When Will Labour Be Honest About Private Schools?

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Another day, another “revelation” that Britain is a deeply elitist, socially segregated country thanks to the harmful influence of private schools and their irritating habit of setting their students up to succeed with a good education and useful network of influential contacts.

The Guardian reports on the findings of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. And on the face of it, the statistics are compelling:

Only 7% of members of the public attended a private school. But 71% of senior judges, 62% of senior officers in the armed forces, 55% of permanent secretaries in Whitehall, 53% of senior diplomats, 50% of members of the House of Lords and 45% of public body chairs did so.

So too did 44% of people on the Sunday Times Rich List, 43% of newspaper columnists, 36% of cabinet ministers, 33% of MPs, 26% of BBC executives and 22% of shadow cabinet ministers.

Oxbridge graduates also have a stranglehold on top jobs. They comprise less than 1% of the public as a whole, but 75% of senior judges, 59% of cabinet ministers, 57% of permanent secretaries, 50% of diplomats, 47% of newspaper columnists, 44% of public body chairs, 38% of members of the House of Lords, 33% of BBC executives, 33% of shadow cabinet ministers, 24% of MPs and 12% of those on the Sunday Times Rich List.

These figures certainly prove something, but not necessarily what the outraged commentators on the left think they prove. What these statistics show is a strong justification for the entirely rational choices of people with sufficient means to opt out of the state education system and go private. If you are at all normal and want the best for your child, why would you not place them in the hands of the system that is so much more likely to deliver the best social and educational outcomes?

Cue the inevitable wails of outreach from the usual suspects. First up, Owen Jones:

Why does the unfairness highlighted by the report matter? As it points out, elitism leaves “leading institutions less informed, less representative and, ultimately, less credible than they should be”, meaning they focus “on issues that are of salience only to a minority but not the majority in society”. If there are so few journalists and politicians who have experienced, say, low wages or a struggle for affordable home, then the media and political elite will be less likely to deal with these issues adequately. Instead, they will reflect the prejudices, assumptions and experiences of the uber-privileged.

No serious person would argue that this is not a problem – though many choose to quietly ignore the point out of self interest. It is certainly true that in journalism as with many other professions, a lack of people from diverse backgrounds materially harms the organisations doing the hiring. But an astute business or institution should already be aware of this fact, and have recruitment policies in place to ensure that they identify and attract talented people from non-traditional backgrounds. Jones and others never make a convincing case as to why the labour market cannot do this on its own, without the help of state coercion.

But as always, it is an active state to which the left instinctively turn. Jones’ take:

Certainly Britain is in desperate need of radical measures to ensure all can realise their aspirations, including the banning of unpaid internships, the scrapping of charitable status for private schools, investment in early-years education, and dealing with issues such as overcrowded homes that stifle educational attainment. But surely Britain’s chronically unequal distribution of wealth and power has to be tackled too.

Then, depressingly, the shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt chimes in:

Tristram Hunt, the shadow education secretary, said the report showed the coalition was failing on social mobility. “Under the Tories, the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and the rest is increasing, millions of hardworking people are seeing their living standards go backwards and child poverty is set to increase,” he said.

And finally the Guardian’s editorial on the subject, which sums up the landscape well enough but whose only proposed solutions are vastly inadequate to their supposed goal of ensuring that state-educated people are proportionally represented in the top professions:

The fundamental reason why so few top families can grab so many top jobs is precisely because they are able to provide the education, the environment and the networks that will eventually make their children’s job applications stand out from the pile. It is a very human, and in some ways commendable, thing for people to seek to give their kids a hand-up. No Whitehall initiative is going to counteract this urge, which is in any case shared across families from all classes. It does damage only because bankrolling unpaid work experience placements and master’s degrees, which would be ruinous for households across much of the scale, is so easy for those at the top.

Governments can – and should – extend minimum-wage laws to cover more internships, encourage universities to pay special attention to top grades earned in tough circumstances and support new routes into politics and the professions, to replace those that have closed with the withering of the unions, the local press and the culture of the apprentice. They can, and should, take care not to fragment state education in ways which – Swedish experience suggests – can leave schools prone to class segregation. But they should not delude themselves that any of it will create the meritocracy of the rhetoric unless they also do something about a wealth gap that easily warps into an opportunity gulf.

All of these people are very good at pointing out inequality where it exists, and saying that it is an outrage. Where they fall short is coming up with suitable, intellectually honest ideas for tackling it.

Having identified that attending private school gives an advantage to those students over state educated children, Labour’s proposed correctives are all variants on the same woolly and inadequate remedy. Revoke the charitable status of private schools. Subject such schools to harsher inspections or more stringent teacher hiring criteria. Enshrine reverse discrimination against private school students into law, and actively encourage businesses to look past paper accomplishments at the wider picture of an applicant (which many of the world’s best firms do already, out of self interest).

But why will the darlings of the British left, always first to proclaim their outrage at the unsurprising news that an expensive education is a worthwhile investment, not be honest about their ideal outcome? If private schools are causing so much damage and inequality in our society, why not ban them altogether? Why be content with continually talking them down and making it marginally more difficult for them to operate?

Why, instead of continually carping at the success achieved by private schools (and indeed any school that struggles free from centralised control), will prominent left-wing politicians not openly promise to “destroy every fucking grammar school in England. And Wales and Northern Ireland”, as one-time Labour education secretary Anthony Crosland muttered in private, and expand the threat to every fee-charging school as well?

If Labour is to maintain even the vestige of continued acceptance of the free market, they must hold that the final decision on hiring school and university leavers must rest with the business concerned, not with some faceless “equality and merit panel”. And this means that hiring managers must be free to compare the attributes of publicly and privately educated applicants and pick the candidates who they believe will do the best job.

A future Labour government then has only two realistic choices if they want to push down the stubbornly high percentage of professional jobs occupied by privately educated people, rather than just complaining about it – they can work to actively sabotage private schools through government policy until their educational outcomes fall back in line with their state school counterparts and the economic incentive no longer exists for most parents to choose them, or they can take the totalitarian path and simply order all of Britain’s private schools closed immediately.

In a million years, Ed Miliband’s Labour Party will never argue for the latter policy (though they might well attempt a little bit of the former on the sly) because, unsurprisingly, the modern Labour Party is every bit as stuffed to the brim with privately educated scions of privilege as is the Conservative Party. Labour do not want to see the back of Britain’s private schools because not only do Labour MPs, party apparatchiks and their families benefit handsomely from using them, a truly egalitarian education system where every child is held down to the same level of uniform mediocrity would rob Labour of it’s apparent core purpose – arbitrarily picking winners and subordinating the rights of the individual to some undemocratic, ghastly master plan that they constantly revise.

Today’s report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission does little more than reveal the obvious – that paying for a private education results in benefits commensurate to their cost. Ed Miliband and the Labour Party can either accept this as a fact of life and look at ways of expanding access for talented but disadvantaged children into that better system, or they can advocate eliminating the inequity altogether and propose shutting down the private education industry.

What we should not tolerate any more from the Labour Party is their tired habit of using social inequalities to build political capital while proposing no policy solutions commensurate with their scale.

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