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Private schools are a waste of money

Both Left and Right overstate their effect on educational ability and achievements in later life

Artillery Row

Would you rather have your “elite” secondary-school education or £250,000? This is the question I posed to a few schoolmates I boarded with. All of them picked the cash. If you’re wondering where I plucked that figure from, I grabbed it from the recent news that the average annual cost of sending your child to a top British boarding school will sit just below the £50,000 mark next year, with rises of up to seven per cent being dished out by bursars. Investment firm Killik has deduced that it will now cost £905,600 for a British family to send two children to private day schools followed by five years at boarding school from 13. If they’ve got daughters, expect even higher costs, with many all-girls boarding schools starting from 11.

Though these are the most expensive versions of private schools, fees for private day schools are also on the rise, with inflation expecting to push annual prices deeper into five-figure territory. Killik’s analysis predicts that the total average cost could soon tip over the £1 million mark.

These eye-watering costs have trickled into the headlines just as a broader societal discussion about education and access threatens to reach a crescendo roar. University administrators and academics are locked in public spitting matches as to how top universities should design their admissions according to schooling background. Cambridge Vice-Chancellor Prof. Stephen Toope said that private schools must accept that fewer of their students will get into Oxbridge in the future. Many of them have long accepted this, with Oxbridge admissions from the leading public schools dropping for the best part of a decade. Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has been unimpressed with the Troope’s social engineering comments, saying that the system should be “based on merit and evidence”, adding: “You don’t create a system that people feel is fair and equitable by in some way thinking that there is an easy fix. The best thing you can do is create schools in the state system that are as good as independent schools.”

But few parents who are eyeing up private schools believe that most state schools will ever come close to the standard of the independent sector. This belief, coupled with their perspective that your quality of school makes a huge difference to your educational attainment and general life success, has meant that news of even-higher fees has sent plenty of parents into a tailspin.

But should they be so worried? The purpose of this article is to ask if the astronomical price that parents are expected to cough up for private education is worth it. 

Left and Right regularly clash on the influence of independent schools, but few question whether these schools are as effective as both sides suggest. The generally held leftist view on private education is that it entrenches inequality in schools, which has a demonstrable knock-on effect in later life, represented in lifetime earnings, educational attainment, health and quality of career. For the most visceral anti-public school socialists, private education represents the shoring up of the British establishment, creating cliquey pacts of mutually-supportive men (and sometimes women) who promote pals adorned in lunch club ties over state-educated workers who didn’t spend their teenage years playing bizarre forms of football that prece the invention of soccer. This was the argument I recently heard being proposed by Labour Against Private Schools Co-Founder Steven Longden, who told LBC listeners that one of the main advantages of “elite schools” was “the pats on the backs, the introductions into various internships in the city and elsewhere”. Longden’s lot tally up the Etonian backsides warming the green benches and city boardrooms and deduce that nepotistic collegiality is securing those places. 

The evidence suggests that private schools’ impact is vastly overstated

Then there is the core right-wing defence of private schools, which is based on freedom, aspiration and neoliberal social justice. It says that people should be free to educate their children how they see fit, often adding that private schools represent a core aspirational section of British society, offering financially disadvantaged but bright students the chance to receive a first-class education. The first argument is a matter of preference in political philosophy, but the latter is clearly supported by reference to the finances. The 2022 Independent Schools Council Census found that a total of 180,524 private school pupils are receiving support with their fees, over one-third (34.0 per cent) of all pupils in the private system. The spend on this support is gargantuan, with the value of these fees totalling just under £1.2 billion — roughly 0.05 per cent of Britain’s GDP — a rise of 4.8 per cent on 2021, when bursaries dipped for the second year running during the pandemic.

There is a clear social justice element to these bursaries, with schools spending twice as much on means-tested bursaries than on non-means-tested scholarships, showing that the vast majority of this enormous sum is going to the children of parents who would otherwise struggle to pay for their education. Chancellor Rishi Sunak gave £100,000 to Winchester College last year to support its bursaries program. His parents scrimped and saved to afford him access to the school where he became head boy. 

