Home Opinion “The black middle classes aren't under threat if private schools open up”

“The black middle classes aren’t under threat if private schools open up”

Narjas Zatat copy.jpg

Narjas Zatat

Recently I read an impassioned piece by Diana Young for The Independent, in which she argues that Labour is putting black middle class students at a disadvantage through their pursuit of “abolishing fee-paying schools.”

Hold on a minute. I’m going to challenge this, and say that it’s precisely the existence of fee-paying schools, with their exceptionalism and their reinforcement of class privilege, that helps create a glass wall which the vast majority of black and minority students – in particular – come up against later in their professional lives.

First of all though, it’s important to get something crystal clear about what Labour is proposing. Labour has endorsed plans to close tax loopholes for private schools and will task their Social Justice Commission with working out ways to “integrate” them. Elsewhere in the manifesto, there’s a commitment to contextualised university admissions. Let’s be clear here. This isn’t a destruction; it’s called opening the doors.

Anyway. So Young writes, “the independent school sector trades on its ability to bring access to smaller class sizes, increased parental involvement, specialist teachers, a community environment, ample resources and a greater breadth of extra-curricular activities.”

She is absolutely right. But to state the obvious, why should the vast majority of children be unable to benefit from this careful focus on their education, just because their parents can’t afford the cost of tuition?

Diana then goes on to argue that there is a “new, emerging black middle class.” But I would like to invite her to show me hard evidence of this. In my own research for this article, I’ve came across a number of statistics that imply the contrary.

According to the Office for National Statistics, as of 2019 the average disposable household income in the UK was £29,400. The cost of a yearly tuition in one of the original independent schools – Eton for example – is £40,000 per year as of the 2018/2019 academic year. Now that’s one of the top private schools, so let’s look at the average price of private school fees in the UK: it’s £17,000 per year and rising.

Which average, middle class family could afford this for one child? Let alone more?

There is little in the way of numbers when it comes to claims of a burgeoning black middle class – though I came across statistics related to income distribution across BME households in the UK. Again according to government figures, over half of households from the Bangladeshi, Other Asian, Black and Other ethnic groups fell into the two lowest income quintiles.

This means, that even if we have an extremely thin layer of a growing black middle class, that’s just what that is – a minority within a minority.  Could we see clear evidence of this emerging black middle-class, Young?

Additionally, private schools remain a largely white, middle-class environment. According to the Independent School Council, 5.4% of all pupils in private schools in the UK were from overseas (28,910) and there was a 0.4 percentage point increase in minority ethnic pupils from 33.4% to 33.8%.

However, and this is important – it isn’t clear if this percentage includes international students or not. Could the ISC clarify on this point?

So we appear to have a system through which the vast majority of black and BME students in the UK do not pass and therefore do not benefit from – and whose existence works against social cohesion and, evidence suggests, actually serves to cement class and racial divides.

Now I myself come from a working class, immigrant background. I am so far from a private education socially and financially that it is laughable. I repeatedly stare my own disadvantage in the face in the industry I chose to work in, which is filled to the brim with the privately educated: journalism.

And I’m sure I would have benefited greatly from a private education, had I been given the chance. But to pay for it isn’t fair. That’s not fair on my peers, that’s not fair on the students working harder than me who cannot step foot in a beautiful building inside which are smaller class sizes and a wealth of extracurricular activities they can indulge in for their developing brains.

So it seems to me that what policymakers want to do is even the playing field, and provide the opportunity for a good education to all children, not just the select few whose parents can pay the hefty yearly tuition fee. Good education, as we all know, is essential for a functioning society, and children have a right to the best education on offer.

Michael Pyke, of Campaign for State Education, wrote in the Guardian earlier this year: “parents are not to be blamed for seeking the best for their children, but the private school system encourages the wealthiest to do this at the expensive of the great majority… 14% of the teaching force [is] trained mainly at public expense.”

But that doesn’t mean another reality is not possible. Labour doesn’t want to put black middle class students at a disadvantage: they want to put all students at an advantage. It would be great to hear Young’s thoughts on that.

Narjas Zatat is a journalist who has written for Indy100, The Independent, Metro and The New Arab. She has a masters in Japanese studies and international relations, and is writing a fantasy novel for the young teen market. She’s also been a translator and contributor for Al Jazeera English.

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