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Thick kids in posh schools

Michael Gove outside the Palace of Westminster

Education Secretary Michael Gove outside the Palace of Westminster

So, the UK Education Secretary Michael Gove thinks that “Rich, thick kids do better than poor, clever children…” in British schools. And, in tonight’s BBC ‘Unequal Opportunities’ programme, presenter John Humphrys argues for the abolition of private education in Britain.

It was ever thus… In 1994, well before the New Labour reforms, a MORI poll for the independent schools organisation ISIS noted that although only 7% of pupils attend private schools, 48% of parents said they would send their children to private school if they could afford to. (Hutton; 1994; p.214)

By 2008,  numbers of parents wanting to send their children to private schools hit a new high amid fears of collapsing discipline and ‘moral standards’ in the state sector. In a poll, fifty-seven per cent said they would go private if they could afford the fees – up from 51 per cent in 1997.

Today, The Sutton Trust says their research backs up this claim – and that there is no other advanced country in the world where the gap in performance between state and private schools is so large.

It is proposed, of course, that the social divisions which fee-paying schools perpetuate are replicated, to varying degrees, throughout the remainder of society. Those arguing for a more inclusive society, such as Will Hutton, find this intolerable:

‘The dominance of the public school system is a long-standing offence to any notion of democracy or meritocracy in our society; educational achievement is still more closely related to parental income than innate ability, and the country denies itself access to some of the best scientific and artistic talents by organising education in such a manner.’ (idem)

Paying Twice

So what is behind our love affair with private education? Why is there an increase in our desire to pay twice (once through taxes and once more in fees) for our children’s schooling, at a time when money is tight and we are increasingly being told that there has been year on year improvement in educational standards?

From the parent’s side, there is the desire to do the very best for one’s child, with better resources, teachers and better staffing ratios. That is the headline motive, although the possibility that your money is buying into better friendships and social networks for the future although never forgotten is not quite so often mentioned.

From the child’s angle, it can be a protected world, enhanced by media images (Hogwarts anyone?) away from the nasty rough children; although, children – who tend to be very fair – only use this reason as a result of bullying or parental fear.

The halo of private education has been polished by films and novels for the last hundred years, so it is not surprising that people see it as something to aspire to – even though real privilege only comes to the highest echelons of private schooling. There are probably much the same proportion of poor private schools as there are poor state schools.

Names Down at Birth

The proposition is that rich families send their children to the best state schools, decreasing the opportunities for children from poor families.

Frankly, this is a pretty odd view.

In my experience, the wealthier middle classes would not want to move willy-nilly to get nearer to a state school, in fact they would probably run a mile. These families would have had their children’s names down for a private school since the year dot anyway.

The British private school system exists precisely to serve the needs of  traditional professional families – who frequently deliver public services in areas of profound deprivation, whether as vicars, doctors or teachers.

I know this is the much-despised middle-class option of buying your way out of a problem but you have to ask whether such parents are wrong to sacrifice other luxuries – foreign holidays for example – so that their children do not suffer because of their own sense of vocation.

In addition, of course, they often provide education for the children of forces personnel and development aid workers posted overseas, when it is simply too dangerous for the kids to come along.

All Children Equal?

The condition on which Gove’s condemnation appears to be based is that all children are somehow equal and that there is a normal distribution of kids age 11 who will all achieve the same in equal conditions.

This is wrong…

By the age of 1, let alone 11 years, children are growing and progressing at different rates in different homes. It is an important truth that if you neglect young children, they fail to thrive and are unlikely to succeed in life. It is not a process of discrimination which makes this happen but human developmental psychology.

It is a fallacy that national exams and school tests measure some magical attribute called intelligence or cleverness which children have, irrespective of their home background.

Such tests measure a lot of things, including curiousity, attitude of mind, cultural consumption, articulacy and behaviour. It is right and proper that they should. These are the goods and skills which are valued by society and which we will need not only for the future prosperity of these individuals but for the survival of this country.

It is another harsh fact that these are qualities that children from traditional middle class families will have breathed in at home and the traditional culture of poorer, less well-educated households is usually not valued as highly, if at all.

The fact is that children raised on a diet of cheeseburgers, Big Brother and Red Bull will not compete on equal terms with the offspring of more privileged families who have devoted themselves to their children’s health, welfare and educational achievement. Nor should we want them to…


You do will not make some children achieve in society simply by preventing other families from investing in their children’s future. Any more than you would want to prevent parents of future Olympic champions from taking them to swimming practice at 5am each morning. It is a matter of parental priorities.

Improving society comes from educating adults about families – preferably before they have any children of their own.


2008 ISIS Study

Hutton W (1994); The State We’re In; London

BBC ‘Unequal Opportunities’

  1. Yes, Neil, it is the old adage that we don’t want to forbid caviar for the rich – but want caviar for everybody …

    The main point I want to underscore is that educated parents make better decisions in rearing their offspring (on the whole). As they are making better financial, medical, legal decisions.

    Wish though that all could happen for all!

    Alexa Fleckenstein M.D., physician, author.

    • In 1991, when I had just taken-over as head of a special adolescent unit, 1 in 5 young adults in the UK were innumerate and 1 in 7 couldn’t read. At around the time I left, In 1996, Will Hutton noted: ‘…One in three of the nation’s children grow-up in poverty. The prison population is the highest in Europe. The British are failing.’ The British state was failing partly because it had leveled down and not up.
      The Danes did the opposite. Leveling up meant they invested in the best natural resources of all – people. Consequently, they have extremely high standards of living. It means some of us paying a lot more in tax but delivers a better quality of life for everyone.

  2. zak smith permalink

    from the programme i saw today it seemed like this subject was the elephant in the room everybody skirting around what is fundmentally the root of unequality in the society in which we live no one owned up to the fact that money buys you a good eduacation and an assured future in 95% out of 100 of all children who go to grammer schools.the solution is to dismantle these institutions who peddle inequality and prejudice as a right.

  3. No, Zak, money does not buy you a good education if you have no interest in learning – and I think that is the point Neil makes.

    I had no money, but Germany provided my education nearly without fees – but what I brought was a fierce wish to learn and a family background that had fostered that wish to learn.

    Alexa Fleckenstein M.D., physician, author.

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