Here in the UK, we often take many things for granted which, in reality, we ought to see as huge advantages, provided to us for no greater reason than the fact that we happen to have been born, or to live, on a certain piece of land surrounded by certain bodies of water. The NHS, for example, ensures that anyone who needs access to healthcare is able to receive it, no matter their financial status; our benefits system ensures that those who need it are taken care of, and everybody has some money which they can use to keep themselves afloat, in theory; our state education system allows for every student in this country to have an equal education, and to be given equal opportunities within their education, to reach their individual potential, regardless of the class or financial background into which they entered this world. At least, that’s how it’s meant to work. I don’t believe it does. I don’t think I’m alone, either.
For those unfamiliar with the term (it gets confusing in the UK, let alone internationally), private education is the system by which families pay money to send their children to be taught in schools which are not run or funded by the state. School fees can vary; at the upper end of the spectrum, parents can be forking out up to £42501 per year, with an additional £3400 payed up front, before the start of study, although to lessen the sting, £1000 of this is refunded after acceptance — the relief. This does not include paying for uniforms, additional music lessons, and so forth. In a typical state school, parents must pay for school uniforms (although often help can be provided for low-income families), and school dinners (although again, support is usually available). And that’s it.
So why do people pay such an extortionate amount to send their offspring to be taught alongside the children of those of the same financially-privileged upbringing?
Some believe that there is a relationship between the cash an educational institution has, and the quality of teaching (and, perhaps more importantly, the results) it can provide. It is possible that, at one point, this wasn’t too distant from the truth, and that soon enough, it will resemble the reality of the situation once again, if it isn’t already. As state schools become more and more desperate for funding, which is the rug being pulled from beneath their feet, teachers are all too often finding themselves overstretched, underpaid and lacking time, making the high-figure salaries and fewer student classes on offer from private schools more and more attractive. For the moment, however, this can’t be guaranteed to be a valid conclusion: the percentage of state-educated students being offered, and able to accept, places at Britain’s top universities has trebled in the past 80 years, with 60% of places being offered to students from non-private education establishments today.
Private schools do hold the advantage of freedom, however. The notorious curriculum shake-up, masterminded by the student-favourite (not) Michael Gove, threw state schools into chaos, forcing teachers to cram more content than ever before into as short a time as possible, whilst student mental health referrals soared. Private schools, on the other hand, experienced little disruption; they were free to follow the older, less intense curriculum, with less memory-based examination techniques, and less content to cover. I don’t understand how anyone can deny the injustice of this: this quite literally means that two students receiving A* grades at GCSE level, aged 16, one from state education, one from private, are not equal. This undermines the entire point of the grading system, dismissing the hard work and dedication needed to obtain a top grade by a state educated teenager, and wildly overstating the ability of a privately educated one.
Perhaps, then, private education finds its appeal in the range of ‘extras’ that it can offer. A prestigious music education, otherwise-unattainable sporting opportunities, and other such extracurricular activities help to develop a student’s academic performance and their character. These are often additional options which state schools simply are unable to provide their students, disadvantaging those unable to afford the luxuries which their university course-mates and rival job candidates had given to them on a silver platter. All the same, you get what you pay for, and I can hardly blame parents with enough money to do so for sending their kids for something more enriching than merely an education.
What I can say, though, is this: it is not right, justified, or fair that a child born into a family with money, for no other reason than good fortune, has access to a wider plethora of educational and character-building opportunities than another child born into a less well-off family. Whilst state schools are beginning to get their fair share of students into the country’s top universities, schools like Eton and Harrow continue to carry with them a reputation, and a status, which is undoubtedly increasing their percentage of Oxbridge offers, and certainly increasing job prospects for those who attended — or rather, had the money to attend. All children are born equal, and our society should not automatically put one life miles ahead of another within its very first breath, simply because of which class it sprung from, and who conceived it. Parents are not sending their children to Eton for a better education: they’re paying for opportunities which a majority of students will never receive, and they are paying for the name. And that isn’t good enough.
Think how much we could achieve, as a country, if all of those parents paying thousands upon thousands of pounds for private education instead payed that money towards state education. Imagine a world where every student had the advantages currently obtained only by those with the cash to buy them. Imagine the quality of holistic education which we could provide.
State school students are increasingly finding universities like Oxford and Cambridge welcoming them with open arms; a lot has changed, and yet there’s still a lot more to do. Private schools can provide the specialist coaching needed to get their pupils into top universities — state schools can’t. Private schools can provide the opportunities, the contacts and the skills on top of a young person’s academic ability to get them as far up the higher education food chain as humanly possible. Achieving an Oxbridge offer as a state school student means so much more than receiving one as a private school student, and should be seen as such. Just because students start at the same university on the same course, that is not to say that they all worked equally as hard to get there. That sums up the difference, in my view, between the two paths of education available in this country, and confirms why I think there should just be the one.