Odd one out: why our private school love baffles Europe

We're obsessed and we don't even know it, says academic

Irena Barker

Britain is the "odd man of the world" in its embrace of private education, a leading academic will tell an event hosted by a top independent school.

Geographical statistician Danny Dorling said that the UK is second only to Chile in Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development nations for its per capita spend on private secondary schooling. This makes it look "a bit odd" to its European neighbours, where private schools are far less popular, he added.

Ahead of his presentation to the Wellington College Festival of Education this weekend, he told TES: "A quarter of the money spent on education is spent on private education. It's a bit odd. Even in the US they don't spend a higher amount.

"We are spending more money on the children who are already doing OK and less on those who need help.

"We may not realise how odd we are in Europe: the German and French elites don't send their children to private schools. The British audience does not realise how strange it is."

Professor Dorling said that in London, where private education is regarded by many as normal, there is little appreciation of how few people go private in places such as the North of England and Wales. "In Sheffield, for example, only 2 per cent of children are privately educated," he said.

He added that many British parents who can only afford the "bottom end" of the private education market are "furious" that they feel compelled to go private. "Not all the parents of children in the private sector are happy bunnies," he said. "The bottom end of the sector is a bit dodgy, but they feel forced into it."

Professor Dorling, author of several books on social inequality, stressed that he is not against the existence of independent schools, but said the current state of affairs could lead to "a worse education system for everybody". He added that Britain needs to strive for levels of social equality at least at the level of the Netherlands. "But we can't become a more equal society while continuing to spend so much on private schooling.

"We are only able to support the high-cost private sector because of income inequality that means the top 10 per cent earns 40 per cent of the income."

He voiced support for the option of private schools becoming "nationalised" by seeking free school status. "You need that mechanism rather than a 1960s plan to nationalise the lot," he said.

His comments follow a recent speech by education secretary Michael Gove, who claimed that the domination of private school-educated people in the top professions, media, politics and the arts is "morally indefensible".

The Department for Education is calling for far more private schools to become involved with state schools - most notably by helping to set up and run academies. However, despite some enthusiasm from a number of prestigious schools, the initiative is yet to take flight on a broader scale.

Professor Dorling's comments come as the image of British independent schools abroad is booming. Many schools have already set up branches overseas, and 26,376 non-British pupils whose parents live abroad attend schools that are members of the Independent Schools Council.

Bernard Trafford, headmaster of the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle, which has relatively low fees of #163;10,000 a year, said that the amount spent on children in state schools is not necessarily much less than in independent schools, because a large slice of funding for state schools is wasted on bureaucracy. He added that other countries are not completely egalitarian either, even though more children go to state schools.

"Other European countries do select their elites: take the grandes ecoles in France, for example," he said.

Professor Dorling is one of 250 speakers at the Wellington College festival, which will also be addressed by Mr Gove, Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw and government behaviour tsar Charlie Taylor. Author Kathy Lette will discuss autism education, journalist David Aaronovitch will argue that media studies is more important than Latin, and The Wire actor Dominic West will take part in a poetry reading with poet Roger McGough.

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Irena Barker

Irena Barker is a freelance journalist.

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