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Should Britain Abolish Private Schools?

After the country elected its 20th Etonian prime minister, some are questioning whether its education system is the solution to the country’s stagnant social mobility—or the problem.

WINDSOR, England—Nestled in a historic town across the river Thames from Windsor Castle, Eton College resembles a small city-state more than a high-school campus. It boasts hundreds of buildings, half a dozen museums and galleries, and a reputation for cultivating the who’s who of the British elite.

Current and former prime ministers, lawmakers and judges, and countless others who make up this country’s ruling class have walked through its doors. After all, to have graduated from Eton, or any of the other handful of Britain’s top, tuition-charging private educational establishments, is to be guaranteed lifelong membership in an exclusive echelon of a country where the school a person attends—even as early as the age of 13—correlates with wealth, power, and opportunity achieved in the years and decades after.

The privileges these schools afford aren’t cheap: It costs £42,501 ($51,504) to send a child to study and board at Eton each year—a price well above Britain’s average annual wage of £28,677. Though there are merit and needs-based scholarships, made possible by the school’s 400-million-pound endowment, only around 7 percent of the 1,300 boys who attend (Eton, like many other private boarding schools, is not coeducational) each year do so for free.*

Accessibility to schools such as Eton has long been an issue of concern, not least because of the dominance that private-school alumni tend to have over Britain’s top jobs. But the ascendancy of Boris Johnson as the country’s prime minister—the 20th from Eton alone—has brought the issue back to the fore. While some view these schools as training grounds for the next generation of leaders and thinkers, critics regard them as bastions of entitlement and privilege. That more than a quarter of British lawmakers, including the majority of Johnson’s cabinet, were privately educated—a rate four times that of the general population—has only furthered that perception. It has even prompted a national debate about whether these institutions should exist at all.

In an era when social mobility has virtually stagnated in Britain—when those who succeed are largely born to parents who did the same—many have begun to question whether private education is part of the solution or part of the problem. In a period when entrenched inequality has led to the rise of populist sentiment around the world, can private schooling help quell political extremes—or fuel them further?

Comprehensive schools (the equivalent of American public schools) are the primary providers of education in Britain, serving 88 percent of the country’s school-age population. Of those who opt out of comprehensive education, 5 percent attend grammar schools, which are selective, state-funded institutions that admit pupils over the age of 11 by examination. The remaining 7 percent attend private schools.

Though most private schools are confined to London and the south of England, the impact of these institutions, and the people who attend them, can be felt across the country. The prime minister, his cabinet, and a significant chunk of Britain’s diplomats and judges attended private schools. Even beyond the governing sphere, across the media, the arts, and sports, those who were privately educated are overrepresented compared with those who were not.

It’s a discrepancy that Britain’s Labour Party has vowed to end. At its annual conference in September, the opposition party pledged to oversee the phased abolition of private schools here—a commitment it will take directly to voters in next month’s snap general election. If elected, Labour would strip private schools of the charitable status that entitles them to significant tax breaks and would impose quotas on the number of students that universities can admit from private schools (though it’s unclear what impact such policies would have if private schools are dismantled), as well as establish a new social-justice commission that would be tasked with integrating private schools, and their assets, into the state sector. (Corbyn has since hinted that Labour would prioritize ending private-school tax breaks first, telling reporters at the party’s campaign launch yesterday that their manifesto is still being decided.)

“Private schools don’t need to exist,” John McDonnell, Labour’s treasury spokesperson, said ahead of the conference, “and should not exist.”

Labour’s policy was unsurprisingly met with pushback from the private-school sector, which dubbed the plan damaging and a “vote-loser.” Johnson criticized the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (who, like 13 percent of Labour members of Parliament, was privately educated) of “unbelievable hypocrisy” and said the move would cost the government £7 billion ($8.6 billion) to educate students from the private sector. Others have since argued that it would needlessly strip parents of their right to choose how their child is educated. The plan, if enacted, is expected to be challenged in the courts. (A spokesperson for the government told me it has no plans to change the tax status of independent schools.)

But Labour isn’t alone in its criticisms of the current education system in the country. Robert Verkaik, the author of Posh Boys: How English Public Schools Ruin Britain, told me the discrepancy between those who have access to private schools and those who don’t has created an “apartheid education system” in Britain, “where a small portion of the population are allowed to buy the best jobs or the most powerful position.” Michael Wilshaw, the U.K.’s former chief inspector of schools, has called for stripping private schools of their charitable status unless they commit to supporting their state-run counterparts—an argument that was echoed, though never acted on, by former Prime Minister Theresa May (who attended grammar and comprehensive schools). Michael Gove, a former education secretary who is now a member of Johnson’s government, and was educated in both state and private schools, has said he would like to see the end of private education altogether.

In some ways, the fight over private education represents a very British problem. After all, few countries rival this country’s fixation on a person’s educational background—a factor that helps fuel its enduring class system. But issues of education inequality aren’t unique to Britain. In the United States, the quality of public schools is largely contingent on the wealth of the areas surrounding them, and private schools are largely reserved for those who can afford the high-priced fees. Just as privately educated students disproportionately win admission to top British universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, American students from privileged backgrounds are overrepresented in leading U.S. universities. These students often go on to hold some of the top jobs in the nation. Indeed, the past five American presidents (including Donald Trump) have been Ivy League graduates. Of the current class of lawmakers in Congress, Harvard University is the most common alma mater.

