or so marvellous they ought to be made available to everyone”.

New Labour, quickly binning the assisted places scheme which had paid the fees of 8 per cent of private school pupils, went with the latter. Under Andrew Adonis Labour built shining academies with the same independent governance that purportedly fuels private school success, then asked Dulwich College or Eton to mentor them and share resources. (With mixed results, since teachers used to burnishing the bright and wealthy can be ill-equipped for motivating the disruptive and poor.)

While New Labour sought to reassure middle-class voters that it wasn’t seeking to impose Crosland “unfreedoms”, Cameron’s public school-educated cabinet strived to show it wasn’t elitist. Tory cabinet minister parents forsook preps for local primaries (well, the prestigious Kensington church school St Mary Abbots) and Matthew Hancock made his infamous speech dubbed “The Purge of The Posh”. Employers, he proposed, should scrutinise the socio-economic background of potential staff. After an intervention by Lord Waldegrave, provost of Eton, the gears of the Tory establishment ground this outrageous assault on privilege into dust.

Since then the main focus of fury has been the continued charitable status of private schools, granted when their ancient purpose was to educate not only scions of the gentry but, alongside them, bright children of the poor. I run regularly past a local private girls’ school whose vast, lush fields are grotesquely underused, while the state school right next door has a single AstroTurf pitch. Never once have they offered to share. Sweet charity! Yet abolishing such status, as Green and Kynaston note, would mean complex legal changes to avoid penalising other genuine charities, for little financial gain. Moreover private schools, to avoid the hassle of proving “public benefit”, would just opt to run as businesses, as most new ones already do.

Labour’s 2017 manifesto proposal, stolen from Michael Gove, to impose VAT on school fees would, the authors reckon, be a satisfying blast against those buying privilege, but would not garner much revenue. Its main effect would be to force less wealthy parents into the state sector, at a cost to the Treasury, while more prestigious schools would either become more exclusive or trim a little fat to keep fees down. (Abandon that second swimming pool, maybe.)

Outright abolition, demanding all private schools be compulsorily integrated, as happened in 1970s Finland, has not been mooted even by Corbynite ministers. Although Green and Kynaston point out, perhaps mischievously, that an upside of Brexit is that it would allow nationalisation of Eton since we may choose to break free of the European Convention of Human Rights, which expressly “guarantees the right to open and run a private school”. There would be legal challenges, to say the least, but it’s fun to imagine who should get the Eton places. Children in care, perhaps?

Alan Bennett suggested that state-private integration should start with sixth forms, although I’d favour at age four. In London I know parents who live in the catchment of a brilliant state primary yet forgo holidays to afford poncey boater-hat prep schools. This stems solely from unease about their children mixing with working-class kids, especially those of different ethnicities. The book quotes a Mumsnet poster: “I wanted to buy my children a peer group who will do well and have high aspirations so they cannot follow little Joan who wants to work in a call centre or beauty salon.” But would such snobbery endure if early friendships were made across social divides? Perhaps demand for class-segregated secondary schools would wither.

The authors’ favoured reform is a Fair Access Scheme, in which private schools select a proportion of state-funded pupils – a third but rising over time – according to government criteria (ie not necessarily academic) so such places were an extension to the state system. They also support contextual university admissions, already in place, whereby state school students are granted slightly lower offers to take into account the fact that they have not been polished like their private peers.

If one thing is going to drive middle-class parents into state sixth forms it will be the idea you can spend a fortune and no longer guarantee a Russell Group place. (I already hear such complaints.) Super-selective sixth forms are on the rise: Brampton Manor academy, “the Eton of East London”, has just garnered 41 Oxbridge offers. If hot-housing of the brightest state school kids is back on the table, this will be the biggest threat to private schools.

Besides, as society celebrates diversity and inclusion, being raised in an exclusive bubble turns from benefit to disadvantage. The ability to understand, respect and work with people of all backgrounds will be ever more prized. As a girl from a crap northern comprehensive, whenever I visit an elite school I’m simultaneously full of envy, awe, class rage and a queasiness that being bathed from birth in luxury and lavish resources may not be wholly good for a child.

Already the cannier public schools are shape-shifting, trying to forestall greater state interference by unilaterally upping their bursary schemes. Around a quarter of Etonians are on bursaries. An email arrived this morning from my sons’ old school heralding a rise from 10 to 20 per cent of assisted places. Schools know bursaries are a win-win: they benefit less privileged and BAME children and so counter accusations of exclusivity, while enabling them to cream off the brightest, most driven working-class kids and enhance their league table place.

Meanwhile the elite schools raise their PR game, their websites declaring that academic excellence is leavened with “mindfulness” and a “nurturing environment”; so they appear drivers of modernity, not curators of the past. The engines of privilege are unlikely to be scrapped. Rather, as this book suggests, they will be hybrids.

Janice Turner writes for the Times

Engines of Privilege: Britain’s Private School Problem
Francis Green and David Kynaston
Bloomsbury, 320pp, £20

This article appears in the 01 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Epic fail