Saturday, July 17, 2010

Past imperfect 3 - private schools and personal prejudice

It is interesting how our values are formed. 
The philosopher in me would like to think reason holds sway; that disinterested reflection can show us the moral standards we should live by, and be happy to do so – because we know them to be fair and just. When we deviate from those values, it does not necessarily make us evil, but it we know in our hearts that we are falling short.  And if new evidence or better reasoning comes to our attention we should adjust our judgements; change our values accordingly.
But I know too that life isn’t like that.

More often our values are intuitive; a gut response to right and wrong that is coloured by past experience and shaped by personal prejudice. We are victims of what philosophers call emotivism - searching for logic to support our likes and dislikes rather than taking an objective, disinterested view. And as a result we all of us have inconsistencies, little hypocrisies and hobby horses that don’t quite fit with the bigger picture, with the values and standards we expect from others or hope to see elsewhere.

In most cases, if we reflect enough, we can recognise this trait and make allowance. We know, for example, that our dislike of next door's dog has more to do with our being bitten as a child than anything about the animal itself.  But sometimes our gut reaction is so strong, and so entwined with our beliefs, that disentangling it from rational thought can be next to impossible.
For example, I have long held the view that private education (or independent schooling as it now prefers to be called) is fundamentally unfair. In a meritocratic society - in which opportunities are limited and positions awarded on merit - I believe it is unjust that the richest in society can effectively buy an advantage over those who cannot afford to do the same. Education is the gateway to future opportunity and as such it is different to other goods and services; buying advantage in education undermines the whole principle of merit as the basis for rewards and progress in society.
I have reflected on this conclusion for over thirty years; I have read extensively on the subject, considered the arguments for and against as best I can; I have written essays and corresponded with great thinkers on the issue – and always I came to the same conclusion: that private education is unjust, or more bluntly, wrong!
But the point here is not to argue too much about the ethics of private education (I’d fall out with too many friends), rather it is to declare a truth about my own reasoning and perhaps illustrate its limits.  For the fact is, my intense dislike of the public school system is not entirely objective; it is also a gut reaction to my first term at university.
I went to university from an above average but hardly excellent state school.  I worked hard to get there; had the benefit of a few great teachers and the handicap of many poor ones – the route that I naively presumed everyone took. In the town I lived, barely anyone went to private school and if I gave the morals of the issue any thought, I probably concluded it was unimportant, because it affected so few people.
How wrong I was.
At university I quickly discovered that nearly half of my peers had been to private schools. Many had received privileges and support that no one could regard as even vaguely equitable. Some were clearly bright young people; other had palpably been crammed beyond their ability; virtually all would agree they did ‘better’ as result of their privileged education.
And I remember feeling how unfair this was; more than that I had a deep and visceral reaction to what I perceived as an astonishing injustice.  I thought of my friends who, for the sake of a few grades, had missed out on degree placements; how others had only found places at polytechnics (no disgrace but frankly not as good), and I compared them to what I saw as the undeserving, upper class, uber-privileged, give-me-all-the-help-possible, students in my class..
That wasn’t all  – perhaps it was coming from the North, the sense of being a small town boy; I still don’t fully know – but I would find myself taking a jaundiced view of anyone who had been to private school, no matter what their merits. And the truth is, that thirty years later, I still do. Regardless of how clever or worthy anyone is, if I learn they have been to a private school, my instinctive reaction is that they have been ‘helped’ and their achievement is somehow diminished in my eyes; at its extreme I can (quite unreasonably) actively dislike them as people too. 
Sometimes though, that isn’t hard. I remember one chap at university, - I’ll call him James - he’d been to Harrow, flunked his A levels the first time round, been crammed for a year to get the necessary grades and was now at Leicester University with the express intention of getting no more than a ‘pass’ degree. When we first met, I hated him.
But the trouble with disliking James was that he was a nice bloke: he was personable, funny and a hit with the girls; and he had the inner confidence which comes from knowing that life would be fine regardless - after all, his father was a millionaire. The truth was I liked James, a lot; what I hated with a passion was the unfairness he represented.
And still today, I find myself in that same dilemma.

