Published: 06:23 PM, 01 August 2023
“We have had more Prime Ministers (20, includingrecently departedBoris Johnson) than you,”cheered Etonian school boys when they lost a cricket match with their arch-rival Harrowat Lord’s cricket ground. These are two prestigiousBritish private schoolsamong a total of 2,600, for the most powerful and privileged. Only wealthy parents can afford to payan annual boarding fee of £42,500 and £41,775, respectively, per student.
There is a widespread perception in the UK that student who attended private schools have a distinct advantage in securing admission tothe elite English’ universities including Oxford and Cambridge(collectively calledOxbridge). Between 2010 and 2015, an average of 43% of offers from Oxford and 37%from Cambridge were made to privateschool students.Attending these universities can have a significant impact on individuals’ future income and social status.
A study by the Sutton Trust (a charity), and the Social Mobility Commission (a public sector body), paints a picture of a country whose power structures are dominated by a narrow section of the population: the 7% who attend private schools, and the roughly 1% who graduate from just two universities-Oxford and Cambridge.
While only1%of students study at Oxbridge, their graduates comprise 71% of judges, 57%of cabinet ministers, and 56%of permanent secretaries, to name a few. Overall,privately educated pupilsaccounted for 39% of individuals holding the top 5,000 jobs in government, business, and the media in 2019.
This illustratesanenduring cycle of ‘privilege pipeline’: top schools, elite universities and the best jobs.By making this investment, affluentparents not only guarantee material differencesbut also purchase lifetime power and influence for their children. In doing so, they limit thelife chances of individuals fromworking-class backgroundswho attendstate schools.
What particularly sets British private schools apart, compared to even other wealthy countries, is their extreme exclusivity. While the average annual resource allocation for every 16-18 years pupil at the state school is £3,500,the figure for private schools, including boarding costs, is £32,208.The poorest students even start school 19months behind the richer ones in language and vocabulary, according to the Nationally Literacy Trust.
Such inequality in the education system not onlyhinders the potential of many talented children from underprivileged backgrounds, but it also carriessignificant costs for the economy and society as a whole.
In an exclusive study ‘Engines of Privilege,’ David Kinston and FrancisGreen correlate the thriving private-school sector as one of theprimary factors behind the UK’s high levels of inequality and low levels of intergenerational mobility. They also argue that the disparity between state and private education harms the social fabricthat carries on from one generation to the next.
Working-class students, who have relatively lower access to much-needed resources –material, cultural, and psychological (compared to their private-school peers) – may experience underachievement when entering the labour market.Drawing a connection between poor job performance of the working-class and inequality in schools, Reay, D., in her book – Miseducation: Inequality, Education and the Working Classes –shows how theBritish education system, in a brutal manner, prioritises and rewards students from upper and middle-class backgrounds.
Aman who received a private education and leave university with the samedegree as educated in the state system will later experience a pay gap of approximately 7 to 15 per cent.A black British working-class woman, on average,earns£20,000 less per year in top positions compared to a privilegedwhite man of similar background.
Meanwhile, inSocial Mobility and its Enemies, Lee Elliot Major and Stephen Machin, two leading authorities in this field, emphasise that poverty, home instability, and geographical location particularly affect White working-class pupils.
The glass ceiling of state-privateeducation system has expanded even at the heart of the British political system. Critics refer to the Conservative government as an “Eton educated posh boys private club.” InRushiSunak’s cabinet, 61%of the ministers are privately educated. However, if the Labour Party wins the next election, the shadow cabinet’s biographies suggest, Sir Kier Starmer’scabinet would consist of13% privately educatedindividuals, which would be the highest proportion ofstate-educated members since at least 1945, according to The Economist.
Nevertheless, it can be argued that social injustices related to the education system are not unique to the UK but rather a global issue, often across gender or ethnic divides.Inequality, in many cases, emerges as a by-product of development. The existence of both wealth and poverty often go hand-in-hand. As China is growing richer, inequality is getting worse.
Moreover, the presence oflike Eton-Oxbridge's establishment not only brings valuable talents but also contributes to making Britain one of the most successful nations on earth. Some even claim, privately educated are like Plato's virtuous 'guardians' of society, offering not only superior knowledge but also dedication and incorruptibility.
Well, when money can secure access to prestigious university, alumni networks, inspiring career guidance, and employment connections, it becomes evident that the path to a lucrative position is far from a level playing field.
However, pockets of positive change coming. Many students from working-class backgrounds are now gaining entry to prestigious Russell Groups of universities and Oxbridge.
In 2020, a remarkable 68%of new British undergraduates admitted to Oxbridge hailed from state schools, the highest proportion on record. In 2021, an impressive 55 students from Brampton Manor (a state school located in one of the poorest boroughs in London) secured conditional offers from Oxbridge – surpassing the 48 offers received by students from Eton.Many of these successful applicants have ethnic minority backgrounds who receive free school meals and were the first in their family to apply for university.
Education is the most powerful meansof transforming people's lives. Closing the educational divide, not only in the UK but everywhere, yields benefitsfor everyone. It is essential that our children grow up in a society where talent and hard work hold more weight than the identities of their parents.Scandinavian countries are amongthe happiest nations on Earth, largely due to their inclusive education systems that are open to all.
Ismail Ali is a London-based columnist specialising in current affairs development issues.