I need to begin with a story. A few months ago, I was walking to my office at around 10pm (pretty commonplace for me). Instead of being deserted, the building was alive with people; the school offers the use of its buildings to the local community for free when it was not in use and that evening it was filled with the local choir. As I made my way into the building, as I have done many times during their sessions, one of the choir members stepped in front of me in an attempt to block my way. As I continued around him, he fixed me with a gaze and asked if I was a security guard, in what was essentially, a challenging tone. Now, there are a number of things that could have led him to this view; it could have been my bright green waterproof (not exactly high-visibility) or the fact that I was dressed in normal clothes; it may have been that at 10pm in the evening the only people he would expect to see would be a security guard. It may also have been something to do with my physical appearance. I looked at him, smiled and replied, ‘I work here’ and passed through the doorway. As I continued to walk into the building, someone obviously told him who I was. He shouted his apologies down the corridor. Not to fault the man’s security conscious behaviour, his challenge was based on a complex mixing of information in the form of a stereotype; a way of reducing the complexity of life into decisions which allow us to act. He calculated a number of things. It was late. No one should normally be in the building. The man approaching me is wearing a raincoat so must be a security guard.
He made a quick judgement by using stereotypes (which can be very useful) but they can also cause us to act in ways that deny the complexities of life and reduce our capacity to ask questions in a meaningful way.
I was reminded about the ‘raincoat incident’ and the problems stereotypes may cause after my visit to the Festival of Education held at Wellington College. I enjoyed my visit and got to talk/listen to some wonderful educators and knowledgeable people such as Professor David Cannadine, Professors Guy Claxton and Bill Lucas, Tom Chatfield, and Paul Kelley. There was some controversy but I tend to avoid these kinds of discussions as I am more interested in what practitioners have to say. On a personal level, I had a good conference as my workshop was well received and I met with old friends, made some new ones and came away fizzing with ideas. The reaction to the festival from my peers on Twitter was mixed, with many suggesting that despite the focus on education, holding it at a school where they charge £30,000 a year for boarding fees made the event untenable and ‘outrageous’. The discussion quickly moved into the realms of a state/private debate and the belief that ‘independent schools’ created social divisions and held social mobility back. The natural conclusion to this argument is that if they were removed from the educational landscape, society would be more equal. My good friend Doug Belshaw has publicly stated that he has become more militant in his opposition to independent schools (and yes, we are still talking and I am still planning to visit him and his family in the next few weeks) and we regularly discuss this view. He also knows that my personal view tends to be more complex than the conventional arguments and this post is partly in response to an ongoing conversation.
In the exchanges online and the subsequent conversations with a variety of peers, many stereotypes were bandied around (although many people were keen to point out that these were not personal attacks) about ‘independent’ and ‘state’ schools and they left me uneasy. My discomfort was not due to the implicit desire for a more equitable society (I have professed before that I am unashamedly humanist in my outlook), it was the stereotypes inherent in the conversation that made me pause. On one hand, the ‘state sector’ seemed to equal ‘working class’ values and was a provider for social mobility whilst the ‘independent sector’ was the cause of social stagnation and the lack of social mobility. Would these stereotypes hold under scrutiny?
When I was considering a move of schools last year, I recall coming across one ‘state’ school in North London where living in the catchment area increased the price of a house by around £300,000 pounds (where house prices were already around the £500,000 price mark). What I soon calculated was that the catchment area premium would be more than sending two children to an independent day school from Years 7-13 (you could for around the same price pay for two students to attend an independent boarding school for the same time period). No school fees were paid but access for the majority to this ‘outstanding’ school would necessitate around £800,000 at the very least without factoring in school trips and other associated costs.
It also came to mind fairly quickly that a similar situation can occur in areas with grammar schools (which are funded by the government) and with the additional hurdle of passing the entrance test. It is widely known that many parents in the hope of sending their child to such an institution will pay for private tuition and coaching. There are also state funded boarding schools which can charge fees for boarding up to around £12,000. I also thought about institutions that do tremendous work with their students but face serious issues in terms of making huge gains in the A*-C pass rate that pushes them to the top of the league tables. Despite the success of the staff and the students, parents may feel that the school is not the right place for their child. With such huge variation, is it really possible to talk of a ‘state sector’ that is indeed unified and represents social mobility? Although they are free in principle and funded by the government, for parents and for some staff, such schools are very different entities. As for representing the ‘working class’ and creating social mobility on the whole, I cannot pass judgement apart from making the wry comment that obviously wages for the ‘working class’ have improved dramatically in some areas (and this reminds me of the time I said to my PhD supervisor that I was ‘working class’; I was asked if the ‘working class’ were ever funded to read books and write).
