Abergavenny Left

“Mountains, Markets and Marxists…”

Q: What’s the reason for inequality of opportunity? A: It’s private.

Life seems peppered with complaints these days. A major tut-inducer was the snow – fine for your long weekend in Val de Bourgeois, but bad for shuffling to uni in Ugg boots like Bambi on ice. More vexing was the incontrovertible annoyance of having one’s seminar room CHANGED due to the hitherto alien concept of student activism. And those Palestinians thought they had it bad! Grave and pressing as these issues evidently are, one student gripe I have never understood is the animosity between those who have paid for their education and those who have not. The stereotype of a fee-paying, Our-Lady-of-the-League-Tables-type student is not always accurate, and moaning about it is futile and misdirected. We should stop worrying about whether someone’s school shapes people who fit into fashion clique A or clique B. Private schools accessible only to the rich or intelligent do produce a real social carcinogen but it is not one of such minor trivialities. No, this national disease is the widening of an educatio-class divide that is so entrenched, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg has recently deemed it equivalent to a caste society.

Many social groups exist within the university. Perhaps most numerous are the white-plimsoled, Noel-Fielding-a-likes? Equally abundant are those who stop wearing LU sports tracksuit bottoms just long enough to down a few pints of each other’s urine. Similarly, a distinct, cosy coterie is formed by a proportion of those who paid for their education (and some who didn’t) . And why not? Who are we to say that straight hair is better than meticulously styled frizz? Why should we not challenge those who originally decreed that pyjamas must be confined to bedtime hours? (Hell, I may even decide to go to the library in my dressing gown this week!). The clichéd groups seen in American teen movies (jocks, rich kids, geeks) ring truer than ever in university.

Of course, anyone who says that the type of school you attended has no bearing on your social grouping is as deluded as those who deny anthropogenic climate change. However, surely we should let people dress, talk and holiday in San Tropez however they want? For in bemoaning this divide students are misdirecting their ire. The problem is far more serious. Much like a fag to his fag-master, the government’s capitulation to the cane-wielding might of the private school is one of the greatest factors affecting the UK’s current massive inequality of opportunity. What follows are few reasons why we should concentrate our attentions on the categorical discontents of the fee-paying system, rather than the social differences of our peers who attended them.

The biggest and perhaps most covert crime committed by private schools is one which costs us £100m in tax. The Charities Commission provide numerous escape clauses and loopholes to preserve private schools’ status as charities. The definition of charity is ‘generosity and helpfulness especially toward the needy or suffering’. It is hard to think of an institution which fails to meet this definition quite as triumphantly as the private school. However, with seven of the Commission’s nine board members being privately educated, it’s also hard to see why this would matter. The Charities Commission allows schools to keep their taxes if they can show that they do good by giving places to bright children from poor areas. It’s not enough that they deny the Exchequer £100m in tax. The twisted ‘philanthropy’ of the do-gooding private schools, aside from separating rich from poor, also abducts many poorer children who could have helped to save failing comprehensives.

In our league-table-obsessed climate, where one would be forgiven for believing that pigs are indeed fattened by monitoring their weight, the link between these failing schools and poor pupils is hardly esoteric. Private schools segregate bright, rich, middle class children, skimming the top layer and leaving the poorer ones to plummet. The Commission’s stipulation that private schools must also educate – and therefore extract from the state system – bright, poor kids merely extinguishes any chance of a slight re-tipping of the scales. In addition, many of the best teachers get siphoned off into fee-paying schools. The nation is effectively investing in training a teaching resource which is enjoyed by the privileged few. It’s about as fair as pushing in the dinner queue for the last jacket potato when your Mum’s already made you packed lunch.

The current model can only exacerbate existing inequalities. The rich or gifted continue to dominate Oxbridge and the Russell Group, while the poor and underprivileged must enter less revered institutions. However, don’t think that this two tier system is the fault of the majority of parents. Many families feel forced to choose the private route because acceptable state-alternatives do not exist in many areas . The crux of the problem is the government’s insistence on rewarding the vastly-advantaged paying schools. Something must be done if equality of opportunity is to become anywhere near realised.

The Liberal Democrats have recently made tackling this social immobility their new focus by proposing an extra £2bn in education spending. Although this would immediately match private school funding, for many parents figures alone may not be enough to dismantle the preconception and stigma attached to comprehensives. Guardian columnist Peter Wilby has come up with the fantastic solution of awarding university places equally to each of the country’s top sixth forms regardless of absolute results. This would encourage parents to send their children to less successful schools and balance the scales relatively quickly. Unfortunately, change seems unlikely.

Although things have improved since John Major’s ‘classless’ cabinet (in which 16 of the 20 male members were privately educated), the government still does not buck the trend of influential institutions being dominated by the alumni of private schools. Like any elite, Westminster politicians are unlikely to sign their death warrant (see Labour’s curious shift on proportional representation). Schools like Harrow, Winchester, Rugby and Eton have existed in their current form since the nobility deceitfully seized them from the paupers in the 1400s. Unless the government takes an unprecedented moral stance, the educational revolution we desperately need is still a long way off.


February 11, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment