David Kynaston and Francis Green cite the Sutton Trust’s Leading People report in an article for the Guardian setting out the case for changing the school system.
The existence in Britain of a flourishing private-school sector not only limits the life chances of those who attend state schools but also damages society at large, and it should be possible to have a sustained and fully inclusive national conversation about the subject. Whether one has been privately educated, or has sent or is sending one’s children to private schools, or even if one teaches at a private school, there should be no barriers to taking part in that conversation. Everyone has to live – and make their choices – in the world as it is, not as one might wish it to be. That seems an obvious enough proposition. Yet in a name-calling culture, ever ready with the charge of hypocrisy, this reality is all too often ignored.
In Britain, private schools – including their fundamental unfairness – remain the elephant in the room. It would be an almost immeasurable benefit if this were no longer the case. Education is different. Its effects are deep, long-term and run from one generation to the next. Those with enough money are free to purchase and enjoy expensive holidays, cars, houses and meals. But education is not just another material asset: it is fundamental to creating who we are.
What particularly defines British private education is its extreme social exclusivity. Only about 6% of the UK’s school population attend such schools, and the families accessing private education are highly concentrated among the affluent. At every rung of the income ladder there are a small number of private-school attenders; but it is only at the very top, above the 95th rung of the ladder – where families have an income of at least £120,000 – that there are appreciable numbers of private-school children. At the 99th rung – families with incomes upwards of £300,000 – six out of every 10 children are at private school. A glance at the annual fees is relevant here. The press focus tends to be on the great and historic boarding schools – such as Eton (basic fee £40,668 in 2018–19), Harrow (£40,050) and Winchester (£39,912) – but it is important to see the private sector in the less glamorous round, and stripped of the extra cost of boarding. In 2018 the average day fees at prep schools were, at £13,026, around half the income of a family on the middle rung of the income ladder. For secondary school, and even more so sixth forms, the fees are appreciably higher. In short, access to private schooling is, for the most part, available only to wealthy households. Indeed, the small number of income-poor families going private can only do so through other sources: typically, grandparents’ assets and/or endowment-supported bursaries from some of the richest schools. Overwhelmingly, pupils at private schools are rubbing shoulders with those from similarly well-off backgrounds.