Engines of Privilege is an empowering call for educational reform

July 20, 2020

What does it mean to have privilege? The definition takes many forms. I believe privilege is having an advantage within society, not always because of merit or hard work. That privilege could be economical, based on where someone is born. Financially, the Royal Family are luckier than those on council estates. Culturally, some individuals have more access to highbrow mediums like opera and theatre, giving them a greater awareness of history. Privilege is obvious in employment terms: who earns more? The privilege of a higher pay does bring higher taxation however. 

 

To be privileged - to have a, perhaps unfair, step-up compared to most citizens must be examined educationally. I imagine most individuals would like to believe educational privilege comes from human characteristics - hard work, perseverance, determination. These qualities should determine whether someone passes an exam, pays attention and does well in their education. When modern life is still determined by a hierarchy of who succeeds or fails, the ideal of a meritocracy, where one’s success is dependent on hard work, holds strong. 

 

Francis Green and David Kynaston would question these assumptions. In ‘Engines of Privilege: Britain’s Private School Problem’, the authors take apart the suggestion education is fair. Their book stems from the fundamental unfairness of parents with large amounts of wealth buying their children a higher quality of education. If a child - through no merit of their own - is lucky enough to be born into a wealthy family, their chances of exceptional education, providing them with the tools for an enriched life, are considerably higher. By contrast, children born to parents who ‘failed’ educationally - either through lack of hard work or restricted education funding - will have a far lesser education journey. From this argument follows a provocative, rousing call for educational reform from Green and Kynaston. 

 

Many arguments regarding private education are complex. Parents believe they worked hard and should be free to spend money as they wish. Far better to pay for decent education than a top hotel, right? The authors reveal the case is far more nuanced. While education funding may express individual liberty, it, counterintuitively, fails to demonstrate the importance of education. The process of being educated is essential for any worthwhile employment. Great education doesn’t end at the graduation ceremony. An individual with privileged access to exceptional education is more likely to receive a higher paid job and greater access to life chances. If they are to succeed, someone else, probably state educated, must fail. The freedom of parents to spend money reduces the liberty of poorer individuals less likely to attain higher paid employment. 

 

Private schools comprehensively go against meritocracy and social mobility, which governments have long strived towards. Meritocracy is the belief that anyone can do well if they try hard. It is obvious to someone with no knowledge of education policy that private schools cannot provide this. Grammar schools, which were defined by academic selection by ability, managed this to some extent. They faced, however, many criticisms over the divisive 11+ exam. However, Green and Kynaston brilliantly reveal how government priorities in the 1960s and 1970s turned towards removing grammar schools rather than private schools. 

 

Green and Kynaston’s book stems from what the purpose of education should be. There will always be long running debates over how to offer basic knowledge, while allowing the exceptionally bright to flourish. The authors reveal how private school privilege derives not from academic performance but who has the wealth. Private schools offer academic resources on steroids. The list is endless. Access to top universities, the ‘old boy’ network of alumni who can provide advice and access, sports fields, theatres, music concerts, reputation. Parents have to see their money is well spent. Private schools are fundamentally businesses that rely on the excessive funding of parents. 

 

There are, I believe, two ways in which private schools are adept at dominating the state. In numeral terms, small class sizes are so important. Teachers are able to see who is struggling and provide more personalised support. The figures reveal the truth themselves. In 2005, the teacher: pupil ratio was nearly 1:8 in private schools. State schools had a figure of over 1:18. The amount of support private schools can provide is unrivalled. The second aspect is the attitude that private 

schools create. An individual might perform poorly in academia, yet the writers reveal how private school networks create comfort, confidence and, dare I say it, arrogance. 

 

Throughout the book, the conservatism of government towards reforming private education is obvious. Why should they want to do anything about private schools? Indeed, in 1911, 113 Old Etonians sat in the House of Commons. Why an Earth would MPs reform a system that benefited them? Token gestures like private schools providing bursaries to some poor students and working with state schools has been adequate. Yet, as the authors state, this is a lottery system, with a few poor youngsters lucky enough to reach the upper echelons of private education. That is deemed enough. It isn’t. 

 

It is far easier to diagnose problems than provide solutions. Green and Kynaston spent far more chapters analysing private schools and the lack of political change rather than providing answers. Broadly, reducing private school influence is built around supply and demand. Either, the supply of private schools is reduced by integrating them into the state system. Or the demand is reduced, through increased payments and fewer incentives. On the specifics though, the authors were less clear. 

 

A common argument within debate is removing the charitable status of private schools. For schools to qualify as charities, they must reveal their public benefit. Though private school organisations argue they contribute economically, much spending comes from taxation teachers would pay at state schools. Similarly, while private schools may have pushed people into good social positions, there has been an opportunity cost towards state school pupils unable to flourish. Removing charitable status would end the private school exemption on business rates and VAT. However, the authors are restrained on this point, arguing that reforming charity law could impact the ability of legitimate charities to receive those benefits. 

 

There are no simple solutions for equality of opportunity. Equality of outcome is impractical and undesirable - exams are proof of that. Schools must distinguish between which candidates are appropriate, as do future job employers. But the book recognises education is about far more than passing exams. It should be a celebration of knowledge for its own sake. Government funding to provide children with different experiences should be celebrated. While selection of some form has always existed, the authors make the case that selection shouldn’t be by wealth, whether in private schools or those in rich catchment areas for good comprehensives. 

 

There is a recognition of the benefits from private schools. Nobody is against schools that encourage rich intellectual knowledge possible, have widespread facilities for sporting, the arts and creativity and attain high academic results. The opposition is that resources aren’t widely spread among pupils, regardless of their parental wealth. Nobody against private schools wants lower standards of state education. Instead, they believe reforming or eradicating private schools is necessary for universally better education. 

 

Green and Kynaston recognise the state sector requires reform. Educational attainment needs to be generally increased, alongside vocational education. These cannot be done aside from reforming private schools. An industry that educates 7% of the school population has unbelievable levels of influence. Children are able to benefit thanks to the enriched resources provided by private schools. Invariably, this creates a cycle where the poorest have fewer life opportunities. While ‘Engines of Privilege’ doesn’t provide all the answers, it provides the catalyst to allow for the future of private schools to enter public discussion. Most importantly, Green and Kynaston combat the lazy suggestion that private school influence can be reduced alone by making state schools brilliant. Far more radical proposals are needed - this book starts to provide the answers for achieving them. 

 

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