Is private education fair?
Is private education fair?

'Private education is not fair. Those who provide it know it. Those who pay for it know it. Those who have to sacrifice in order to purchase it know it. And those who receive it know it, or should.'

So said the playwright Alan Bennett (himself a grammar school boy) in a lecture at Cambridge University in 2014. Was he right?

Some facts about private education

  • As of 2023, the median annual income for the UK was £34,000 before tax. The annual fees for St Paul's Girls' School (a day school) were £28,872 (and more in the sixth form). The annual fees for Eton College (a boarding school) were £46,296.
  • Private schools educate 7% of British children, rising to 18% in Years 12 and 13 (the proportion is higher in London and the South East, and lower elsewhere).
  • 70% of students at private schools come from families in the top 25% of incomes; just 7% come from families in the bottom 25% of incomes.
  • The student / teacher ratio (the number of students per teacher) in the private sector is approximately 9:1; in the state sector it is approximately 18:1.
  • Private schools spend, on average, twice as much per student as state schools do. Their assets (premises, facilities, etc.) are worth three times more than those of state schools.
  • Private school students get almost twice as many A-Levels at A* and A grades as state-educated students, and more than three times as many GCSEs at grade 7 and above. (The top grade for GCSE is 9.)
  • 36% of private school students are granted extra time in public exams because of special educational needs. For non-selective secondary state schools, it's 23%.
  • Private schools make twice as many appeals against public exam results at A-Level as state schools.
  • 30% of students at Oxford and Cambridge have been educated privately. (This percentage has considerably decreased in recent years as Oxford and Cambridge have taken steps to recruit more state-educated students.)
  • Privately educated students can expect, on average, to earn 12% more than state-educated students.

Here is how former private school students are represented in some of the most powerful and influential sectors of British society, as of 2023.

  • 29% of MPs
  • 54% of journalists
  • 61% of government ministers
  • 71% of senior officers in the armed forces
  • 74% of judges

Britain has had 57 prime ministers. Twenty of them - more than a third - were educated at one private school, Eton College.

Is it fair that some people should receive these advantages just because of how much money their parents have?

Every parent wants the best for their children. This is a normal healthy instinct which ensures children are brought up with love and care. A good parent will do all they can to see that their children are well nourished, are kept in good health, live in a comfortable house, have adequate clothing, toys to play with, access to activities they enjoy, family holidays. Most of these things cost money. You wouldn't think much of a parent who starved their child, or left them in rags, or made them sleep in the street, to save money. Of course parents spend money on improving their children's well-being. So why shouldn't they do the same for their education, one of the most important benefits you can give a child? How is it fair to prevent people from spending their own money on their own children?

Why shouldn't people be able to choose which schools to send their children to? Why should they have to attend schools run by the state? It's unfair to restrict people's choice - they should be free to educate their children as they see fit. Making everyone do the same thing is what dictators do. Preventing people from paying for education would be almost impossible to enforce without an unacceptable level of control over people's lives.

Private schools promote academic excellence. Moreover, the greater freedom that private schools have means they can be at the forefront of developments in educational thinking, which may influence and inspire state schools. This is fair to everyone as it raises standards overall.

On the other hand ...

Buying a child a private education is not like buying them a coat or a computer game or even a holiday in the Caribbean. Private education is a positional good. That is, it gives someone an advantage over other people by providing them with higher status; as they rise, someone else must fall. I can have a nice new coat, and you can have a nice new coat. My having a nice new coat doesn't stop you having a nice new coat. If a country is prosperous enough, everyone can have a nice new coat. But not everyone can have the distinction on their CV of having been to a top school (or they wouldn't be top schools); not everyone can have a place at a top university (or they wouldn't be top universities); not everyone can have access to the country's elite (or they wouldn't be the elite). If you achieve these advantages through your own hard work and talent, that's fair. If you achieve these things because of who your parents are, that's not fair.

Giving people choice over their children's education isn't really fair. Most people don't have the money to send their children to private school. So freedom of choice is restricted to a small number of parents who already have a great many advantages. How did they get to be so wealthy anyway? Very likely, they too had a private education, thanks to who their own parents were, giving them access to high-earning jobs. Privilege is very often handed down the generations. And even if they come from a humble background and have earned all their money through their own hard work and talent, that doesn't apply to their children. No one gets to choose their parents. It's unfair that the children of less successful people should be punished for their parents' failings.

Private schools take resources away from state schools, to the disadvantage of state schools. The best teachers and the best students are concentrated in a small minority of schools, leaving the rest behind. If resources were distributed more equitably, standards would rise all round. Moreover, state schools would get much more attention and support if the children of wealthy and powerful people were educated in them. This would be both fairer and more effective; it would result in a much better-educated population overall.

Which is more important? Freedom for parents to choose their child's education? Or freedom from the inequality and division that private education creates? Which should we prioritise: excellence for a few, or equal treatment for all? Individual freedom or the common good?

Motions that go with this topic

1. This house would abolish private schools.
2. This house would remove charitable status for private schools.
3. This house would make it illegal to charge for education.
4. This house would make it compulsory for Oxford and Cambridge to admit 90% of their students from state schools.
5. This house would require all private schools to admit 25% of non-fee-paying students.
6. This house would require 90% of government ministers to be state-educated.