While many agree that private education is at the root of inequality in Britain, open discussion about the issue remains puzzlingly absent. In their new book, historian David Kynaston and economist Francis Green set out the case for change

he existence in Britain of a flourishing private-school sector not only limits the life chances of those who attend state schools but also damages society at large, and it should be possible to have a sustained and fully inclusive national conversation about the subject. Whether one has been privately educated, or has sent or is sending one’s children to private schools, or even if one teaches at a private school, there should be no barriers to taking part in that conversation. Everyone has to live – and make their choices – in the world as it is, not as one might wish it to be. That seems an obvious enough proposition. Yet in a name-calling culture, ever ready with the charge of hypocrisy, this reality is all too often ignored.

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For the sake of avoiding misunderstanding, we should state briefly our own backgrounds and choices. One of our fathers was a solicitor in Brighton, the other was an army officer rising to the rank of lieutenant-colonel; we were both privately educated; we both went to Oxford University; our children have all been educated at state grammar schools; in neither case did we move to the areas (Kent and south-west London) because of the existence of those schools; and in recent years we have become increasingly preoccupied with the private-school issue, partly as citizens concerned with Britain’s social and democratic wellbeing, partly as an aspect of our professional work (one as an economist, the other as a historian).

In Britain, private schools – including their fundamental unfairness – remain the elephant in the room. It would be an almost immeasurable benefit if this were no longer the case. Education is different. Its effects are deep, long-term and run from one generation to the next. Those with enough money are free to purchase and enjoy expensive holidays, cars, houses and meals. But education is not just another material asset: it is fundamental to creating who we are.

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What particularly defines British private education is its extreme social exclusivity. Only about 6% of the UK’s school population attend such schools, and the families accessing private education are highly concentrated among the affluent. At every rung of the income ladder there are a small number of private-school attenders; but it is only at the very top, above the 95th rung of the ladder – where families have an income of at least £120,000 – that there are appreciable numbers of private-school children. At the 99th rung – families with incomes upwards of £300,000 – six out of every 10 children are at private school. A glance at the annual fees is relevant here. The press focus tends to be on the great and historic boarding schools – such as Eton (basic fee £40,668 in 2018–19), Harrow (£40,050) and Winchester (£39,912) – but it is important to see the private sector in the less glamorous round, and stripped of the extra cost of boarding. In 2018 the average day fees at prep schools were, at £13,026, around half the income of a family on the middle rung of the income ladder. For secondary school, and even more so sixth forms, the fees are appreciably higher. In short, access to private schooling is, for the most part, available only to wealthy households. Indeed, the small number of income-poor families going private can only do so through other sources: typically, grandparents’ assets and/or endowment-supported bursaries from some of the richest schools. Overwhelmingly, pupils at private schools are rubbing shoulders with those from similarly well-off backgrounds.

They arrange things somewhat differently elsewhere: among affluent countries, Britain’s private‑school participation is especially exclusive to the rich. In Germany, for instance, it is also low, but unlike in Britain is generously state-funded, more strongly regulated and comes with modest fees. In France, private schools are mainly Catholic schools permitted to teach religion: the state pays the teachers and the fees are very low. In the US there is a very small sector of non-sectarian private schools with high fees, but most private schools are, again, religious, with much lower fees than here. Britain’s private-school configuration is, in short, distinctive.