But for every “diamond in the rough” pupil snatched from a struggling comp and parachuted into an elite public school or high-quality private school through bursary support, there are plenty of parents — such as Rishi Sunak’s — who make enormous sacrifices to ensure their children can attend these schools. Busy mothers go back to full-time work, holidays are cancelled, luxuries both large and small disappear, all for the sake of maintaining access to a particular form of schooling.

Amid the noisy Leftist critics arguing that private schools are an immensely powerful unfair advantage — a charge often made by those who went to state school and then an elite university, surreptitiously suggesting that they are more gifted than their privately-educated peers — and those on the Right who argue that they provide first-class educations to those who couldn’t otherwise afford it, few are critically assessing whether the cost of school places are worth it for those “just about managing” middle-class private school parents.

So just how effective are private schools in determining your academic outcomes? To the dismay of leftists crying foul about loaded dice and the horror of hard-grafting parents emptying their wallets to ensure their children can attend top schools, a brief review of the evidence suggests that their impact is vastly overstated.

Selective schools made no difference to pupils’ GCSE results. This was the conclusion reached by Prof. Robert Plomin, a research professor in behavioural genetics at King’s College London, who led a study in 2018 that found that the seven per cent difference in performance between selective private (and grammar) schools versus comprehensive institutions shrunk to just one per cent when you control for ability.

Plomin said: “[The schools] take the kids that do the best at school and show they do the best at school. It’s an entirely self-fulfilling prophecy.” Fellow lead author on the paper Emily Smith-Woolley said: “Our study suggests that for educational achievement there appears to be little added benefit from attending selective schools. While schools are crucial for academic achievement, the type of school appears less so.”

They found this by analysing data from over 4,000 students in England and Wales, including the students’ genotype, their academic strength aged 11, their family background, school and GCSE results. Selective school pupils scored around a full grade higher than non-selective school pupils in English, maths and science, but once factors involved in selection were controlled, that difference disappeared.

The importance of prior ability, selected for at 11 or 13 by many private schools, is severely underrated in educational attainment, and much of a child’s prior ability will be influenced by genetics. Plomin’s 2018 study followed a 2013 report from KCL that found that genetic differences reflect 58 per cent of the differences between pupils’ GCSE exam scores. Environmental factors, such as school type, influenced just 29 per cent. Nicholas Shakeshaft, lead author of the 2013 study, said: “Our research shows that differences in students’ educational achievement owe more to nature than nurture,” adding: “The differential impact between good and bad schools is not great.” In short, if you’re middle-class, your children are probably going to be fine regardless of how much money you chuck at their teaching. Academic rankings, for better or worse, are broadly determined by inequalities in the double helix, not a disparity in teaching resources.

I put this argument to Dr. Stuart Ritchie, lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King’s College London, who said: “Wherever it looks as if private school kids are doing better than those at state schools on measures like grades or other achievements, you need to ask how well kids from different social classes would have done if they went to the same school. In other words, you need to control for the circumstances they were born into, which we all agree have a big impact on how kids develop and learn. Once you do this, there is some evidence for advantages of private schools — for instance, a study from 2020 that controlled for pre-existing differences found that private secondary school children were more likely to go to university than state school children, possibly because they were also more likely to study subjects at school that universities favour.”

He added: “But the study described the size of the advantages they found as ‘moderate’ (these advantages would also be a lot bigger if they weren’t controlled for pre-existing differences). And although there was an advantage for going to university in general, there was no advantage for going to an elite university. Controlling for pre-existing differences in these studies is also easier said than done. So parents should decide for themselves whether a fairly modest, uncertain advantage is worth the often exorbitant fees charged by private schools.”

If you present this perspective to Left-leaning critics of private schools, they quickly melt into calling you a biologically deterministic eugenicist fascist hell-bent on turning the “GATTACA” screenplay into governmental policy. 

