I am inclined towards equality of opportunity for all children. I am also aware that such a phrase is open to multiple definitions – and with most of them, such equality verges on the impossible. For instance, we can all hold up our hands in pious disapproval at the unfairness of, say, familial nepotism – such as that seen among Donald Trump’s brood – yet most of us are not much better. Anyone who is educated, or from a middle-class background is also operating on a manifestly unequal playing field.
This is largely because of the workings of social capital – of which nepotism is simply an extreme example. At a mundane level, it means having parents who are educated, interested in education, connected within the professions and happy to use those connections – what you might call cultural nepotism. I am not innocent of this. Conscience takes a fall when one’s children are involved.
This kind of inequality is difficult to legislate against. The divide between rich and poor families is growing, and largely inescapable. A new report from the Institute for Public Policy Research thinktank shows that the number of internships has risen 50% since 2010 – another leg-up for those who can afford to take low-paid or unpaid positions.
Add in decent housing, good nutrition and the imparting of confidence and the middle classes have a huge advantage, even before you talk about schooling. There are other ineradicable forms of inequality – genetic capital for instance, since intelligence, is, according to most scientific sources, at least 50% hereditary. But social capital is the most visible.
Middle-class kids will, on aggregate, still come out on top because of their pre-existing advantages
This entrenched and inevitable advantage is, perversely, why I oppose private schools far more firmly than grammar schools (which, at least in theory, could be meritocratic). It is not that I hope to take away from privileged children any unfair head start. I just want to take away the only advantage that is purely down to money and entirely subject to legislation.
Private schools add insult to injury. If you get rid of them and shift all the pupils into the state system, nothing will guarantee the latter’s improvement with more certainty. And the middle-class kids will, on aggregate, still come out on top because of their pre-existing advantages – so it is especially egregious that so many people so staunchly oppose their abolition.
Grammar schools, as envisaged in the 1944 Education Act (with selection based not solely on tests but also on aptitude and past performance) might be the answer to those who suggest the abolition of private schools would result in “dumbing down” – as long as they were a resource for the clever and motivated rather than the privileged and tutored. There would still be inequality, but it would be minimised. Absolutely level playing fields are, and always will be, a myth. However, we can make the fields less ridiculously skewed than they are at the moment.
It is doable, practically. Shame that it just appears impossible to do politically. The fact that Jeremy Corbyn is suggesting charging private schools VAT is a step in the right direction. A few more steps in that direction and he might establish a policy that would make me vote for him.
But I’ll take a (state-educated) guess that it won’t happen. There are too many people with too many fingers in the private-schooling pie – among them a fair number of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet. Because when those who stand against inequality simultaneously take advantage of it, their motivation is sorely undermined – whether or not it would be a vote winner.
Such is the insidiousness of educational inequality – so long as it works for the policy-makers themselves, it has little or no chance of real reform. Those responsible can always tell themselves that it’s just for their children’s sake. It is understandable. It may even be forgivable. But it is a total cop-out.