Integrating private schools would bring down the Berlin Wall that grossly favours the 7 per cent on one side of it, and that remains an ugly, disfiguring scar on our society.
Our private schools — and I use “our” in the loosest sense — are for the most part excellent institutions. The fundamental problem is that they are educating the wrong children, children who are already, even before attending those schools, highly privileged in socio-economic and cultural-capital terms.
The schools then further entrench their privileged position –and I hardly need to rehearse the stranglehold that the privately educated now exercise over most of our leading professions and most prominent walks of life.
What about scholarships, bursaries and such like? The independent sector assiduously projects an image of being on the side of the angels when it comes to social mobility. Yet if one digs into its figures (see New Statesman, January 31, 2014), it is clear that it is still overwhelmingly the wealthy — and certainly those with a well above-average income — who are able to educate their children privately.
There is, in short, a deep inequity at work: the children who enjoy access to these highly resourced institutions are the children whose parents have the deepest pockets. “Private education is not fair,” Alan Bennett famously and rightly declared last summer. “Those who provide it know it. Those who pay for it know it … And those who receive it know it, or should.”
Of course, there are important second-order questions. I have no wish to send in the bulldozers; under my auspices these newly integrated schools would have at least as much operational autonomy as academies or free schools in the present maintained sector. As to determining intake, I would consult widely, but have no fixed views. Academic selection, free school meals, ballot — any method, or combination of methods, is better than the parental chequebook. Practical and resolvable second-order objections (including cost) are no answer to the inescapable first-order question: is the continuing fact of our money-determined educational apartheid socially just or morally defensible?
I believe that it has become so indefensible, and so damaging, that it trumps the libertarian argument, the parental right to choose. Freedom for the 7 per cent? Or a level playing field for the 100 per cent? To suggest the latter is not the politics of envy but the politics of decency. It is time, high time, to dismantle the wall.
David Kynaston is author of Modernity Britain: 1957-62 (Bloomsbury, 2014)