Some of the public figures of the past 20 years to have attended private schools (l-r from top): Tony Blair, former Bank of England governor Eddie George, Princess Diana, Prince Charles, Charles Spencer, businesswoman Martha Lane Fox, Dominic West, James Blunt, former Northern Rock chairman Matt Ridley, Boris Johnson, David Cameron, George Osborne, Jeremy Paxman, fashion journalist Alexandra Shulman, footballer Frank Lampard, Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn and cricketer Joe Root.
Some of the public figures of the past 20 years to have attended private schools (l-r from top): Tony Blair, former Bank of England governor Eddie George, Princess Diana, Prince Charles, Charles Spencer, businesswoman Martha Lane Fox, Dominic West, James Blunt, former Northern Rock chairman Matt Ridley, Boris Johnson, David Cameron, George Osborne, Jeremy Paxman, fashion journalist Alexandra Shulman, footballer Frank Lampard, Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn and cricketer Joe Root. Composite: Rex, Getty
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And so what, accordingly, does Britain look like in the 21st century? A brief but expensive history, 1997–2018, offers some guide. As the millennium approaches, New Labour under Tony Blair (Fettes) sweeps to power. The Bank of England under Eddie George (Dulwich) gets independence. The chronicles of Hogwarts school begin. A nation grieves for Diana (West Heath); Charles (Gordonstoun) retrieves her body; her brother (Eton) tells it as it is. Martha Lane Fox (Oxford High) blows a dotcom bubble. Charlie Falconer (Glenalmond) masterminds the Millennium Dome. Will Young (Wellington) becomes the first Pop Idol. The Wire’s Jimmy McNulty (Eton) sorts out Baltimore. James Blunt (Harrow) releases the bestselling album of the decade. Northern Rock collapses under the chairmanship of Matt Ridley (Eton). Boris Johnson (Eton) enters City Hall in London. The Cameron-Osborne (Eton-St Paul’s) axis takes over the country; Nick Clegg (Westminster) runs errands. Life staggers on in austerity Britain mark two. Jeremy Clarkson (Repton) can’t stop revving up; Jeremy Paxman (Malvern) still has an attitude problem; Alexandra Shulman (St Paul’s Girls) dictates fashion; Paul Dacre (University College School) makes middle England ever more Mail-centric; Alan Rusbridger (Cranleigh) makes non-middle England ever more Guardian-centric; judge Brian Leveson (Liverpool College) fails to nail the press barons; Justin Welby (Eton) becomes top mitre man; Frank Lampard (Brentwood) becomes a Chelsea legend; Joe Root (Worksop) takes guard; Henry Blofeld (Eton) spots a passing bus. The Cameron-Osborne axis sees off Labour, but not Boris Johnson+Nigel Farage (Dulwich)+Arron Banks (Crookham Court). Ed Balls (Nottingham High) takes to the dance floor. Theresa May (St Juliana’s) and Jeremy Corbyn (Castle House prep school) face off. Prince George (Thomas’s Battersea) and Princess Charlotte (Willcocks) start school.

The statistics also tell a story. The proportion of prominent people in every area who have been educated privately is striking, in some cases grotesque. From judges (74% privately educated) through to MPs (32%), the numbers tell us of a society where bought educational privilege also buys lifetime privilege and influence. “The dogged persistence of the British ‘old boy”’ is how a 2017 study describes the traditional dominance of private-school alumni in British society. This reveals the fruits of exploring well over a century of biographical data in Who’s Who, that indispensable annual guide to the composition of the British elite. For those born between the 1830s and 1920s, roughly 50-60% went to private schools; for those born between the 1930s and 1960s, the proportion was roughly 45-50%. Among the new entrants to Who’s Who in the 21st century, the proportion of the privately educated has remained constant at around 45%. Going to one of the schools in the prestigious Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) still gives a 35 times better chance of entering Who’s Who than if one has not attended an HMC school; while those attending the historic crème de la crème, the so-called Clarendon Schools (Charterhouse, Eton, Harrow, Merchant Taylors’, Rugby, St Paul’s, Shrewsbury, Westminster, Winchester), are 94 times more likely to join the elite than any ordinary British-educated person.

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Even if one’s child never achieves celebrity, sending him or her to a private school is usually a shrewd investment – indeed, increasingly so, to judge by the relevant longitudinal studies of two different generations. Take first the cohort born in 1958: in terms of those with comparable social backgrounds, demographic characteristics and early tested skills, and different only in what type of school they attended when they were 11, by the time they were in their early 30s (around 1990) the privately educated were earning 7% more than the state-educated. Compare that with those born in 1970: by the same stage (the early 2000s), the gap between the two categories – again, similar in all other respects – had risen to 21% in favour of the privately educated.

The only realistic starting point for an analysis lies with the assertion that, in the modern era, most of these schools are of high quality, offering a good educational environment. They deploy very substantial resources; respect the need for a disciplined environment for learning; and give copious attention to generating a positive and therefore motivating experience. This argument – the resources point aside – is not an altogether easy one for the left to accept, against a background of it having historically been undecided whether (in the words of one Labour education minister’s senior civil servant in the 1960s) “these schools are so bloody they ought to be abolished, or so marvellous they ought to be made available to everyone”. We do not necessarily accept that all private schools are “marvellous”; but by and large we recognise that, in their own terms of fulfilling what their customers demand, they deliver the goods.

