Education has the potential to propel us all to new knowledge and to understand the world around us. It has the power to change an individual’s life. As Nelson Mandela once said, ‘education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.’ In the UK, for the past few centuries, a powerful system has been put in place to divide the quality of education children receive. I am of course talking about the divide between schools that demand fees for their teaching, and ‘state’ schools, which receive their funding from the state and do not require fees. We often hear discourse about the various posh stereotypes and the grand attainment of their pupils within private schools, but does the fee-divided school system really have a big impact on any child’s life chances and their ability to succeed?
In 2021, we see continuous reports in the news about how the education system is improving. It is becoming a more fair, equal apparatus in which all students from whatever socioeconomic background are able to achieve to their highest potential. Headline after headline, we hear about new scholarships that will enable those who are disadvantaged, with figures detailing how state schools are achieving more Oxbridge offers than private schools. One may be led to believe that because of this, the divide between public and state schools is becoming more and more obsolete. Are we finally reaching a point in which whatever school we send our children to, they will be able to achieve to the highest standard with a support network of resources and teaching around them?
While that may seem like the case, the fee-paying versus state school divide is still a divide that perpetuates inequality within the UK. Only 7% of the entire UK population have attended a private school. However, a report from the Social Mobility Commission found that those who are ‘influential’ in Britain are ‘five times more likely to have attended a fee paying school compared to the general population.’ The report goes on to detail that there is a disproportionate percentage of those attending fee paying schools making up various public sectors: 59% of Civil Service Permanent Secretaries, 52% of Foreign Ambassadors and 59% of senior judges attended such a school. Analysing the Entertainment Industry tells a similar story, with 44% of the top actors within this country attending a fee paying school and 30% of pop stars. Clearly, in every industry, the number of individuals who went to a fee-paying school holding influential jobs is disproportionately high.
"There urgently needs to be a nationwide discourse about the divide between fee paying and comprehensive schools."
As a result, this means that students who have wealthier parents who can afford the fees for these schools are giving their children’s future a helpful springboard in order for them to achieve highly and increase their chances of landing a job in an influential industry. Those who have working class parents never get this opportunity. Many wealthier parents defend their decision to send their children to a fee-paying school. For them, it is the morally correct thing to do; they are trying to help their child have the best possible start to life and they want to send them to a high level educational institution that nurtures them to achieve their full potential. This is how the case for keeping fee-paying schools is often argued; if parents can afford to send their children to the best facilities with a high standard level of teaching, then why would they reject this opportunity?
What individuals who deploy this argument are often forgetting is that it is only a choice for parents that are wealthy enough. The average fee for a private school was calculated to be around £17,000 every term year. With the average income within the UK, calculated to be at £30,600, how many families can realistically afford to pay such high fees? The quality of education children may receive differs according to their parents wealth. Instead of helping those who show the most potential but more importantly giving all children all fair chances, a level playing field to show their capability, students with wealthier parents are able to dip into The Bank Of Mum and Dad. The statistics do not lie: a study conducted by the UCL institute found that on average fee-paying schools had an eight point percentage advantage concerning A-level grades compared to state sixth forms. Fee-paying schools also achieve average GCSE grades that are five times than the national average. These results are incredible, but they are available to the privileged few and not the many. If the fee paying education system really is a market and parents can happily floric along the aisles looking for a suitable school, with the promise of open enrolment as laid out in the Education Reform Act (1988), fee paying education is a shop that is only open to the a very rich, small section of society. If families with a lower socio-economical status dare to enter the market of fee paying education, they will quickly realise that every item is out of their price range. Their only option from the shelves is sending their children to a comprehensive school, which for the most part have been hit by budget deductions and larger school size due to multiple Conservative governments over the past ten years.
