Image Credit: Evka W
The UK is notorious for being one of the most class-ridden countries in the world. Growing up in this culture, it is easy to assume this is a universal feature of advanced industrial countries, but speaking to international students has shown me the opposite; the UK is almost unique in its stark cultural class divisions.
Perhaps the most glaring example of class division is in education. Private school and state school pupils are each aware of the often antagonistic cultural chasm that sits between them. Whether it is political views, fashion taste, spending habits or accent, those who have grown up in the UK are acutely aware of whether a stranger is a ‘chav’ or a ‘toff’.
Much of the British establishment is dominated by private school alumni. In 2019, Boris Johnson became the 20th UK Prime Minister to have attended Eton College. And yet only 7% of the population attending private schools, 74% of top judges, 51% of leading print journalists, 61% of top doctors, and 64% of the current Cabinet are private school alumni. Consequently, I believe a necessary first step to addressing our classist society is abolishing private and selective education.
Private schools institutionalise class privilege. Research suggests that the vastly superior resources of private schools – approximately three times that of state schools – confer an academic advantage to the pupils. Additionally, private schools allow for networking amongst privileged students, and have close connections with other institutions that lead to better opportunities for pupils. For example, Oxbridge recruits more pupils from eight schools, six of which are private, than almost 3,000 other state schools combined. Wealthy parents are able to pay to give their children opportunities unavailable to state school children. The existence of private schools negate any possibility of an even playing field for children in education.
This is set against the background of state education being underfunded. The recent promises of increased spending on schools still fail to make up for the 9% drop in secondary school spending per pupil 2009-2019, with schools in the poorest areas having their spending cut by nearly £1,000 per pupil. In 2019, 250 schools planned to end the school day early on Fridays because they could not afford to keep them open.
Some may argue integrating private schools into the state system would precipitate a fall in educational quality for would-be private school pupils. Yet this argument implicitly acknowledges that state schools are of inferior quality, and so leads to the conclusion that educational standards in state schools must be improved, not that private schools are getting it right.
Similarly, research shows that both grammar schools and faith schools harm social mobility through their selectivity. In contrast to private schools however, there is little evidence to support the idea that they improve student attainment. Rather, they simply select higher achieving students, leading to the illusion of better educational quality. Wealthier parents can afford to pay for tutors for the 11+ entrance exam, giving their children a significant advantage. Moreover, in some counties, only pupils approved by teachers can take the exam, again providing a potential barrier for socially disadvantaged children who may not be perceived as ‘achievers’. The exam has also been shown to be psychologically harmful to children, not only due to the stress involved, but also because it promotes the view that intelligence is fixed rather than malleable. The children who pass the test tend to see themselves more positively, but the children who do not pass come to see themselves as belonging to a less intelligent category, harming their aspirations and self-image. Grammar schools are also guilty of the archaic practice of gender segregation, something which reflects the Victorian values of these institutions. Similarly, faith schools not only have lower proportions of disadvantaged pupils, but also have been shown to lead to religious and ethnic segregation.
More important than the gap in educational achievements is the social impact of selectivity in education; the existence of private schools, grammar schools and faith schools amount to little more than class segregation. In psychology, the contact hypothesis suggests intergroup mixing leads to mutual understanding and reduced prejudice. Children who attend private schools rarely need to interact with children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and vice versa. This leads to a lack of social cohesion as children are socialised in separate social bubbles. Consequently, our current class-stratified system reduces the chances that private school pupils will share an understanding and therefore solidarity with the problems that disadvantaged pupils face.
If our education system is rooted in class privilege, why haven’t progressive labour governments attempted to tackle it? Despite pledges to establish a secondary school system based on the ‘comprehensive principle’ existing in most Labour manifestos since the 1950s, this promise has never been fulfilled. The nearest this promise came to being satisfied was Anthony Crosland’s attempt in 1965 to integrate grammar schools into the comprehensive system. In contrast, the New Labour government extended the divisions within education through the creation of academies and specialist schools, and the promotion of faith schools. Whilst the more radical factions of the party have long been supportive of measures to abolish private and selective education, the more moderate wing of the party has been more sympathetic to differentiation in the education system, dating back to Sidney Webb’s support of grammar schools as a means of producing a technocrat class in 1902. This suggests that whilst being led by the moderately-minded Starmer, the Labour Party is unlikely to break this pattern.
Some may argue having the option to send their child to a private or selective school is a matter of free choice. Yet this argument conveniently ignores the fact that by having an educational system built on institutionalised class segregation, the ‘choice’ is only available to the select few who can pay. The strongest argument against abolishing private schools is that it would result in approximately 600,000 pupils entering the state system – not cheap. Arguably public money would be better spent elsewhere. As class division is a result of contemporary capitalism, abolishing private and selective education would be addressing only a symptom, not a cause. Perhaps public money would be spent on addressing more direct causes of disadvantage, such as alleviating food poverty. In my view, these possibilities are not mutually exclusive, and so abolishing private and selective education is a key step towards addressing our rigid classist society.