Why I don’t want to see private schools abolished

I was interested to read Tim Lott’s article in The Guardian today. Delightfully direct in its title, ‘Why I want to see private schools abolished’, it contains a number of important points with which, even as head of one of those vilified institutions, I would concur. At the heart of Lott’s plea is an implicit belief in meritocracy as the way forward and there is also concern for the growing divide between rich aend poor across the country and a cry for better educational opportunities for all.

However, Lott himself acknowledges in the article that devising an equal playing field ‘verges on the impossible’. Whilst he would like to see those who can afford private education stripped of the choice of paying for it, he goes on to admit that you cannot legislate against other advantages such as genetically inherited intellect. He does not seem to expect us to resist doing the best we can for our own children and even feels that a middle class exodus into the state sector would raise standards because those very families would still spend their money on tutoring. Lott himself knows that, taken to its logical conclusions, the argument he begins would end with limiting affluent families when it comes to buying books, or theatre tickets, or trips abroad; all educational advantages more easily achieved with a bit more cash.

Personally though, the part of the ‘abolish private schools’ argument with which I take most issue, is the one about social mobility. It’s a case rooted in some 1930s England I don’t remember when the same families had the same land and money for generations and there was genuinely no way out if you weren’t lucky enough to be born fortunate. Perhaps it was the case that Eton and Oxford were all filled by the same elite at that time – but it certainly isn’t the case now and hasn’t been for a while.

In other media comment today, a woman contacted the Jeremy Vine show to respond to a piece where the Labour party were asked to define the level at which one joins the bands of the ‘rich’. Raised by a single mother on benefits, she had worked hard, got her education and a well-paid job, only to join the ranks of the hated ‘rich’ now that she earns above average pay. And this has been going on for years, often with the aid of private schools. My own grandfather was homeless as a teenager in Manchester after the First World War. His children all found regular employment and his daughter, my mother, went on to have three children of her own who went to private school. The eldest went through a grant maintained scholarship scheme and became the first graduate in our family. The youngest (yours truly) was supported through said mother working in a school kitchen and going without holidays to pay the fees. That I, only two generations from real poverty, can have been to Oxford University and now be running one of the schools Tim Lott would scrap only goes to show that the social mobility for which various political figures seem to be crying out right now, has been happening for some time. We ought to learn from those successes – not treat those who benefitted from them (and now want the same thing for their children) as though they were some ‘to the manor born’ aristocracy to be smashed down.

And I am enormously proud of the school I run. JAGS has an incredible bursary scheme. It’s not yet as large as we would like it to be – but 16% of our senior school pupils are supported by it and that number will go up to 20% in next year’s Year 7 intake. Yes, I know there is an argument that those places would not be needed at all if the state could provide the same opportunities that we do for everyone. But let’s be pragmatic; at the moment, it really can’t afford to do so. Abolishing my school would not only put a massive burden on an already stretched service, but it would stop a long term project which does provide real social mobility for at least some young people judged solely on their own merit. And at JAGS, we also have a long established tradition of working closely with our maintained school neighbours and partners. Not because we have to, but because we want to. It’s a two-way street from which both sides benefit. The obvious implication of Lott’s article is that private education is better; if not then why consider it an unfair advantage? I would not claim that it is always better at all times and in all circumstances but I do believe that nothing great was ever achieved by pulling down those at the top. We should all keep trying to climb upwards together.

 

Sally-Anne Huang, Headmistress, James Allen’s Girls’ School

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