It is argued that private schools are unfair because everyone has the right to receive the same education as everyone else. But this claim leads to unjustified interference in family relations.
The Labour Party’s manifesto for the 2017 general election committed the party, if elected to govern, to introducing free school meals for all primary school children. The cost of these meals would be accounted for by removing the VAT exemption on private school fees. The inclusion of this policy in Labour’s manifesto has sparked some national debate on the familiar questions of fairness with regard to the existence of independent institutions which charge upwards of £30,000 a year to educate a child.
Coming from a state-educated background myself, I’ve always felt, without reflecting much upon it, that there’s something unfair about a relatively small number of children receiving an arguably better education largely as a result of their parents’ wealth. By ‘better education’ I have in mind not only a better learning environment, with smaller classes and more ample access to teaching resources, but also the better opportunities that are opened up through such an education; for example, through admission to top universities and access to ‘old boy’ networks when finding a job upon graduation. But as I’ve thought more about this, it’s become unclear what some of the objections to this sort of education amount to.
Most of us agree that everyone in our society has the right to an education. What’s more controversial, however, is the claim that everyone in our society has the right to the same education. I call this latter claim “the same-claim”; it’s one I hear a lot in debates on the topic. If the same-claim is true, then independent schools, which are arguably better than state schools (at least in some instances) are, through their very existence, a violation of the rights of the majority of the children in the country. Rather than assess the policy implications of Labour’s manifesto pledge, in this short piece I address this wider issue of the same-claim and show that there are reasons to be sceptical of it.
I assume that, if everyone is entitled to the same education, the way to ensure this entitlement is to allocate equal funds through the state to each school. If all schools are funded equally, and if all teachers are equally well qualified, then everyone gets the same education… Or do they?
Consider the following: parents buy books for their children; some families watch educational television programmes together; children search online for interesting articles and Youtube clips; etc. For those who hold to the same-claim, all of these are problematic. Not all families can afford to buy books, a TV, or a computer. Those families who buy such items are arguably giving their children a better education than those without.
Let’s go further. If we grant that education encompasses a lot more than the purely academic, consider the following: music lessons, sports courses, elocution lessons, lifeguard training, pottery or woodwork courses, holidays (if they include visiting interesting/educational sites), etc. Unless these are provided for free and/or by the state, those who hold to the same-claim must not endorse them. Spending money on gifts for children must be confined to the non-educational: clothes, sweets and chocolates, a new video game, etc. TV watching must be restricted to the non-educational at home, and the same goes with the internet (no ‘liking’ of news outlet pages on Facebook!).
It may be objected (to me) that the opposition to fee-paying independent schools, along the lines of the same-claim, isn’t that some parental money is contributing to the education of a child, but that so much is. If a child from a middle-income family is educated at a state school then rough annual costs including books (say, £100), music lessons (£500), sports courses (£100), trips abroad (£200), other courses (£100) might come out to roughly £1,000. It might be held that paying an extra £1,000 for a child’s education is fine, but not, say, over £30,000, as is standard at top boarding schools (although part of that covers food and accommodation). If this is the objection it is important to note that it is not the same-claim, but a different claim. Let’s call it “the cap-claim”: this is the claim that there should be a cap on the amount parents may spend on their child’s education. Such a claim would need to be argued for, as would the figure of the cap. I’m sceptical though: can the state put a cap on the amount that parents can spend on their child’s education? Go on, persuade me.
What’s the upshot of all this? Well, if what I’ve claimed above is true, then there are three options for those who currently hold to the same claim: 1) abide by what I’ve written 2) live hypocritically 3) abandon the same-claim. If the same-claim is abandoned, one of the major objections to independent education is taken off the table. (I’m aware that there are other objections to the independent sector; my purpose here is to deal with only the same-claim).
Luke Martin is a PhD student at the University of Oxford.
Enjoyed this article? Subscribe to the Quad. Our featured photo is by MTS Webmaster and used under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 licence.