This discrepancy in accessibility goes beyond education. An increasing lack of social mobility, coupled with the belief that only a privileged few have access to the highest echelons of society, has helped entrench inequality at a time when populist sentiment around the world has grown. This is particularly true in Britain, where a 2018 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based intergovernmental organization, found that it would take at least five generations, or 150 years, for a British child from a poor background to earn an income on a par with the national average, compared with two and three generations in Denmark and Sweden, respectively.

Lee Elliot Major, a professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter and the author of Social Mobility and Its Enemies, told me this stagnant social mobility has led to “a disconnect between the elites and the rest of the country,” which some regard as having helped fuel the deep divisions in Britain over its membership in the European Union. “For me,” Major said, “the whole Brexit issue was partly down to this disconnect between a very Etonian … cabinet and swaths of the population who are fed up with being, in their mind, dominated by a self-serving, liberal, southeast metropolitan elite.”

Eton may be the most famous of Britain’s private schools—which are colloquially (and, for your American author, confusingly) known here as “public schools”—but it’s certainly not alone. Across the country, there are more than 1,000 tuition-charging independent schools (excluding approximately 165 grammar schools). Embedded within this group is an even smaller group of historic private schools known as the Clarendon Schools—Eton is one—which count among their alumni lawmakers, journalists, celebrities, and Nobel laureates.

While some of these schools are designed to prepare students ages 13 to 18 for admission into Britain’s top universities, others are geared toward even younger pupils. “These schools all have their feeder prep schools, and the parents know this at a very early age,” Verkaik said. “Once you’ve got them on that escalator, you’ve pretty much guaranteed that your child will leapfrog the other children from the same community.”

Etonians react during the Eton Wall Game at Eton College in 2012. (Eddie Keogh / Reuters)

Private schooling wasn’t always this way. When King Henry VI founded Eton College in 1440, it was to provide a free education to 70 underprivileged boys and prepare them for admission to another school: King’s College, Cambridge, which the monarch founded the following year. It’s from these philanthropic beginnings that schools such as Eton were dubbed “public schools,” in recognition of their public benefit. It’s also how they earned their charitable status.

Modern-day British private schools have changed drastically from their forebears. For one, they are no longer free: On average, it costs as much as £15,000 ($18,400) to privately educate a child for a year, and £33,000 ($40,500) if the child is boarding. Though these schools give students millions of pounds in financial assistance each year, not all aid is granted on the basis of need. Most pupils come from families who can afford to pay most, if not all, of the tuition fees.

James Wood, a New Yorker staff writer who attended Eton on a partial scholarship, described the system as “an infinite regression of privilege,” in which those who can afford the luxuries of a private education often have parents and grandparents who did the same. “There were probably hundreds of boys whose family wealth stretched so far back, into the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries,” Wood wrote of his classmates, “that, for all intents and purposes, the origin of their prosperity was invisible, wallpapered over in layers and layers of luck.”

This isn’t a reality unique to Eton. Across Britain, “being born privileged ... means that you are likely to remain privileged,” the British government’s Social Mobility Commission concluded in its State of the Nation report this year. “Being born disadvantaged, however, means that you will have to overcome a series of barriers to ensure that you and your children are not stuck in the same trap.”

Private schools are also more competitive than they used to be. Eton, for example, requires its prospective students to undergo an entrance exam (including an interview) and submit references in order to be considered for admission. Of those who apply, less than a quarter get a place. Sam Friedman, a sociologist at the London School of Economics and a co-author of The Class Ceiling: Why It Pays to Be Privileged, told me this pivot toward more selective enrollment enabled private schools to bill themselves “not as upholders of ascribed social advantage … but as sites of meritocracy.”

Meritocracy, that is, with a price tag—though not without a return on investment. Privately educated students are 94 times as likely to be listed in Who’s Who, an annual publication that recognizes people of influence in British public life, as someone who went to any other type of school, according to Friedman’s research. “But the idea that [private schools] are 94 times better than their average state schools is ludicrous,” he added.

It’s not just Who’s Who that these students have to look forward to. Privately educated pupils are seven times as likely to gain admission to Oxford and Cambridge as their state-educated peers, according to a 2019 joint report by the Social Mobility Commission and the educational charity Sutton Trust. It’s a trend that mirrors itself in the workforce, too: Those who are privately educated are overrepresented in some of the country’s top professions, making up 65 percent of senior judges, 52 percent of diplomats, and 29 percent of lawmakers. Eton counts among its graduates 20 prime ministers; Oxford claims 28. The current holder of the office, Johnson, is an alumnus of both.

