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Warren Buffett Is Right: It's Time to Ban Private Schools

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What if I said to you that the solution to the problems in our education system would be to "make private schools illegal and assign every child to a [state] school by random lottery"?

That's the view not of Karl Marx or the Chinese Communist Party but of the billionaire US investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett. The "Sage of Omaha" has been a longstanding campaigner for equality of opportunity and social mobility - and sees the existence of private schools as a major barrier to both. For Buffett, the fact that a tiny minority of wealthy families can choose to opt out of the state sector, and send their children to expensive and elite private schools, has a negative impact on the overall education of the vast majority of students whose families cannot afford to do the same.

Full disclaimer: I went to private school from the age of 11 to 18. So did my sister and many of my closest friends. My wife wants to send our own kids to private school.

But I'm with Buffett. Private schools are a blight on our society; they are divisive and corrosive. Here in the UK, we don't like to talk about such schools or discuss their excessive power and influence. It's one of the biggest taboos in British politics; the educational elephant in the room. Too many politicians and pundits would much rather argue about the challenge of grade inflation, the future of "gold-plated" A-levels or the role of the teaching unions than address the reality that, in the words of the deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, the "great rift in our education system" is "between our best schools, most of which are private, and the schools ordinary families rely on.

It is should be a national scandal that private schools educate only 7% of the school population yet former pupils of private schools dominate the upper echelons of British society and public life: the City, the media, the courts, the civil service, the arts. Two-thirds of the coalition government's ministers, more than half of the Cabinet (including, of course, Clegg himself) and a third of all MPs went to private school. The number of Old Etonians elected to the Commons jumped by a third in 2010.

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Is this - dare I use the word - fair? Can such blatant and profound inequality be morally justified? In December 2011, a study by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) warned how British private schools were entrenching a form of "social apartheid" and promoting a ruling class drawn from a "segregated elite". Private schools, the NCSR concluded, "produced Conservative partisans" with a "sense of superiority bonus" and less concern with social inequality than their state-educated counterparts.

So why not heed Buffett's advice and shut them down? Why not follow the example of Finland, which doesn't have any private schools and yet regularly tops the various international education league tables?

Banning private schools would be a controversial but crucial first step towards building a truly meritocratic society, in which all of our children are allowed to start their educational race from the same spot.

The Buffett proposal - shuttering the Etons and Westminsters of this world and redistributing their pupils to local state schools via a lottery - would also drive up standards across the board by forcing rich families to invest - emotionally, physically, politically and financially - in a state school system that, currently, they resent having to pay for (through their taxes), their children do not use and they themselves deem to be inferior and substandard.


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"How fast would it take to turn things around [in the state sector]?" asked the US education expert James Kamras in an interview in March, in which he discussed the impact of forcing private school pupils into the state sector. "Five minutes? Ten?" He continued: "I'm not suggesting this is realistic, or that it's the right way to approach the problem. It's just a provocative thought-experiment, designed to demonstrate that until every family sees the fate of our [state] schools as their own problem, we may suffer a lack of urgency and prioritisation when it comes to education reform."

This isn't, incidentally, an issue of "left versus right". In 2010, the then chancellor of Washington DC's public (i.e. state) schools, Michelle Rhee, a darling of US conservative education reformers, admitted that a ban on private schools would "see a faster moving of resources from one end of the city to the other. I also guarantee we would soon have a system of high-quality schools."

In May, here in the UK, the Conservative education secretary, Michael Gove, used a speech in front of private school headteachers to decry the "sheer scale, the breadth and the depth of private school dominance of our society" as a "deep problem in our country".

And, in July, Stephen Twigg, the uber-Blairite shadow education secretary who has controversially softened his party's stance on free schools, hinted that a future Labour government might legislate to ensure that private schools deemed not to be serving the community would lose their charitable status - saving the taxpayer up to £100m a year. In an interview with the Guardian Twigg acknowledged that private schools were "a major barrier to achieving a more just society and greater social mobility".

However, such political interventions are rare. And despite their rhetoric, the likes of Gove, Clegg and Twigg remain unwilling to consider the Buffett proposal and remove this "major barrier" to social justice and social mobility. They are petrified of being accused of engaging in "class warfare" or the "politics of envy". And, in the clash of values - between the liberty of parents to educate their children where they wish versus the need for social equality in a divided society - they opt for liberty over equality. That's why we have this rather surreal situation now in which politicians both on the left and the right bicker over grammar schools, free schools and city academies while the "great rift" in our education system - between the state and independent sectors - is left unexamined and untouched.

Shamefully, the rest of us also turn a blind eye to this grotesque educational apartheid in our midst. As the Observer's Kevin McKenna observed in 2010, "Not enough of us find it strange that a cartel of elite schools exists solely for those privileged children born into wealth and power... and the few dozen proles they deign to admit for the purpose of preserving their wretched charitable status."

Let me be clear: this isn't an attack on private school pupils or their families, or on the difficult choices that each individual parent has to make for their son or daughter. For the second time in recent weeks, I find myself in agreement with Clegg, who has argued that he doesn't "for a moment denigrate the decision of any parent to do their best for their child, and to choose the best school for them. Indeed, that aspiration on behalf of children is one of the most precious ingredients of parenthood." But, he says, "we do need to ensure that our school system as a whole promotes fairness and mobility."

He's right. As I said, my own parents paid for me to be educated at private school. I understand why they did so and there is no point in me pretending that I wouldn't be where I am today without the (unfair) advantage that their investment provided me with.

Yet there is no escaping the big picture: a two-tier education system produces a two-tier society, divided between the rich and the rest. It is morally and socially untenable.

Our schools should be at the forefront of promoting civic solidarity and guaranteeing social mobility; private schools, however, do the opposite. They produce not a meritocracy but a plutocracy, in which a tiny minority is able to entrench its power and privilege. Thus the inconvenient truth is this: if we genuinely want to create a level playing field for our children, and ensure equality of opportunity and social justice, there can be no place for private schools. It is time to abolish our educational caste system.