Similarly, there are a wide variety of institutions within the category ‘independent/private sector’ (full boarding, large schools, small ones, single sex, ‘diamond model’ schools, faith focused and even catering specifically for minorities that feel they are not being supported within the ‘state sector’). Fees range from around £3,000 a year to around £32,000 depending on the model and size of the school selected and the way that some parents pay for their child’s education varies. Some take on huge financial burdens to send their child to an independent school (increased mortgages), some have fees being paid for by grandparents (not too dissimilar to parents making contributions to buying homes) and some parents have the means to pay the fees themselves without too much trouble. This is a more complex picture than the stereotype suggests.
Despite this, all the differences seem inconsequential in light of what many see as the burning issue with the ‘independent sector’ – the dominance privately educated students have on British ‘Public’ life which recent government reports and speeches confirm. The phrase ‘morally indefensible’ was used to describe this influence and the waste of talent within the country and this was picked up fairly quickly by those who buy into the ‘stereotype’ of what an independent school is. It is a pity because hidden and obscured by the headlines was the real issue; ‘children’s life chances are more likely to be linked to parental achievement and wealth in this country than almost any other developed nation’. Essentially, it is not about fee-paying schools, but about the deep inequality within our society. Yet this nuance is missed because in the words of Bill Lucas in his book, rEvolution, we are very good at pattern making and sometimes, ‘our pattern making mind can be too clever for our own good. Once we have come to a conclusion we can be very loath to give it up even if there is direct evidence to the contrary’. It is undoubtedly easier to identify a stereotypical ‘clear target’ in our desire for equality than to look at ourselves (and if anyone would like to debate gender and ethnic differences in society and in the workplace, I am more than happy to). This easy stereotype, and the thinking it creates is, of course, encouraged because it provides a focal point for our human sense of fairness whilst masking the deep levels of inequality that form the bedrock of our society – it becomes ‘common sense’. Mollified by the availability of credit to buy the latest consumer goods, we often worry about getting on the property ladder ‘in the right area’, celebrity, sports stars (paid in part by our subscriptions to multi-national media company viewing packages) and consuming media on our sleek computers/LCD TVs/Projectors. We generally endorse the local and global inequality that exists because we apparently reap the benefits of the ‘work hard and you will get the rewards’ culture.
Within this context, the state/private school debate and its encouragement, including its associated stereotypes, is one way to secure and manufacture our consent to the present social order because it provides a valve for the constantly gnawing frustration that something is ‘not quite right’. It obscures and prevents us for asking the more socially explosive question about equality and the redistribution of wealth because it is too troubling and can lead to direct confrontation that will threaten, in a very real sense, our current way of living. In terms of helping students, good schools are useful for creating greater equality of opportunity but they will remain a short term panacea without a substantive framework; one which Will Hutton hints at but is too radical for him but not for Sarah Ditum. To put it into another context, Finland is often quoted as the paragon example of what can happen if private schools do not exist. Once again, this easy stereotype hides the reality that there is a more equitable distribution of wealth in Finnish society.
This may seem like grim reading and an attempt to deflect the desire for a more equal society; nothing can be further from the truth. What I am suggesting is that there are not two distinct camps of ‘state/private’, but a great deal of fluidity within and between these supposedly ‘hard’ categories. To continue with these blunt instruments of categorisation in order to dissect the inner workings of our society and then make recommendations for improvements seems, to my mind, a waste of useful intellectual and physical resources. To create and sustain an effective change, I would suggest we need to move beyond the ‘two camps’ mentality and provide concrete alternative ways, institutions and resources collaboratively. In Antonio Gramsci’s terms, it means becoming ‘counter-hegemonic’ and to ask deep and meaningful questions about equality and realise that a simple solution is not likely to be the most effective.
The heartening part to this line of thinking is that it may not be as fanciful as you might think.
The power of technology, the stumbling of our capitalist system, the rise and use of social networks to create and sustain alternatives to existing social situations and the growing debate about what is the purpose, and indeed, the tools and the methods to be used in education, have all opened a space to provide an alternative that goes beyond the stereotype. For those who might argue that the privileged institutions themselves will not take part in this, Anthony Seldon, the Master of Wellington College wrote recently about how ‘independent schools have lost their moral purpose‘ and that they need to renew themselves in the modern world. Could he possibly be talking about a return to the humanism that was often the driving force for the creation of these schools in the first instance?
So, my friendly challenge to my peers is this; you can take the pill of the state/private stereotype as it stands and the story ends and the debate will continue with no real resolution. Alternatively, you could take the pill that allows you to move beyond reductionist stereotypes and be part of something life-changing.
If you choose the latter, I’ll be there with you, looking down the rabbit hole and dressed in my raincoat.
Image: Tony Fischer on Flickr
*Edited on Monday 23rd July to add link to state funded boarding schools.