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“Be warned – closing private schools can lead to a ‘shadow’ education system”

Sonia Exley

Policy discussions on private schools often focus on ways these schools provide unfair advantage for pupils attending, for example through increasing pupils’ odds of accessing the most prestigious universities and professions.

In such discussions, we must, however, always remember too that private schools are only one part of a wider unequal education landscape.

Families almost everywhere today can be noted as being unequally able to pay for all educational goods and services. Moreover, in unequal societies, parents will always have strong incentives to try and secure as much competitive educational advantage as they can for their children.

In the world today it is certainly possible that controlling or even abolishing private schools may help to create more equal education systems and in turn more equal life chances for all.

However, policy makers must also remain mindful that, in a hypothetical context where families might find themselves unable to ‘buy’ advantage through private schooling, here they may well turn simply to alternative channels for securing advantage.

Buying expensive houses extremely close to prestigious state schools with the most affluent pupil intakes constitutes one obvious example here.

Another is paying heightened amounts for children’s private supplementary tutoring.

What does it look like in reality to regulate heavily the practices of private schools?

South Korea

South Korea is a country in which, during the late-1960s and 1970s, substantial policy efforts were made by governments to ‘equalise’ students’ experiences of schooling.

As part of moves towards high school equalization, private high schools, constituting around half of all South Korean high schools during the 1970s, faced strong restrictions on the fees they could charge (these could not be higher than baseline amounts charged to students attending government schools).

Levels of resourcing, facilities and practices were also more widely equalised across all schools. Public and private alike were required to teach a standardised curriculum and teacher salaries were equalised across the sectors.

Schools in ‘equalisation’ regions were furthermore banned from administering entrance exams. Instead, students were randomly assigned to schools, be they public or private, via district-wide lotteries.

Such reforms in sum led to a ‘virtual nationalization’ of South Korean private high schools.

The desirability or otherwise of flattening school hierarchies like this has been much debated for 50 years in South Korea.

A majority has long supported the principle of school equalisation. Many argue that this, during the 1970s, particularly in a country which only achieved universal high school access that same decade, prevented private schools from becoming quite the same ‘engines of privilege’ they are in many other places today.

High school equalisation arguably helped to level the playing field, at least to some degree, in a country where high school students famously compete fiercely every year to access the nation’s top three universities.

Others, however, also argue that ‘equalising’ South Korean schooling in practice did little to equalise students’ chances of university and labour market success later in life.

In a context where families could not signal ‘higher value’ through the school their child attended, many simply turned instead to paying more during their children’s high school careers, particularly in the run-up to their applying to university (something Koreans describe as an education ‘balloon effect’).

They did this through paying for ‘shadow education’ or private tutoring outside the formal school day.

Shadow education has been a major societal problem in South Korea over many decades. In the mid-2000s, spending on this was 2.79% of the national GDP.

Many complex factors – importantly including growing inequality in South Korea – are said to have driven increased spending on shadow education over time.

However, parents’ anxieties regarding ‘too much equality’ in the school system have notably been argued to be one contributing factor.

In recent years

Since the 2000s, private schools in South Korea have become permitted to apply to become ‘autonomous private’ high schools, regaining substantial autonomy over admissions, curricular content and also (where schools are willing to relinquish government funding) permission to charge higher fees.

Advocates of equalisation have critiqued such developments, arguing that in itself school autonomy over admissions leads to children – and at younger ages – necessarily engaging in private tutoring to score highly on school entrance exams.

Most recently President Moon Jae-In has promised since 2017 that his government will, for a second time in Korean history, abolish ‘autonomous’ private schooling.

The picture painted above shows us that there are no easy policy answers when it comes to tackling parents’ ability or incentives to buy privilege in education.

Private schools arguably have indeed become a problem for equality of opportunity in their own right in Britain and beyond. However they are also a manifestation of wider societal inequalities that will be much tougher for policy to tackle.

Sonia Exley is an assistant professor in the department of social policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her research focuses on the marketisation of education systems across the world and the implications such developments may have for disadvantaged groups. She is lead editor on the Journal of Education Policy and has published in a range of social policy and education journals.


  1. Throughout our entire history, inequality has been manifest in all aspects of human life. This is an extremely uncomfortable reality, especially for those aware of, or on the receiving end of, how this plays out in people’s day-to-day lives. It would be no exaggeration to say that inequality has proved impossible to resolve to date. Does this mean we should abandon the project?

    Clearly, by the mid 2000s it seems that, despite decades of implementing policies aimed at limiting inequality in education, "growing inequality" has persisted as a problem for South Korea. Paradoxically there, "parents’ anxieties regarding ‘too much equality’ in the school system have notably been argued to be one contributing factor." If this suggests anything to me, it is that proposing to revert to earlier attempts to abolish autonomous private schooling in the country will not produce greater equality. Time will tell.

    Maybe re-examining our understanding of equality could offer a better way forward? But, what might this look like?

    I suggest it would have to begin with an acceptance that humans are not equal and never can be. Despite this sounding like a trivialisation of the problem, in my view it rather directs our attention to the heart of the matter. What can we do differently to live more equitably with intractable inequality?

    To start, we could explore a differently defined role for universal education that is divorced from training for future employment and focuses on individual worth and the exploration of diverse talent or latent capacity.

    We do not expect all children to perform equally, for example in sport, music or the arts. Likewise, adults, at the peak of their accomplishments, perform over a wide spectrum in any given mode. This is as it must be because of the innate differences in performance, aptitude and other measurable parameters connected with our genes and how these are expressed in individuals over time in a given environment. Yet, when it comes to schooling and children’s education it is as if a whole new set of expectations apply. That can change.

    We can set acceptable standards of wealth redistribution. We can decide to measure humans other than by their access to wealth and power. We can ensure people live in suitable homes, have access to good healthcare, attend a local all-ability school where they learn about themselves and others and emerge as global citizens. We can choose to tear up the rule book we currently live by and repair our world for our children and we can do all of this if we make it our goal.

    Thank you for this though-provoking article.


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