Make your case to a Right-wing defender of the value of private schools, and they flap about with some intangible waffle about how the real benefit of spending £250,000 on schooling is “camaraderie” and “character” and “a life-long love of learning” or whatever other fluffy posh meme they can exhaust.

There’s no doubt that plenty of public school graduates have buckets of confidence, but the view that this trait is overrepresented among the privately educated is developed through little more than confirmation bias. For every bluffing politician and slick journalist using their powers of persuasion and unjustified arrogance to get ahead, there are plenty of socially awkward “not quite all there” young men who talk to themselves, are so sheltered that the thought of taking public transport fills them with earth-shattering dread, and who think that women are distant, ethereal and yet deeply threatening creatures. For every sharp and impressive privately educated woman making headways in academia, politics, finance or any other industry she fancied, there are plenty of others who had their characters crucified by the ceaseless tormenting and bullying that often afflicts all-girls’ spaces. 

Private education is clearly not the determining factor in achieving that tinge of swaggering hubris you encounter with many of Britain’s most successful workers and public servants. Angela Rayner does not occupy a shy, reserved section of the Labour front bench, and she was reportedly fed dog food by her mother as a child during a period of crippling relative poverty. Council flat born and bred “mop head” Alan Sugar is one of the country’s most iconic, straight-talking, no-nonsense businessmen, traits he did not acquire from attending a Clarendon School. 

There is nothing to gain from engaging with the popular Leftist criticism after sharing the science on prior ability and school selection. It doesn’t stand up to the facts, cold and sober as they are, and I gain nothing from attempting to educate blank-slate theorists who regurgitate oxymoronic empty platitudes about people “exceeding their potential” if only they were given the right circumstances. But the Rightist defenders of private schools do need to be grappled with because those interlocuteurs are much more likely to send children to these schools on some of the false grounds listed above.

And not only are private schools becoming more expensive, they are also no longer the prized products they once were. More honest and informed supporters of private schools will often admit that the reason they did not send their children to state school was the fear of constant disruption from disinterested pupils, putting their talented offspring at risk of not fulfilling their potential. At private and boarding schools, they anticipate a greater degree of deference to teacherly authority and a walled-off bookish atmosphere that rewards academic reverence, championing scholastic success without the occasional violent antisocial nutter who can disrupt other schools. They will also point to the uniqueness of the boarding school experience: eccentric teachers, beautiful surroundings and classical teaching without the fads of political trendiness found throughout the rest of society. That difference just about remains, but the eruption of woke politics, which is creeping across the private school system, totally capturing some of the giants, has put this perspective on life support.

Documenting the litany of far-left activities, talks and acts taken up by leading public schools, Olivia Hartley said: “Whereas in the past these once inherently conservative institutions aspired to produce field marshals, archbishops and bankers, they are now more committed to producing a new generation of social justice warriors.”

Even more tragically, private schools are becoming dull

Wellington College’s website refers to the Black Lives Matter movement and the death of George Floyd as central to its mission to become an “anti-racist school”. Highgate School, founded 1565, announced it would “accelerate plans to put Inclusion at the heart of the school’s strategy and operations” following the 2020 racial reckoning. It has committed to become “actively anti-racist” (code for “deliriously obsessed with racial characteristics”) and, of course, redesigning the curriculum. At Brighton College, where parents cough up £14,550 a term for boarding, you can apply for “explore teaching” internships, but only if you’re a woman in STEM or from an ethnic minority background. The website states: “Brighton College is proud to have taken a progressive stand on diversity, equity and inclusion.” There is no shortage of commentary on “woke Eton”, where headmaster Simon Henderson is regularly accused of pushing a progressive agenda akin to “religious fundamentalism”. Even Winchester, England’s oldest continuously-running public school, has signed up to the faddish trend of social justice leftism, joining the long list of iconic institutions planning to “decolonise” their curricula in favour of “applying a global perspective and a broader range of source material”. Everyone knows what this means: no more “dead white men”.