Part of this discrepancy comes down to a resource gap: Though only 7 percent of students attend private schools, one in every six pounds spent on education in Britain goes into the private sector, according to Francis Green, a professor of work and education at University College London and a co-author of Engines of Privilege: Britain’s Private School Problem. As a result, private schools not only have the means to hire more teachers (Green said one in every seven teachers works in the private sector), but are also able to invest in better facilities, including theaters, arts and athletics centers, and, in the case of Eton, an island.

For many in the private-school system, however, schools such as Eton are the exception, not the rule. “Eton really is a thing apart,” John Claughton, a former teacher at Eton and former headmaster of King Edward’s School, a Birmingham-based private school, told me, explaining that most institutions don’t charge anywhere near the kind of fees seen at the Clarendon schools. (King Edward’s, for example, charges annual tuition of £13,692, or $16,733.) Most don’t benefit from the same endowment or philanthropic resources either.

Yet while Claughton does not believe private schools should be abolished altogether, he is among those who believe they can and should do more to bridge the accessibility gap in private education by offering forms of means-tested financial assistance and contextual admissions (which take into account the socioeconomic circumstances of each applicant), as well as partnering with state schools. “Those who are asking the independent sector whether they could or should be doing more are asking entirely valid questions,” he said. “More could be done.”

According to the Social Mobility Commission, more is being done—just not on a grand scale. “There are some examples of schools where they are really progressive in terms of the bursaries they offer and in terms of contextual admissions,” Ali Jaffer, head of policy and innovation at the Social Mobility Commission, told me. “There are others where it’s a bit more token, and it’s really only tinkering at the margins, and there are others where it doesn’t feature in their agenda at all.”

Etonians wearing hats and tails gather as a schoolmaster reads from the registrar.
Pupils gather at Eton College in 1929. (Hulton Archive / Getty)

When Simon Henderson became the latest, and youngest, headmaster of Eton College in 2015, some predicted he would usher the school into a new era—one that would include a more diverse intake of students and more scholarships for underprivileged pupils. And in some ways, he has: In 2015, Eton spent £6.5 million ($7.9 million) on full scholarships and partial scholarships for 70 and 277 students, respectively—the equivalent of 6 percent and 21 percent of the student body. By 2018, it was spending the same amount of money, but the number of students receiving full scholarships had increased to 82, and the number of partial scholarships had dropped to 254.

“The independent sector can be—and in many cases already is—part of the solution rather than the source of the problem,” Henderson wrote last month in the aftermath of Labour’s pledge to abolish private schools, pointing out that the number of students attending the school for free has risen to 90.

Like Claughton, Henderson endorsed the idea of private institutions doing more to support their state-funded counterparts, citing Eton’s sponsorship of Holyport College, a free boarding school. But he rejected the notion that private institutions such as his fuel inequality, noting that while education in Britain “is far from perfect … confiscating and redistributing the assets of some of the best schools in the world will not improve the life chances of young people left behind by our education system.”

Despite these moderate increases in the number of students attending the school tuition-free, Verkaik said the number of needs-based scholarships given out aren’t reflective of Eton’s means, including its £436 million endowment. “It’s window dressing,” he said. “It’s a very small, negligible number of kids.”

A 2014 poll by the British firm YouGov suggests a majority of the British public would support a new government approach to private schools. While 33 percent of respondents said private schools’ charitable status should be contingent on supporting state-funded schools, a further 41 percent said private institutions should lose their charitable status regardless.

Jaffer said solutions such as removing charitable status have been under consideration, though the Social Mobility Commission itself “doesn’t have a policy position on this yet.” The goal, he said, is to find a balanced way of addressing the issue without alienating private schools—while still giving them an incentive to change.

“You need reasons for people to act,” he said. “Moral purpose is nice, but not everybody has it.”

The last time Britain seriously considered radical reforms to address its education-inequality problem, it was 1965. The then-Labour government had announced the establishment of a new commission tasked with finding “the best way of integrating the public schools into the state system of education.” The private sector was faced with the prospect of termination and, in the case of Eton, even considered relocating to Ireland.

Of course, it never came to that. The Labour Party, itself divided over the issue, lost interest in the reforms, and private schools carried on largely unaffected. “History has proven that these schools are extraordinarily resilient,” Verkaik said, arguing that even though recent discussion of reform has prompted some, including Eton’s headmaster, to address the inequalities within the country’s education system, it “may not be enough” to effect actual change.

Nor will the abolition of private schools necessarily guarantee the desired effect of leveling the playing field between students with means and those without. Jaffer said that even if private schools didn’t exist, access to private tutoring or high-performing state schools in affluent areas still would. “Those schools, if you think about it, are just fee-paying in another way,” he said. “Parents have to pay to live in those areas. And they tend to get better results.”

Still, there is reason to suggest that today’s efforts to change Britain’s school system could be more successful than those of 1965. “Since the 1960s, we haven’t questioned the right of families to send their children to private schools or the right of private schools to exist,” Verkaik said. “Now we have, in the media, right-wing newspapers talking about the role of public schools to exist … This isn’t just a think tank arguing a radical position. This is now a mainstream discussion.”

* This article originally misstated the proportion of students who attend Eton for free. It is around 7 percent, not less than 1 percent.