Janet Murray, like every other parent, has the right to send her child to a private school. However, as a Guardian journalist, writing on educational issues, she surely has a duty to be candid about her reasons for doing so.
She seeks to justify her decision by citing the fact that other middle-class parents move house to gain access to “good” schools, arguing that her choice of private school for her child somehow frees up a place in the state sector for someone less advantaged. Her reference to Niall Ferguson begins to give the game away; in fact, not all parents who send their children to private schools do so because comprehensives are so much worse. They do so to buy exclusivity and privilege; in short, they want their children taught alongside other middle-class children, and they want them to benefit from the networks which will open up to them in the future as a result.
But it is her criticism of comprehensive schools which is really objectionable from someone in her position. Comprehensives have never encouraged mediocrity; quite the reverse. They have given generations of children who would otherwise have been consigned to secondary modern schools an opportunity to aspire to a full, rounded education, and to pursue a career of their choice, academic or otherwise. The fact that social policy, in housing and employment specifically, have conspired to locate some comprehensives in areas of multiple deprivation, thus depressing their overall attainment, should make us determined to improve the state system, not desert it.
Private schools are about elitism; they would, no doubt, subscribe to TS Eliot’s view in Notes towards the Definition of Culture (1948) that the function of schooling is “to preserve the class and select the elite”. But our challenge as a nation must be to promote greater equality in our society and one way of doing that would be to have an education system, like Finland, which sees closing the gap as a key goal.
Janet Murray is right to point to factors such as school and class size as factors which private schools have in their favour. The funding of the state sector is clearly an issue. Only last week, the Sunday Herald exposed how charitable status alone enables private school to gain 80% on their non-domestic rates, saving them, collectively, millions of pounds, every year.
Education is key to the achievement of a more equal, more successful and more socially cohesive society. It is too important to be left to the marketplace.
Emeritus professor of education, University of Strathclyde