THE BLOG

Are Private Schools Undermining State Education in the UK?

03/12/2013 11:14 GMT | Updated 01/02/2014 10:59 GMT

Britain is a country with a history of private education. Like many countries, our first schools were fee-paying; initially, education was a luxury that only the rich could afford. It was only in 1870 that the Elementary Education Act made primary learning mandatory for British children, and granted funding for poor children to attend school. Since then, many would argue that British education has come a long way, and it undoubtedly has.

The construction of a welfare state, as well as increased efficiency in regional and national bureaucratic structures, has meant that fewer children than ever before are deprived of an education. According to Literacy Trust figures from 2011, the percentages of pupils aged 11 achieving expected levels in reading and writing at Key Stage 2 were 84% and 75% respectively. The majority of British pupils evidently benefit from a relatively high standard of literary education. Conversely, that data shows that a fair proportion of our children leave primary school with an inadequate level of English, and are already behind other state and private school students.

Research carried out earlier this year by the Sutton Trust shows that a quarter of parents now pay for private tuition for their children, as a supplement to their standard education. Given the current climate of competition which governs high school and further education, I understand why. In a world of exams and targets, where the very best fight for top university places, the state system simply can't keep up. It is torn between two fundamental purposes; it can't be both an all-purpose educator of general competencies and a cog in the British cut-throat examination-machine.

This isn't supposed to be a criticism of the state education system in itself. There are so many hard-working and brilliant teachers in Britain's classrooms, some of whom I've been lucky enough to be taught by. And yet there is always going to be the dichotomy between two halves of the British education system, where 'better' schools are attempting to rival fee-paying institutions for Oxbridge places, whilst others are struggling to maintain basic standards of behaviour and learning. It is impossible to impose a cohesive curriculum upon it. More than this, the British educational system is fundamentally unfair; it's a postcode lottery.

I personally had private maths tuition in the run-up to my 11+ exams, which determine which secondary schools you may or may not apply to. This wasn't because I struggled at maths - I was one of the strongest pupils in my class - but rather because the state education I was receiving simply would not cover all of the topics which could feasibly come up. These exams would be taken by children from state and preparatory schools alike, and by not paying for my education I was already at a disadvantage in the race for high school places.

In this instance, I am aware of how lucky I was that my parents could afford this extra expenditure. I may have still got into my high school without it, but I may not have, and I certainly wouldn't be where I am now without the quality of education I received there. Yet this is not a rarity; it is the norm for so many pupils in areas with entrance examinations for secondary schools. It exposes a fundamental flaw in the modern British educational machine. By the age of 11, the state education our children have received is already insufficient to give them a fair chance against others who have attended fee-paying primary institutions.

It's hardly surprising that children whose parents pay for their schooling receive a higher standard of education. If this wasn't the case, there would be no incentive for parents to pay. In our capitalist society, education is a commodity like any other. In this sense, a particular quality of education remains a 'luxury' accessible to remarkably few.

In private and public schools, class sizes are smaller, meaning teachers can invest more time in each individual child. They are free from the bounds of the national curriculum, and may thus place more emphasis on certain subjects or aspects of a pupil's education; children learn not only basic literacy and maths skills, but also those which put them ahead of their state-schooled competitors later in life.

It seems that parents are motivated to pay for their children's schooling for two fundamentally different reasons. These two groups might be categorised as those who positively elect to send their children to private school, and those who feel bound to do so by the relative paucity of the state offering in their area. In the case of the former, we might talk about parents who come from families with a history of private or public education, as well as others who support it out of principle.

We might then see the latter group as acting through perceived necessity. It could be argued that the state schools in their area will not provide them with the same standard of education, and that they are fortunate enough to have the disposable income to invest in their child's academic future. This was certainly the case for many of those I know who were privately educated. Education, they would argue, is a commodity like anything else. In the UK, most lawful products and services can be purchased by those with enough money. Why should parents not be able to spend their salaries upon the one thing they prioritise above all others, namely their child's education?

Quite simply, it's because private school damages the fabric of Britain's society. More accurately, it prevents us from achieving the 'equality of opportunity' which Osborne said he was working towards on Sunday. Private school is the motor which powers a cycle of prosperity and opportunity in Britain. The explosion in college and university access schemes is nothing but a good thing. Yet with state education in its current form and the existence of private and public schools, no access scheme will ever be able to counter the imbalance of academic opportunities between the rich and the poor.

Of all of the students applying to Cambridge University predicted the minimum entry requirement, roughly 62.5% are from state schools and 37.5% are privately-educated. The institution has cited one of its aims as accepting corresponding proportions of state- and private-school pupils onto its degree schemes. This is undeniably an improvement upon previous years, and yet the fact that only 7% of British students attend fee-paying schools shows that state-educated students are still hugely disadvantaged in applications to the UK's best universities.

Ultimately, the very existence of private education undermines many of the efforts being made to ensure that talented children from deprived communities aren't being left behind. Whilst parents in Britain are able to pay for a higher standard of education for their children, there will always be a higher proportion of students in our universities from wealthier homes. A child's background, and particularly their economic situation, should never determine their education and ultimately their future. Sadly, for many young people in modern Britain, this is still very much the case.