Book review – Engines of Privilege: Britain's Private School Problem

Kynaston and Green's book misses an opportunity and falls short on the full account social mobility, writes Patrick Derham

Patrick Derham

Engines of Privilege

Engines of Privilege: Britain's Private School Problem

Author: David Kynaston and Francis Green

Publishing: Bloomsbury publishing

Details: £14, 320 pp, hardcover

IBSN: 9781526601261

David Kynaston and Francis Green have produced a fascinating but contentious book on what they see is “Britain’s private school problem”. The intention of the book is to “kick-start a long overdue national debate” on the independent sector, which they argue is a significant block to social mobility. 

Let’s start with the idea that private education is at the root of inequality in the UK. No one would dispute that there is inequality in the education system, but a narrow focus on independent schools will in fact do little to solve the problem of inequality. 

The book is a missed opportunity and a more thoughtful analysis of the problem is essential. If we want a productive response to the problem of inequality, we must look at the broader context that has led to a dramatic increase in inequality, not only in the UK, but also in much of Europe and especially in the US and China. Unless we tackle the problem of extreme wealth inequality, for example, it will be difficult for reforms in the educational sector to make more than a modest impact on inequality in our society. 

Still, even the more narrow focus on education and inequality falls short of a full account of the story of inequality. There is no doubt that before 1976, the situation in England was better. Direct grant schools were a ladder to advancement, especially in the larger cities. They selected, on merit, bright boys and girls irrespective of background and transformed their prospects. Their abolition was a political decision taken by the left and one which many independent schools still regret.  

Today’s context couldn’t be more different. We need a more enlightened debate: one that is informed by rigorous research, rather than driven by political affiliation or class politics. It would be naive to think that removing private schools will solve the problem of inequality and professional access. We must stop focusing on the top 0.001 per cent. We need to look much more at the lowest-achieving 40 per cent, who are being held back by many factors including poor GCSE results and an inadequate system of vocational skills and training. We need to prioritise spending in the maintained sector when real per-pupil funding has fallen since 2011. In doing this, we should not let the search for the perfection be the enemy of the good. 

Despite what Kynaston and Green might assert, we should be – and we are – all on the same side here.

Kynaston and Green say they “do not deny the significance of other issues, but they are separate”. I do not accept that.  Social mobility is complex. Not only is it a Venn diagram of ethnicity, gender and income, but it also includes different effects for different ethnic groups and different income sub-groups. Academics struggle to agree on this issue. 

We have to move the discussion of social mobility, education and disadvantage beyond the school gate and into the challenging areas of family, parenting, community and economic injustice. We expect too much of schools. They cannot solve society’s ills. Too many people have bought into the misguided notion that somehow schools can fix everything. That simply isn’t true. Robert Putnam, the Harvard sociologist, brilliantly argues this in Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. It is a book that everyone involved in education should read.  

To suggest that today’s independent schools are engines of privilege is misguided and out of date. It shows little understanding of the reality of modern independent schools. It is wrong to attack the sector based on a caricature of the so-called leading schools like Westminster and Eton. There needs to be a better understanding of the type and nature of independent school, as well as looking more closely at the social intake of high-achieving grammar schools, sixth form colleges and middle-class dominated academies. There is a mythology about all schools I would argue. The top 500 comprehensive schools educate only about 7 per cent of pupils on free school meals. By contrast, it is worth noting that over 200 pupils (15 per cent of the 11-18 cohort) at fee-paying The Manchester Grammar School are on bursaries – the average bursary covers 95 per cent of the school fee. Contrast this to a local grammar school to them where only 40 pupils (3 per cent) qualify for free school meals. This profile is repeated in cities up and down the country. 

There needs to be a greater awareness of the significant amount of work that the independent sector is doing today in terms of partnership work in the broadest sense, and widening access, which is making a real difference. It cannot be dismissed, as Green and Kynaston do, as having “little more than surface impact”. The 2018 ISC report on “The Impact of Independent Schools on the UK Economy” estimated that private schools directly contribute £6.05 billion to UK GDP. As a sector we embrace our social responsibility. The new breed of heads are different from the many who are quoted throughout the book and who represent a bygone age. There are many, like me, whose lives were transformed by educational opportunity and who are committed to doing more. The recently agreed Joint Understanding (2018) between the sector and the department for education embodies this. 

This agreement also demonstrates that the sector is keen to continue to talk. The final chapter, “We Need to Talk”, covers old and new ground. We are already actively promoting schemes that enable children from low-income families to attend private schools (eg Royal National Children’s SpringBoard Foundation) and we are keen to discuss the whole concept of “open or fair access”; however that is defined. We are not blocking the conversation. We are keen to engage. We are in total agreement on this point. To handicap private schools is not therefore necessary or sensible. 

Given my own background, my experiences running three very different private schools and my passion for widening access, I strongly believe that we need to move away from politicised attacks on successful schools. We have to make the UK education system fit for purpose in the 21st century, and that involves us all working together to enable the very best for all young people.  

We need to be bold and creative in changing and widening the agenda. Attacks on the so-called "engines of privilege” may sell books, but they won’t improve education in post-Brexit Britain.  

Patrick Derham OBE is headmaster of Westminster School

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