Yes, bursaries and scholarships are available for a quota of students from lower socio-economic statuses if they are assessed to be academically bright. These are very few and far between at many private schools however, with only 140 out of around 1310 boys at Eton College benefit from a scholarship. There is also a question to be asked: how many bursaries and scholarships to fee-paying schools are achieved by students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds? According to Tony Little, a former Eton College headmaster, in his book An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Education, he says the bursary system was ‘too easy to play.’ He describes how ‘self-employed business people could show that they had no income despite their assets. There were even examples of parents borrowing a tatty car to come to interview… too seldom did it reach out to those in most need of help.’ Another fee-paying school, St Pauls, introduced bursaries for families with a joint income of £120,000, according to an interview conducted by Robert Verkaik in his book Posh Boys. Clearly, their academic outreach schemes seldom reach those who are genuinely socially disadvantaged, even if you do not take the account of the students who will never be made aware of the schemes.
"I never stop thinking about how many students have slipped through the gaps in the past, and continue to do so, because they are in environments with low academic attainment and will never realise their passion for what they want to pursue a career in."
Of course, there are exceptions among the education sector that defy the fee-paying divide. There are some state schools that have developed their facilities to the highest standard and have created a learning environment where many students can thrive. This is the case for the exceptional state comprehensive school Brampton Manor Academy in London which in 2020 achieved a record number of 55 Oxbridge offers, a staggering statistic for their sixth form. There are also exceptions in terms of individual students in lower standard comprehensive schools who achieve the highest grades and go on to study at the most prestigious universities. I should know; I am one of them. Instead of feeling proud of being the first ever student from my sixth form to achieve a Cambridge offer however, in a way I also felt despair that I was indeed the first student. I never stop thinking about how many students have slipped through the gaps in the past, and continue to do so, because they are in environments with low academic attainment and will never realise their passion for what they want to pursue a career in. Their school does not give them individual attention and nurturing, it does not produce a teaching standard that is consistently sufficient, and many students therefore develop an intense dislike of all educational institutions. How many did not receive the personal tutoring to nurture their skills in their subject that so many in private schools receive with their smaller class sizes? The students in a low standard comprehensive school miss out on the privileges that are spread across fee-paying schools, not due to their academic ability, but due to the income earned by their caregiver.
What is so disheartening about the ongoing school divide and the inequality it produces is how quiet many of the leftist politicians and prominent political commentators have been in addressing this injustice. This is a silence that can be seen throughout political history. Although they introduced comprehensive school as a right for all, Clement Attlee’s government did largely nothing to limit the powers of the private schools, who were growing in importance and were starting to change their rules to limit their quota of state school students. Attlee, despite his commitment to socialism and an egalitarian society, failed to challenge the private schools, but instead endorsed them in a speech at Haileybury in 1946, saying he saw no reason ‘why the great tradition of private schools should disappear.’ Labour MP and publicly educated Tony Benn voiced his outrage at how fee paying schools created a divide within society and sent his children to state schools. Among the Labour left though, Benn is very much an exception and is not the norm. Even the 2017 Labour Manifesto, although pledging to increase comprehensive schools funding, did not dedicate many lines to addressing the issue of fee paying schools; they only addressed the ‘Conservative’s grammar school vanity project’ and pledged to submit all local schools to local government policy.
There urgently needs to be a nationwide discourse about the divide between fee paying and comprehensive schools. The archaic existence of fee demanding schools in Britain makes meritocracy a redundant myth. Students do not start on a level playing field and the education system is not equal. Instead, a privileged few of students are given a launchpad into the highest standards of educational institutions. This launchpad is not available to everyone, regardless of academic ability. It is entirely dependent on the income of the child’s caregiver. The teaching at various fee-paying schools is extraordinary, but we should aim at distributing the level of academic facilities, nurturing and indeed the environment of high attainment across all schools in the country. The UK is an anomaly with the persistence of the school divide. France’s politicians are almost all drawn from the national state system and private education is restricted to the Catholic schools. It is time for us in the country to re-evaluate our current education system and to draw attention to the fact that so many educational benefits are given to the privileged few.
Ester is a journalist, a campaigner for educational equality and an incoming University of Cambridge student
Disclaimer: All views expressed in this piece belong solely to the author and do not reflect the views of Demographica Limited as a company.