Engine braking

It’s not just our GPs and MPs who benefited from private education – it’s our pop stars, writers andathletes too. Historian David Kynaston is taking apart the engines of privilege 

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Only 7 per cent of British kids go to private schools while the other 93 per cent attend a state sector so under-funded that teachers are reportedly using their own money to buy books and scrubbing toilets during their breaks. Meanwhile Brexit sucks in political capital like a black hole.

“If we are going to create a fairer society we can’t do it unless we do something about public schools.”

In this light it seems hard to see the urgency of reforming Britain’s public school sector, and indeed David Kynaston acknowledges it is “never going to be the number one educational issue”. But the historian adds: “That doesn’t mean that in educational terms it should be ignored, because it is a significant issue. And you could argue it punches above its weight in social and political importance.”

Figures from the Sutton Trust show just how. Via Oxbridge and the other top universities, that 7 per cent produced 74 per cent of the country’s judiciary, 61 per cent of doctors and half of the Cabinet, according to the educational charity’s Leading People 2016 report. Its author Philip Kirkby takes the same view as Kynaston about the “staying power” of the privately-educated at the top of the UK’s professional hierarchy, writing: “Even when those with such backgrounds retire from the top of their field, they are frequently replaced by those with a similar educational past.”

Kynaston’s book Engines of Privilege, co-written with economist Francis Green, is subtitled Britain’s Private School Problem. In it they show the privately educated don’t just dominate the great and the good. In a passage surveying how Britain looked at the turn of the millennium, “Will Young (Wellington) becomes the first Pop Idol. The Wire’s Jimmy McNulty (Eton) sorts out Baltimore. James Blunt (Harrow) releases the best-selling album of the decade.”

According to the Sutton Trust, 42 per cent of British Bafta winners in the last 25 years have been privately educated. An Ofsted report in 2014 said a third of current England sporting international players were privately educated.

Privilege’s engines started to whirr centuries ago. Kynaston refers to Winchester College’s foundation deed of 1382 and Eton College’s 1440 charter as committing the schools to educating the poor and needy. But in the centuries that followed they changed, attracting more and more fee-paying pupils in place of donations, and letting the good intentions of the founders slip. The curriculum may have been narrow, and taught in an environment of what Kynaston calls “pervasive brutality”, but by 1882 the reformer Frederic Harrison could write: “The entire prelacy, civil and military service, governments, army and navy, and even literary potentates issue out of these seminaries, which are the true keystone of British society.”

The effect today, argue Kynaston and Green, is to restrict social mobility for individual children and to damage society. The amount of money spent on private education skews the system and a more even distribution of resources across all schools would boost overall educational performance.

State-educated children’s access to university places is hindered by privately educated ones. State schools lose the benefits of having the bright pupils and engaged parents who instead choose the private route. It comes down in the end to fairness, they say.

“We argue that education is different from other types of purchase,” Kynaston tells Big Issue North. “It’s a purchase that not only affects people’s lives but determines the shape of society, and who gets the prizes and who doesn’t.”

Many of Kynaston’s previous books, including Austerity Britain, Family Britain and Modernity Britain, have examined the social and political history of the country. He believes there were a number of missed chances to grasp the problem, particularly education secretary Rab Butler’s decision to set up the classic British fudge of an inquiry into public schools, which sidelined them from the great 1944 Education Act that ushered in free secondary education for all.

Clement Attlee’s failure to do anything in the immediate post-war Labour government was a “big moment”, he says, and so too was Labour education secretary Richard Crosland’s reluctance in the mid-1960s. Crosland’s earlier rhetoric about the “flagrant inequality” of the system evaporated when in power. Kynaston puts it down to “an element of intellectual defeatism”, the greater priority of tackling teacher shortages and the lack of state schools, and also his strong libertarian views. “He was uneasy about any element of compulsion.”

Private schools strongly argue their benefits. Not only do they provide educational excellence, they say, but they boost local economies and the exchequer. According to the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, the professional association of heads of the leading independent schools, they make an annual contribution to GDP of £9.5 billion, and savings for the taxpayer of £3 billion by relieving the burden on the state sector.

Commenting on the findings of an Oxford Economics report it commissioned last year, Independent Schools Council chairman Barnaby Lenon said: “While it is widely understood that independent schools provide a high-quality, well-rounded education, it is hugely important to also acknowledge the significant contribution they make to the UK economy.”

He added: “For every four jobs in our schools, a further three are supported elsewhere in the UK; the provision of a first class education by UK-based schools to international pupils can make a significant contribution to the UK’s ‘soft power’ in the international relations field; ISC schools promote a bias towards science, mathematics and other subjects demanded by employers.”

The private sector also makes much of its partnerships with state schools whereby they share best practice and use of the swimming pool. Kynaston and Green pick apart these claims but acknowledge their strength. Perhaps it’s not so surprising that few contemporary politicians have had much courage for the fight. Nick Clegg, Andrew Adonis, Jeremy Corbyn and Michael Gove have all made speeches, but not done much more.

Setting out their own policy recommendations, Kynaston and Green insist they don’t want to put parents on the spot when they are understandably keen to do the right thing for their children. That’s especially so in the insecure times of the post-economic crash when the parents of some privately educated children are trying to prevent their downward social mobility, rather than pushing them upwards – something Kynaston dubs “the glass floor”.

The human factor is critically important for Kynaston, who argues that it should be possible to have a national conversation about public schools that everyone can take part in. He doesn’t believe people who work in public schools wake up every morning thinking of how they can further entrench their privilege. It’s not about posh-bashing. And he laments the possibility that left of centre politicians and the officials around Corbyn are ducking the question to avoid charges of hypocrisy, when they have been privately educated or send their children into the sector.

The book’s own recommendations are likely to be studied by manifesto writers if the political window does open up. They dismiss as ineffective the common proposal to remove public schools’ charitable status, and say bursaries to widen access to poorer pupils have little impact. But they are sceptical about the most draconian measures too.

“It’s just an opinion but to go hard down the abolitionist route, effectively nationalising the private schools, would prove a fantastically difficult thing to achieve and the very real danger is that you would end up achieving nothing.”

Instead they propose that the state initially funds one-third of public school places, rising higher and higher as proof of the concept emerges until “you’ve kind of got to a virtual abolition”. They also say that the university admission process should take into account applicants’ educational background so the privileged access of the privately educated is ironed out. Higher taxes on public schools, as Labour has proposed, could also play their part.

Currently a government full of privately educated individuals is mired in a political crisis to some degree of their own making. Kynaston points out that it’s almost a cliché that the Leave vote was rooted in concerns about growing inequality and an unaccountable elite. Remedying education would go some way to closing this democratic deficit.

“Sorting public schools won’t alone create a fairer society but if we are going to create a fairer society we can’t do it unless we do something.

“It’s not healthy to have so many of the nation’s leaders coming from such a narrow social stratum. We do argue democracy would be healthier with people from a wider background who understood more of other people’s lives, including state education.

“People need to know what life is like for most people. I don’t think that’s particularly controversial.”

Engines of Privilege: Britain’s Private School Problem by Francis Green and David Kynaston is published by Bloomsbury (£20 hardback, £8.68 Kindle)

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