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“Alan Bennett is still right – private schools are not fair”

Tony Banks, journalist

You cannot put it better than Alan Bennett did – but then few people ever put things better than Bennett.

“It is not fair,” said Bennett about private education. And those four words say it all.

Before you even get to arguments about finances, about pathways that open up for privately educated pupils, about class, about class sizes, about facilities, about anything on this subject.

“It is not fair.”

Life’s isn’t fair they say. That’s the way life is – you earn the money, you spend it as you like.

But education should be fair, shouldn’t it?

The very basics of growing up in life for a young person, the building blocks of a life?

Surely that should be fair, surely that should be a level playing field?

Bennett wrote in the essay in the London Review of Books (which he also gave as a speech/sermon at Kings College Chapel, Cambridge in 2014):

“It is hard not to think that we all know that to educate not according to ability but according to the social situation of the parents is both wrong and a waste.

“Private education is not fair. Those who provide it know it. Those who pay for it know it. Those who have to sacrifice in order to purchase it know it.

“And those who receive it know it, or should. And if their education ends without it dawning on them then that education has been wasted.”

You don’t tend to come across that many privately educated people when you are making your way in journalism via local and regional newspapers.

When you, if you are fortunate, get to national level, there are markedly more – particularly on broadsheet newspapers.

‘There are markedly more privately educated journalists at national level’

And it seems to me that there are more in recent years.

I know quite a few former public school pupils. I have nothing against them personally – it was not their choice how they were educated, it was the choice of their parents.

What I have a problem with is the system.

In 2018 it was estimated that 22 per cent of lawyers went to public schools, 36 per cent of partners in the largest law firms went to fee paying schools, and 74 per cent of judges are privately educated.

The latest figures show about 30 per cent of MPs took the same educational route. According to the latest analysis by the Sutton Trust, 65 per cent of Boris Johnson’s cabinet went to private school.

To put these numbers into context, the independent sector, it is reckoned, educates around 6.5 per cent of the total number of school children in the UK, and over 7 per cent of the total number of school children in England.

Bit of an imbalance there, isn’t there?

In its 2019 report, ‘Elitist Britain’, the Social Mobility Commission found that even among newer categories of business, such as ‘tech’ CEO’s, there is a disproportionate number of privately educated people, at 26 per cent.

Power in the UK, the report concluded, rests with an incredibly narrow section of the population – basically the 7 per cent who attended public schools, and the 1 per cent who graduate from Oxford and Cambridge.

We all know about the ‘pipeline,’ as the report calls it, from fee-paying schools into Oxbridge and into the top jobs.

Yes – power. Not just wealth.

Of senior judges, 65 per cent went to public school, 59 per cent of civil service permanent secretaries, 57 per cent of the House of Lords, 52 per cent of Foreign Office diplomats.

And even in my industry, the media, of the 100 ‘most influential’ news editors and broadcasters, 43 per cent went to private school, and 44 per cent of newspaper columnists.

There lies the nucleus of power.

And wealth? Well, the Institute of Education found that private school pupils earn 35 more than their state educated peers by the age of 25. And that is just the start.

I don’t want to keep quoting figures, because most of us know them. Most of us know the unfairness of it all.

Most of us know that private education is the elephant in the room, the subject that those in power don’t want to talk about, don’t want to tinker with. Even Labour governments, in the past.

For the vast majority of us, private education never even entered the equation. My mother and father both worked in the NHS, so money, the choice, was simply never there.

My Irish mother’s real concern was that myself and my sister found Catholic schools, which we did.

As parents ourselves, we would never have considered the private education route for our children, even if we could have afforded it – there were perfectly good state schools in our area.

But this is where it really grates. Private school pupils are estimated to receive around three times more funding individually than state pupils (who at secondary level are funded to around £6,000 a year).

Not only do these schools charge eye-watering fees out of the reach of many of us – but they are subsidised by the state as well.

Firstly, through very generous tax savings (with Labour leader Kier Starmer pledging to raise £1.7 billion a year for the state sector by removing their charitable status).

Secondly, because government departments also pay these schools more than £200 million a year for the education of the children of diplomats and military personnel.

The Foreign Office funds the private education of its staff’s children to the tune of more than £30,000 per pupil every year – according to Emily Thornberry, Labour’s former shadow foreign secretary, telling the House of Commons.

Heavens, what should be done?

Well firstly, obviously the charitable status of private schools has to be ended.

And, as John Harris suggested in the Guardian, Russell Group universities (to start with) should be made to divide up their places according to the ratio of pupils in the private and public sectors.

So that at least 93 per cent of them would go to state school applicants. And internships should be subject to the same rules.

That would be a start. But don’t hold your breath. ideas such as these have been around for some time.

There is a huge waste of talent going on in that 93 per cent – and continuing to go on, to our shame. How unfair is that?

It is not so much that public school people block your way in my kind of journalism, which centres around sport. I have not found that.

This part of journalism, at least, is much more meritocratic.

If you are good, and keen, and determined, you will get on – even in an industry that is in many ways shrinking.

No, it has been more in personal experience outside of the workplace.

For instance, a relative of mine, a well qualified sports coach, for a while worked in a private school near me.

A couple of times I dropped him off at work, and had to drive through the grounds to get to the sports centre at the college.

One could only marvel at the facilities on a site of several acres. An indoor swimming pool, several rugby pitches, hard and grass tennis courts, a running track, football pitches, including a 3G one – and a 3G hockey pitch – with a grandstand.

There was also an indoor sports hall and a gym.

I looked at the facilities in the local secondary modern my kids went to. A rusty tin changing room that none of them used because they were so cold and filthy.

One sodden, boggy football pitch with rusty goals, and a similar rugby pitch, also with posts close to collapsing, and ropy old concrete tennis court in the corner with rotten nets and barely-there lines.

It was a different world.

And don’t tell me it does not make a difference. It is, to quote Bennett, simply not fair.

Tony Banks is a sports reporter for the Daily Express. He tweets @TonyBanksXP


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