Above all, private schools succeed when it comes to preparing their pupils for public exams – the gateways to universities. In 2018 the proportion of private-school students achieving A*s and As at A-level was 48%, compared with a national average of 26%; while for GCSEs, in terms of achieving an A or grade seven or above, the respective figures were 63% and 23%. At both stages, GCSE and A-level, the gap is invariably huge.

Harrovians Peter Wagner and Thomas Dyson and local schoolboys George Salmon, Jack Catlin and George Young photographed outside Lord’s cricket ground in 1937 by Jimmy Sime.
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A famous image of school privilege: Harrovians Peter Wagner and Thomas Dyson and local schoolboys George Salmon, Jack Catlin and George Young photographed outside Lord’s cricket ground in 1937 by Jimmy Sime. Photograph: Jimmy Sime/Allsport
There are, of course, some very real contextual factors to these bald and striking figures. Any study must take account of where the children are coming from. Nevertheless, the picture presented by several studies is one of relatively small but still significant effects at every stage of education; and over the course of a school career, the cumulative effects build up to a notable gain in academic achievements.

Yet academic learning and exam results are not all there is to a quality education, and indeed there is more on offer from private schools. At Harrow, for example, its vision is that the school “prepares boys… for a life of learning, leadership, service and personal fulfilment”. It offers “a wide range of high-level extracurricular activities, through which boys discover latent talent, develop individual character and gain skills in leadership and teamwork”. Lesser-known schools trumpet something similar. Cumbria’s Austin Friars, for example, highlights a well-rounded education, proclaiming that its alumni will be “creative problem-solvers… effective communicators… and confident, modest and articulate members of society who embody the Augustinian values of unity, truth and love…” menang ceme

If, on the whole, Britain’s private schools provide a quality education in both academic and broader terms, how do they deliver that? Four areas stand out.

First, especially small class sizes are a major boon for pupils and teachers alike. Second, the range of extracurricular activities and the intensive cultivation of “character” and “confidence” are important. Third, the high – and therefore exclusive – price tag sustains a peer group of children mainly drawn from supportive and affluent families. And fourth, to achieve the best possible exam results and the highest rate of admission to the top universities, “working the system” comes into play. Far greater resources are available for diagnosing special needs, challenging exam results and guiding university applications. Underpinning all these areas of advantage are the high revenues from fees: Britain’s private schools can deploy resources whose order of magnitude for each child is approximately three times what is available at the average state school.

The relevant figures for university admissions are thus almost entirely predictable. Perhaps inevitably, by far the highest-profile stats concern Oxbridge, where between 2010 and 2015 an average of 43% of offers from Oxford and 37% from Cambridge were made to privately educated students, and there has been no sign since of any significant opening up. Top schools, top universities: the pattern of privilege is systemic, and not just confined to the dreaming spires. Going to a top university, it hardly needs adding, signals a material difference, especially in Britain where universities are quite severely ranked in a hierarchy.

Ultimately, does any of this matter? Why can one not simply accept that these are high-quality schools that provide our future leaders with a high-quality education? Given the thorniness – and often invidiousness – of the issue, it is a tempting proposition. Yet for a mixture of reasons – political and economic, as well as social – we believe that the issue represents in contemporary Britain an unignorable problem that urgently needs to be addressed and, if possible, resolved. The words of Alan Bennett reverberate still. Private education is not fair, he famously declared in June 2014 during a sermon at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. “Those who provide it know it. Those who pay for it know it. Those who have to sacrifice in order to purchase it know it. And those who receive it know it, or should.”

Consider these three fundamental facts: one in every 16 pupils goes to a private school; one in every seven teachers works at a private school; one pound in every six of all school expenditure in England is for the benefit of private-school pupils.

The crucial point to make here is that although extra resources for each school (whether private or state) are always valuable, that value is at a diminishing rate the wealthier the school is. Each extra teacher or assistant helps, but if you already have two assistants in a class, a third one adds less value than the second. Given the very unequal distribution of academic resources entailed by the British private school system, it is unarguable that a more egalitarian distribution of the same resources would enhance the total educational achievement. There is, moreover, the sheer extravagance. Multiple theatres, large swimming pools and beautiful surroundings with expensive upkeep are, of course, nice to have and look suitably seductive on sales brochures – but add relatively little educational value.