'Abolishing private schools won't create a meritocracy'

People have taken to blaming independent schools for everything that is terrible nowadays. This misses the point, says David James

Gold coins in palm of hand

If privilege were a gilded giraffe, gangling its way across an otherwise meritocratic Serengeti (bear with me), then last week was when the hyenas began to circle it, licking their lips, sniffing for the first drops of pure, blue blood. 

Yes, it was another Sutton Trust report on social mobility. The Sutton Trust doesn’t really believe in spoiler warnings: this cool, objectively assessed analysis is entitled Elitist Britain 2019, a title that is crying out for an exclamation mark to ramp up the volume to 11. 

It is full of “findings” that were already found, a place where you can see Guardian letters being spawned before they are composed with deadening hands and depressing inevitability. Britain, unlike the other utopian societies that exist beyond the clouds, is a place of inequality. 

Everything terrible

Which it is, of course. But who knew that independent schools had such power and influence in making it so? For someone working in the sector, it is sometimes quite surprising to hear that we are responsible for, essentially, almost everything terrible that is happening in the UK at the moment. Social immobility? Well, obvs. Brexit? That’ll be Eton (with a dose of Dulwich). Labour’s antisemitism? Yes, because Corbyn went to a posh prep school, so it’s not completely his fault. NHS? All down to the King’s School (don’t mention Haileybury) Britain’s Got Talent? Bloody Dover College

You name it, we did it. Embarrassingly, even the Sutton Trust is the fault of Reigate Grammar. 

And so devilishly cunning are independent schools that, according to the report, we have built a “pipeline” that goes from us “through Oxbridge and into top jobs” (impressively, without causing any traffic disruptions). Astonishingly, this supply line of privileged but presumably otherwise dim and untalented young people seamlessly bypasses the inconveniences that others have to struggle with (things like examination results, applications, interviews). That old-school tie binds the whole process together with steel-like certainty, and without any of its arcane practices leaking into the public domain. 

Something Must Be Done

Of course, the 44 per cent of those newspaper columnists who went to independent schools were probably mostly outraged that this keeps on happening despite their telling the world that it shouldn’t. Some will have been tempted to write another broadside (after all, those fees have to be paid somehow) on how Something Must Be Done! 

One of the 44 per centers superficially tried to add some balance. Privately educated Sonia Sodha (helpfully described in one online biography as “a thin woman with light brown hair”) tried to make sense of it all. She immediately wrote a very long column in which she concluded that some “uncomfortable thinking” needed to be done. Well, that sorted that out. Hey, don’t blame her for being so anodyne: you try typing when you have to wring your hands so much. 

Nuance around this debate died a long time ago. Twitter, once named because it was to be hoped that its contributions would be similar in lightness and sweetness to the chirps of birds, is now filled with Foghorn Leghorns telling everyone to “shaddap”, and most of the tweets followed a predictable hashtag of easy clicktivist outrage. Perhaps independent schools are suffering from the prevailing culture of instant gratification: we don’t want to face complex issues with a serious engagement with causes, and possible attendant issues. No, we want things done in the time it takes to get an iced skinny frappé. We want the causes for social immobility identified and solved, and we want this Deliverooed to our desks. 

Useful idiots

Closing down independent schools will solve inequality in the same way that one branch of Waitrose going packaging-free will reverse global warming. Of course, it won’t, but that nice feeling you’ll get when it happens might make it seem worthwhile, for a little while at least.

You don’t make Britain more meritocratic by abolishing independent schools. No, you have to do something very obvious, but very expensive: invest seriously in state schools. It is government, not fee-paying schools, that have allowed playing fields to be sold off, seen creative subjects shrivel, aided and abetted the lingering death of modern and foreign languages, and it is the government that has starved headteachers of the resources they so desperately need. 

Independent schools are a chimaera in this debate, and the reports the Sutton Trust recycle every year reinforce misconceptions because they are simply more convenient to believe in than to think harder. Those who direct their bile at teachers and students in independent schools are the useful idiots that governments rely on to ensure that either nothing gets done, or that the wrong sort of thing gets done. We need to do something for those children who aren’t even in the race, rather than always focusing on those who are fortunate enough to win. 

David James is deputy head (academic) of Bryanston School

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