Many of my friends and colleagues think of private education as the norm. They don’t view it terms of fairness; to them it is about giving their children the best chance in life, of maximising opportunity and fulfilling potential. As one of them said to me the other day ‘I want my children to have the best, and if I can afford to give them a head-start, why not?’  I empathise with that position – as a parent I have instinctive desire to see my children thrive, and it is hard to restrict their opportunities in deference to the niceties of ethics.
But ultimately values do matter. They matter not only in a general sense of fairness throughout society; they matter also to how we see ourselves and our sense of achievement. When I asked my acquaintance why he used the expression ‘head-start’ rather than advantage he replied, ‘Look, I know independent schools are unfair, but having a head-start isn't as bad as cheating.’
I beg to differ. When my son raced his bike it was fundamental that everyone started from the same line, had the same gears and equipment and didn’t receive a push off – any transgression resulted in disqualification.  The analogy to education is not quite correct but it is not far off. There comes a point when the best coaches, the best equipment, the best facilities, the inside connections.... amount to a clear and unfair advantage. We all know this; it’s precisely this advantage that parents are paying for when they send their children to private school.
But returning to the bike racing, the interesting thing is that had my son sought advantage, my pleasure in his achievements would have been diminished.  His too, because I know of no one who is more alert to what is fair than him. And that isn’t about reason either – it is an intuitive understanding of what is worthy and what is less so.
I can’t resist finishing with another anecdote. Recently I was talking to someone I am close to, whom I like very much and know to be a good and caring parent. He said of his son, ‘The thing about X is that he just isn’t bright; frankly, most of his education is a waste, but if we didn’t send him to private school, there’s no way he’d get to university.’ That’s my point entirely! ‘I know,’ he replied, ‘but we’re not all philosophers or saints and, hey, wasn’t university great?’
I laughed and let it pass.  He’s a nice guy, and I didn’t want to argue. What's more, I know that for all my reasoning, my quoting of ethical theory and supposed objectivity, it is really that first term at university, and the shock it gave me,  that I’ve been reflecting on all these years.


  1. I paid for my uni degree - rather than getting into debt - and did it part time as a mature student. I think it means more to me because of that. Yes, maybe I should have done it straight after school but I was an average student. It took me to my mid twenties to get to a point where I could "compete" with other uni students. AS to private... well. It is morally wrong to give some kids an advantage when others have to struggle. The opportunities should be the same for all of our kids. Not all will take them, but that's OK. All should have the chance though at the very least. There's nothing fairer than a level playing field.

  2. I know exactly where you are coming from here, having studied at Durham, UCL and Sheffield. Friendships are made, cliques are formed and its very difficult to break into them.
    Going to certain public schools seems to provide children with the ego and education that is just simply not there in most state schools. It seems to virtually guarantee a career in certain industries and yes, I think on the whole a better life (looking at my peer group).
    Its all about advantage isn't it? Most parents want to give their child the best of everything from conception onwards, that's how organic foods and clothes and silly baby Einstein CD's are sold. I think this is why people pay. Its a sort of Law of the Jungle thing which perpetuates itself. There should be a level playing field but life just isn't like that.
    My children wont be going to public school, but they will have the advantage for two 'educated' parents to correct their teachers. That's another unfair advantage, it just goes on and on.
    At the end of the day, if your child is bright and has the aptitude I think that they will succeed wherever they were schooled and whatever level of formal education they achieve. Maybe i'm just a hopeful dreamer...

  3. Will be back, its late. One hell of a piece, I havent the stamina to keep going at length but agree whole heartedly with your philosophy. I tend to swear and cuss in frustration. Your are much more erudite!

  4. I've just read 'Winston Smith's' post about Wayne...a nasty disruptive lout, but with some underlying talent.

    Had Wayne been born to a well-off disfunctional family, he would have been sent to Millfield with all the other dead losses and would have been given some chance to show what he could do.
    As it is, in the lower echelons of society, he ends up in what is laughingly called 'care'.

    The dumbos of my family are all sent into private education, while the bright go to state schools...they all have the advantage of homes where books and reading are a given, but I notice that the privately educated ones get into a network which pushes their careers ever after, nomatter how shallow their talents, while the state school sector have to push their way onward.

    So unjust,to start life under a handicap system that you may not even know exists.

    So unjust too, that the modern educationalist seems to think it is more important for working class kids to overcome any latent tendencies to non PC thought than to gain an education which fits them for life.

  5. I have to say that I completely agree with you! There is something fundamentally wrong that those with money gain more advantage over those without...creates a two tier society and that's extremely unfair!!

