Finally, something other than Brexit has been deemed newsworthy. Labour has made the headlines. And no, this time it’s not for an anti-Semitism scandal; this time it’s for voting, at their recent party conference, to integrate private schools into the state sector.
The integration process would see the assets of private schools “redistributed” into the ownership of the public – Karl Marx would be proud! It appears that Labour have finally remembered that they are a left-wing party. Furthermore, the plan would see a quota imposed onto universities to cap admittance of students from private schools at 7 per cent to reflect the overall proportion of students in the UK who attend private schools.
This, for St Andrews, would mean a significant change to the University’s demographics: with around 40 per cent of students attending the university arriving here from private schools, St Andrews has the second-highest density of privately educated students in the UK – beaten only by Oxford.
In researching this subject, I came across a tweet that summed up its surrounding discourse. It read some – thing along the lines of: in agreeing with Labour’s stance you are either accused of hypocrisy if you attended private schools, or bitter if you didn’t. And since I myself attended a private school during my high school years, I guess I shall be hypocritical in my belief that we should abolish private schools.
It is impossible to ignore the direct link between private school attendees and those who rule society. While only 7 per cent of the UK’s population attended independent institutions, the levers of power are wielded by their alumni: 65 per cent of senior judges, 57 per cent of the House of Lords, 84 per cent of Prime Ministers, and 49 per cent of officer cadets admitted into Sandhurst this year were privately educated.
And this over-representation in powerful positions isn’t because people in private education are more intelligent or harder working than the rest of the population – case and point, Boris Johnson. It’s because of what George Orwell referred to as a “mere accident of birth” – an accident that still, over 80 years later, determines whether you will or won’t attend an institution that has produced 20 of the UK’s prime ministers. Indeed, Historian Colin Shrosbree notes that the leavers of private schools formed a “political elite whose membership isn’t based on knowledge, or ability, or democratic approval, but was buttressed and kept in place by a restrictive educational system” by private schools acting as “a device to regulate and limit entry into a governing elite.”
How can we say we live in a democracy when the wealth of the family you are born into directly determines how likely you are to hold a position in government? How can we say we live in a democracy when it is not hard work, dedication, and passion that lands you a job in parliament, but old school ties and having a foot in the door because your classmate’s dad just happens to work there?
And in this questionable democracy, the impacts of an unreflective distribution of power can be devastating. The drinking clubs, formed at university, comprised exclusively of private school boys continue seamlessly into the houses of parliament. Here, MPs who as children (according to Robert Verkaik) were “hermetically sealed from the plebeian masses” in private institutions and “expressively told that they are the chosen ones,” rejoin “the world community bristling with unconscious prejudice.” He goes on to state that “they are not part of the big society; they are the few who have been programmed to ignore the interests of the many”. This results in policies of promised tax cuts to the richest in society while underfunding crucial services like the NHS – it appears policy is being made to benefit the people who sit in parliament rather than those who they represent.
Surely, no matter what our financial status is, we can agree that it is simply not acceptable in the 21st century to have a judiciary, a parliament and a professional elite dominated by inherited wealth and those with life experiences that are so far removed from those they are in charge of; or a private school system that operates as a means to keep the UK socially immobile and entrenched in an archaic class system.
In short, if private schools didn’t confer unfair privilege no one would pay for them. So, let’s level the playing field and create a society where your likelihood to secure a top job depends not on parental wealth but on hard work. In today’s Britain, where there always seems to be billions of pounds to funnel into supply and demand relationships with the DUP or Brexit but nothing to invest into comprehensive education, the least the UK can do is to follow Scotland’s lead, and plan to strip private schools of the current tax breaks they enjoy.