The newest private schools are, naturally, even worse. The American School in London, cosily nestled away in St John’s Wood, taught students about “white fragility”, with pupils complaining that their perspectives were “suppressed”. The preference for self-flagellating over identity characteristics over subject-specific teaching saw the school’s Ofsted ranking drop two levels. What’s that in the post? Oh, it’s a bill for £32,600 of annual fees, please and thank you. Deary me, what a dreadful state of affairs.

Wokeness in education is unforgivable in all cases, but it is more understandable in the state system, where it is merely a step left from neutrality. But Britain’s public schools, some almost as old as the idea of England itself, are made from an explicitly anti-woke heritage of tradition and resilient modes of feeling and thought. They are about excellence, not egalitarianism; they adapt in a changing world, but retain their quirky, distinct characters.

Far-left political agitation is an important chapter in the decline of private schools, but it’s not the whole story. Perhaps even more tragically, they are becoming dull. Gone are the days of rickety old halls filled with iconic dons creating a unique form of nonconformist education; these characters have been weeded out in favour of boring yes men and HR-adjacent teacher-cum-managers running glistening new facilities. The students have gained Olympic swimming pools, data-driven gyms and theatres that wouldn’t look out of place on the West End, but the iconic characters and atmosphere that made these ancient institutions stand out is steadily disappearing one retirement at a time.

The £50,000 price tag has also changed the source of the students. With fees pricing out the sons and daughters of dentists, police officers and high-flying civil servants, leading boarding schools increasingly cater to the super wealthy of the international city class.

Non-British pupils whose parents live overseas account for 4.6 per cent of all privately educated students, with a further 5.7 per cent hailing from non-British backgrounds with parents who live in the country. But for new pupils starting in 2021, these figures jump to 10.2 per cent and 7.6 per cent respectively. These figures are higher at the more expensive public schools. Towards the end of the 00s, non-British pupils with parents overseas comprised less than one-third of all boarders. In 2019, it was over 40 per cent. This trend will almost certainly continue to grow, not only as Britain retains its branding as a global hub of education, but also as leading private schools are forced to look beyond British pupils as their rocketing fees price out their old professional classes customer base. 

Parents send their children to these schools to experience classical British education. That product is diminished if a significant portion of the customer base is not British. In 2019, the FT reported that a German boy was withdrawn after one term at an elite school because he couldn’t understand what his roommates were saying. Were they speaking colloquial English that he couldn’t follow? No, it was Mandarin.

But above all of these problems — the wokeness, the loss of character, the dilution of the product — the real stinger is the price. In its analysis on the cost of private education, Killik recommends asking grandparents to help cover the costs, arguing that “paying for education is something many may be willing to do, if they can afford to, and it offers a more tangible outcome than simply handing over money”. But the opposite is true. Simply handing over money, or putting it in an investment ISA, will offer significantly more tangible and beneficial outcomes for recipients than private education, for all of the reasons listed above.

Using Killik’s own figures, if parents put the average annual cost of school fees (£40,000) into an investment ISA at the reasonable rate of eight per cent compound interest per year for 11 years (7-13 prep school, 13-18 boarding), their investment would be worth £676,000, with £236,000 gained.

With all that money, you can create a healthy pot towards your child’s house deposit, a business plan, or the financial freedom to take a risk in their preferred industry, while also giving them the cultural and sporting experiences and additional tutelage that private education provides. There are plenty of bright boarding school graduates who did the right thing, studied hard, got into a top university and entered a career in law, medicine, banking or consulting but still cannot afford the comfortable middle-class lives their parents enjoyed. Houses are out of reach, even for those earning excellent salaries. When they go down to the bank to fight for a mortgage, what will benefit them more: their debating skills from the weeknight Model United Nations club, or a fat cheque? Even if you accept all of the arguments in favour of private schools, I know which option you’d choose.

University administrators are less likely to want you, your exam results will enjoy a spectacular one per cent improvement, and you’ll be forced to endure years of far-left political garbage. That sounds like a raw deal to me. Private schools aren’t worth the cost. Keep your cash.

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