Would Britain be better without private schools?

Henry Stewart's picture
This is a question that, it is generally agreed, is not one that you can ask in mainstream politics. But it has not always been so. While browsing education blogs (with thanks to Iesha Small) I was intrigued to come across this extract from Andrew Marr's book A History of Modern Britain:

“More generally, there was a belief that public schools had contributed to the failures of leadership in the thirties and right up to the early defeats of the war.  When the Tory Minister R.A. Butler took on the job of education during the war, he contemplated abolishing them and folding them into a single state school system”

There are strong arguments against private schools on the basis of equity. Indeed, if you were setting up an education system from scratch, it is hard to believe that the core principle that could not be questioned would be that it should be organised so those from the most wealthy backgrounds must have the most privileged education.

However Butler's argument was different, that the products of private schools (or, more specifically, the top public schools) were having a  harmful effect on the country. I wonder, could the same be argued now?

Wellington headmaster Antony Seldon has famously argued that "British public life would be unthinkable without the contributions" of those from public schools and we should be grateful. But it is equally possible to see them as a self-serving elite who prevent the emergence of a more fair and equal society. (And even Seldon accepts that "a high number of the cads were at public schools".)

It was a privately educated Prime Minister who led us to the disastrous war in Iraq, ignoring the advice of those around him. Most of those who led the banks over the cliff in 2008, convinced of their own invincibility, would have been privately educated. And the current austerity is of course being imposed by the products of our top public schools. As Tim Brighouse put it at the Festival of Education last year:

"Eton can give a false sense of confidence, like making you think you can run the economy or country when you can't"

It is often argued that one of the advantages of private schools is that they give their pupils confidence and a belief in their own ability. However is it possible that they give many an over-confidence and too great a belief in their own ability?

Seldon argues that "Whatever we may think of Tony Blair and David Cameron, they display impeccable good manners and courtesy to all." Not all would agree with that claim (Nadine Dorries, for instance, has a different view of Cameron's 'courtesy'). But it could be countered that the hundreds of thousands of deaths that resulted in Iraq are more important than the manners of the person who led Britain into it.

The question of whether the type of education you receive should depend on how much you can pay is one is generally felt to be outside the scope of what can be properly part of the British education discussion. But is it time to bring Rab Butler's thinking up to date and have that debate again?


Note: What happened to Butler's suggestion? This site suggests Churchill persuaded him out of his plan - "for a ‘multilateral’ schooling system that would abolish ‘extreme inequality of wealth and possessions’" - as a distraction.
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