Is it immoral to send your child to a private school?

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I appeared as a witness on the Moral Maze tonight; you can listen to it for a limited time period here. The central question was whether sending your child to private school is immoral, and whether private schools are immoral generally. On the panel, the Reverend Giles Fraser and Matthew Taylor of the RSA were sceptical about the benefits of private education, while libertarian pundit and ex-MP Michael Portillo and Daily Mail columnist Melanie Philips were fervent supporters of it. Four witnesses were called. The journalist Janet Murray was interviewed by Taylor and Fraser about her decision to send her child to a private prep school in Kent; her basic argument, which she has written for the Guardian about, was that she was doing the right thing for her child, and had to leave her social principles behind because state schools just didn't cater for her unique needs. Dr Martin Stephen, the ex-head of St Pauls' public school, defended the sector by effectively saying that it existed to compensate for the failings of the state sector. The crime writer and ex-teacher Dreda Say Mitchell was possibly the most socialist of the witnesses, saying that private schools should be banned in order to create a more equal society.

The whole process of being interviewed was quite nerve-wracking; the five "regulars" were crowded around you in the Broadcasting House studio, listening to your every word. It was a bit like a really tense job interview. I was nervous about being grilled by Melanie Philips. However, although I found her quite firm with me, she did look me in the eye and would let me more or less finish what I had to say. She had some sympathy with my story of pulling out my child from a private school and putting him into an inner-city state school. She accepted that I'd found the experience illuminating and that it had been positive for my child. Michael Portillo was more difficult. He didn't look me in the eye, and was very keen to show that I was a flip-flopping flibbertigibbet who wasn't making sense, making huge generalisations out of my own personal story. I countered by saying there were two things: my own personal story of seeing how beneficial the state system was for my child, and a larger argument about what we should do with a schooling system which was set-up by the Victorians to enhance our class system, where public schools exist to educate the ruling class. What's amazing is that this piece of social engineering has lasted to this day: as Brian Simon says in his brilliant History of English Education, although there's been huge amounts of legislation about schools, none of it has really swept away the hierarchy put in place by the Victorians between 1850-1870. There is a strong case for dismantling them in order to end the social segregation that they create, with the richest children being helicoptered away from their local communities. The pro-private school lobby argue that the schools are needed in order to bring high standards to the school system, but recently with the massive improvements that have happened with many state schools, this argument has fallen apart; my son's local school, Bethnal Green Academy, is a brilliant school, and yet it doesn't really reflect (yet) its local community with many wealthy parents migrating their children out of the area to selective and independent schools. This is despite the fact that it's a great school, judged outstanding in all categories recently by Ofsted; these parents' choice to go private is nothing to do with the quality of the school, it's more a judgement on the school's "social cache"; they perceive that because it has over 50% of children on Free School Meals that somehow it is not good enough for their children. As Dreda said these parents are more concerned with inveigling their children into the wealthy and powerful networks that exist in the private sector. Attending a school like St Paul's is not just about getting a good academic education, it's about getting connected with the "right sort of people".

However, I said that I wouldn't say it was immoral for parents to send their child to a private school; I don't think making blanket judgments about people and their personal circumstances is helpful. It's more important to keep an eye on the bigger picture.

One major topic we all missed was that of addressing whether private schools should have charitable status. I had been meaning to bring this up, but it's very difficult to articulate your views and ideas fully when you're grilled quite aggressively by two people very well versed in "turning people over". The best conversation I had about the issue today was actually with Fiona Millar on the phone before the programme, when we went through all the terrible problems that our private sector bequeaths the state sector: bestowing unfair advantages on children who are already doing well; sucking good pupils out of the state sector; enjoying the massive financial benefits that having charitable status brings without ever looking like charities at all; and justifying themselves by constantly attacking the state sector as being "rubbish" and failing.

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