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Don’t abolish private schools

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Should we abolish private schools, as some Labour activists are advocating? For me, this is a tricky issue. The case for not doing so is simple – freedom. My instinct is that folk should be free to spend their money how they want. (I know nobody values freedom these days but I’m an old man, so indulge me.) As with many other activities, however, this freedom imposes negative externalities onto others. One is that it creates unequal opportunities. Fees at Oakham School – to take my neighbour – are more than three times as great as average spending (pdf) per pupil in the state sector. Such massive inequality in spending is bound to cause some inequality in results. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the privately-schooled are over-represented at Oxbridge and in top jobs. The second is

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Should we abolish private schools, as some Labour activists are advocating? For me, this is a tricky issue.

The case for not doing so is simple – freedom. My instinct is that folk should be free to spend their money how they want. (I know nobody values freedom these days but I’m an old man, so indulge me.)

As with many other activities, however, this freedom imposes negative externalities onto others.

One is that it creates unequal opportunities. Fees at Oakham School – to take my neighbour – are more than three times as great as average spending (pdf) per pupil in the state sector. Such massive inequality in spending is bound to cause some inequality in results. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the privately-schooled are over-represented at Oxbridge and in top jobs. WallGame

The second is that the excessive influence of people from private schools in politics and the media causes systematic distortions. Our elite is arrogant, overconfident, out of touch and too heavily influenced by an Oxford Union conception of politics as a game of facile debates rather than of technocratic expertise.

But, but, but. There’s a question here. Do private schools instil overconfidence or do they merely reveal it? Would Cameron, Rees-Mogg, Farage and Johnson still be arrogant pricks if they had gone to a decent state school instead? Certainly, they would still have several advantages, such as a wealthy upbringing and family contacts.

It’s hard to say. Most parents who can afford to do so send their kids to private schools, and the ones who don’t are sufficiently different from the others that they hand down very different cultural capital to their offspring.

In fact, abolishing private schools might merely replace one set of arrogant dickheads with another. I say so because of something said by in 1957 by Michael Young (whose son is of course an advert for abolishing private schools):

If the rich and powerful were encouraged by the general culture to believe that they fully deserved all they had, how arrogant they could become and, if they were convinced it was all for the common good, how ruthless in pursuing their own advantage (The Rise of the Meritocracy).

Fred Goodwin, boss of RBS during its downfall, for example, went to state school. If private schools gave us Brexit, state schools gave us the financial crisis. 

So, what are the alternatives to abolishing them?

One possibility is to impose quotas on how many people universities and professions can draw from private schools – a more rigorous and widespread version of the Texas law which requires that universities offer places to the top 10% of pupils from any school (a measure passed into law by that notorious communist George W. Bush). The virtue of this is not so much to promote social mobility, which is a dubious aim. It is instead to ensure that elites are more cognitively diverse. If fewer BBC journalists were privately educated, we might see less deference to “Boris” and the promotion of a different conception of politics.

Secondly, we should have more progressive income tax. This would, in effect, be a way of pooling the risks of having gone to a good or bad school. And in reducing top incomes it would depress demand for private schooling.

Thirdly, we need more egalitarian forms of decision-making in companies and in politics. Properly structured systems – those that reduce the risk of groupthink – might reduce the danger from overconfident leaders, be they privately or state educated*.

Such systems might achieve the twin benefits of preserving freedom whilst reducing the externalities of private education.

But only might. “Meritocrats” might resist progressive taxes and collective decision-making, believing them to be restrictions to their entitlements. And perhaps there really is causality from private schooling to overconfidence – if all that talk of instilling “leadership” isn’t just bull. My preference, though, is to try these methods first, If we don’t there’s a danger that abolishing private schooling would be like abolishing the monarchy; it attacks epiphenomena of privilege rather than their true causes and effects.

* Overconfidence can be a good thing, but more often in entrepreneurs than in established organizations. One case for quotas is to force the privately educated into professions where overconfidence is a virtue rather than vice. 

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