    C x

  6. There is this problem, and that is, that education from kindergarten to graduation from high school, does not and has not done its primary job. It fails to prepare young people for jobs and in many cases not even for more education in college. The goal of those in college and university is or used to be "getting a good job." When farming was the goal, the 8th grade was adequate and taught basic stuff and some limited social skills and the kid left and became a farmer. We lost our place in education decades ago and are playing catch-up. Vocational schools sprang up in Ohio as an alternative to academic educations that failed to prepare people for jobs. We have people stumbling all over each other with doctorates and masters and can't get a job anywhere. So higher education in this country is "more of the same" I think. I quit teaching after 13 years, in Ohio, because the schools were no longer doing their jobs. Tenure is one hugh problem and schools keep the worst teachers in the world because of tenure.Education is a sore spot I hate to have scratched this early in the morning. Ouch.

  7. It's hard to argue against someone who says "I have worked hard for my wealth, and I will use it to buy whatever I want, be it better health care for me, or education for my children". At its most fundamental, is it about gene propagation? By analogy, if cave man can use use his greater-than-average strength to kill more and bigger prey for his family's better nourishment, then why not? In fact you could argue that he is morally obliged to do so.

    I agree entirely that private education is not fair, and that it confers advantages only on the wealthy. But I see this as a reflection of how bad state education is. If there were no benefit to private education compared to state education, it would wither away.

    Could this ultimately be an argument about the advantages of a meritocracy? Under the old grammar school / assisted university places system, Britain was becoming a meritocracy, with greatly improved social mobility. But if you're in the higher echelons of society, the only new doors opened by a meritocracy lead down, hence, in my view, the destruction of that system.

    But a meritocracy, by definition, develops the human resources of a nation to the fullest extent possible, and deploys them to their best effect. Ultimately, any nation that does not do this will perform less well that nations that do.

    I think that the existence of private education in Britain is evidence of the protection of the private interests of a minority, running counter to the general good.

    Having said that, I support anyone who tries to do the best for their children by sending them to a private school. Because I know I would, until state education is good enough to put them out of business.

  8. I agree with you.
    The privately educated are made to feel superior which is another reason I dislike it.
    The only answer is to make state education EXCELLENT, it should be our priority. I was lucky enough to go to an excellent grammar school, a long time ago though 8-). As it is the state's standards today are abysmal. Even many degrees nowadays aren't worth the paper they are written on. I didn't go to university but have studied with the OU and also have a nursing degree. So I both paid for and worked for my degree.

  9. Hi Mark,

    Fundamentally I agree with you. My sisters and I went to a private school in Newcastle but it wasn't that great to be honest. Having said that I wonder what would have happened to me had I stayed in the state system.

    I would definitely prefer there to be no private schools. Our children will be in the state system because there is no way we could afford to send them to a private school. I think, on balance, even if we could afford it I/we wouldn't want them to go to one.

    Most of the girls around me at school weren't that bright. I spent many unhappy years there. Luckily I got into the London Uni college I wanted to go to. I thrived there.

    I have one abiding memory of myself just into my second year at school: "only 6 years and 7 more hours to go" I thought to myself.

    What do we want for our children? To enjoy themselves, to have good friends and to be true to themselves. I rebel against this country's obsession with rubbishy type exams. I despair at what has happened with the University system.

    I don't think we are all destined for Uni (as the last government believed). Where are the excellent polytechnics? Where can people hone their practical skills? Where can this all be recognised?

    I'd like to trace from where we get our obsession with school and qualifications? (Was it with the industrial revolution and social class?) Why do successive governments despise teachers so much? When are we going to pay teachers on a par with the bankers?

    I believe we will only get a decent education system in this country when the politicians stop meddling in education. The teachers must have more confidence in themselves. They know more than they think...but it is no wonder that their confidence has been undermined.

    Sorry about the rant :) Hope you will still like me now that I've declared my colours!

  10. Hi again,

    Sorry about the rant. It flew out of my fingers. It wasn't at you...just more about the system. I know that my arguments probably sound husband went to many second rate private schools in Surrey. He ended up not studying what he wanted...he wanted to be a vet..due to poor career's advice. He ended up dropping out of his local poly.

    I think that some private schools can be just as bad as some state schools. Obviously there are some excellent state schools out there which are better than private ones.

    I think my ultimate argument would be to abolish the private schools and make sure private and public monies are pooled together. Then those funds should be distributed around the country equally.

    Perhaps schools should be self regulating? teachers should definitely be paid a vast salary. Then how do we go about finding/creating good teachers who inspire us all? That's the next big question...

  11. My grammar and punctuation are not good tonight. It should be...

    He wanted to be a vet. Due to some poor career advice he could not get on a vet course and ended up on another course at his local poly. He ended up dropping out of that course. He's never qualified at poly/uni level. He did qualify as a BSAC instructor. He's a fantastic teacher/instructor but these days he would probably not get work nowadays as a teacher.