From the Editor - Sharing their privilege? It's the least they can do

16th August 2013 at 01:00

Britain's independent schools are feeling hard done by. They are upset at attempts by the UK's top universities to enrol more disadvantaged students from state schools by curtailing the proportion they take from private ones. They feel especially aggrieved, according to Barnaby Lenon, chair of the Independent Schools Council, because they have done a lot recently to support state schools (see pages 24-25).

Quotas that penalise independent schools, Mr Lenon argues, could end up privileging well-off kids from middle-class state schools and ignoring poor students in private ones. He has a point. Quotas crudely applied have a habit of spawning unintended consequences.

Some disadvantaged children do benefit from bursaries to private schools. How many are pukka poor, rather than the children of asset-rich, cash-poor families with clever accountants, however, is not known. It's hard to believe that the genuinely poor, as opposed to the distressed middle-class, are present in any greater proportions in independent schools than they are in grammars, and on average that is less than 2 per cent.

Mr Lenon's polemic disturbs in other ways. The first is that it is rarely a good idea for the relatively privileged to whine to those less fortunate than themselves. Some parents obviously struggle to pay school fees. But to air the issue in a piece about disadvantage isn't helpful. "Poverty", for those state school students shackled to it, means belonging to a family that has trouble finding the rent, paying the gas bill and feeding itself. It does not mean forgoing the usual holiday in the South of France and having to make do with Devon.

Then there is the question of how much help private schools actually extend to their state cousins. This has, as Mr Lenon says, increased over the years, good intentions being buttressed by pressure from the Charity Commission and successive governments. A few have committed substantial resources. Most have not, even though, as former schools minister Lord Adonis has pointed out, many of the more venerable institutions were endowed centuries ago specifically to benefit the poor.

Their core mission today is rather different: it is to provide a good education for those wealthy enough to buy one. If outreach programmes are dismissed as "window dressing", it's because they are perceived as peripheral. Should Eton or Harrow decide one day to reserve half their places for students on free school meals, perhaps perceptions will change. Until then, it's probably best not to ask for too much public appreciation for the limited help on offer.

Which brings us to the final issue. Nowhere in Mr Lenon's elegant complaint is there an acknowledgement of the resources that have allowed his schools to dominate the best universities, the Olympic rostra and the cricket pitch. If state schools had double the funding, half the class sizes and far fewer poor people perhaps that domination would be in question. But as that's as likely as the independent share of top university places collapsing any time soon, perhaps they should chill out a bit more and whine a little less.

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