Private Schools

Disclaimer: I attended a private secondary school, The Manchester Grammar School, on a government scholarship ("assisted place"). In retrospect, the school was very good for me, and I even enjoyed a lot of it at the time.

Left-wing politicians and intellectuals occasionally suggest that private education should be banned. Indeed, the Labour candidate for the constituency containing my school is reputed to have driven past the gates in his announcement van saying "This is your last day at school. We are going to close you down". I'm not sure I believe that, in part because I didn't notice, but that was certainly Labour policy at the time, albeit I think they had a slightly longer timescale in mind.

I tend to be slightly left of centre (I read the Guardian Weekly, for example), but I strongly disagree with this sentiment, even now that I have long since left school. In this essay, I will try to explain why. There are two independent arguments: first, the existence of private schools is good for society; and second, it would be immoral to ban them. As they are independent arguments, and each is strong enough to require the continuation of private schools, I am quite confident of my position.

Good for Society

Private schools are good for society because they are not controlled by the government. They provide an alternative, a group of people within society who have not been educated in the way that the state thinks best. This, I believe, provides an important safeguard against certain forms of tyranny.

That's the quick version. Let me go through what I mean in a little more detail.

Early education has a great deal of influence on the way that people think. It has, for example, been noticed that entirely atheistic philosophers from a Catholic background differ noticeably from those from a Protestant background. Even when you reject much of what you are taught, your thoughts and activities are shaped by the fact that you are rejecting those ideas, and not others. Someone living a life in which they have rejected the idea that there is a God watching you and getting angry whenever you have sex is likely to be quite different from someone who has rejected the idea that aliens frequently abduct people and conduct breeding experiments on them, even if they now agree with each other that there is no God and are no aliens.

Thus, if everyone is taught in the same way, according to the government curriculum, this imposes a certain uniformity on society, and this is a uniformity that I believe to be dangerous, at least, and often actively bad.

For example, suppose that the government sponsors a curriculum which says that women should never leave the home and should be kept illiterate. Everyone who has learned this has taken this as the default position. If they have rejected it, they have formed arguments in order to reject it. Anyone campaigning for women's education has to show that it is right to educate women.

This, however, is backwards. The burden of proof is on those who would deny education to women. If the society contains groups who have been raised that way, the argument will be more likely to move onto the question of who needs to prove their case. This does matter. If you have to show that women should be educated, then you should only provide that education for which you can provide a good argument. It is likely to be hard to argue that it is vital for women to be taught university-level subjects, since men can fill those roles perfectly well. On the other hand, if you have to show that women should not be educated, you should provide any education, unless there is a strong argument against it. Providing an argument for why women should not receive university-level education is equally difficult.

In short, those educated within a different system are more likely to question the fundamental assumptions of the state-sponsored system, the assumptions that are likely to be taken for granted by most of society. This means that I am, at least on these grounds, in favour of permitting specifically religious education. Within a secular society, those raised this way question the basic assumption that religion is unimportant. (There are other problems to be considered when looking at any form of education, to do with the long-term impact on the child's ability to make her own decisions, but they are beyond the scope of this essay.)

It might seem that this pluralism could be achieved without private schools, because the government could simply resolve to keep its hands off. However, the paymaster always seems to end up calling the tune. There is a strong disinclination to fund education of which you strongly disapprove, but that is just the sort of education that should remain available (again, modulo the wider problems). Private schools are not funded by the state, so the level of disapproval needs to be much higher before the government interferes. The British state is unlikely, at least at present, to want to fund Summerhill and similar free schools, but the courts have ruled that it cannot interfere to overturn the basic educational philosophy. I strongly suspect that the government would be allowed to take over and change the practice of a state school which went the same route.

Thus, the existence of private schools makes the preservation of this variation in society more likely. Even though most members of society do not attend the private schools, they benefit from the presence in society of disparate elements. From this perspective, it is even a good thing if private schools are over-represented in the corridors of power, because this would mean that the different perspectives have a greater chance of influencing the course of important discussions.

Immoral to Ban

It is immoral to ban private schools because it is immoral to prevent people from acting to benefit others. Or, to put it another way, it is immoral to prevent people from doing good.

Parents are not their children. When a parent gives a benefit to their child, they give that benefit to someone else, and this is generally regarded as a good act. It might be argued that the money would do more good given to someone else, but unless you plan to ban people from buying things for themselves, you have no consistent ground on which to stand here. If everything that someone wants to do is good, they should be allowed to do that, even if there are other things they could do which you think are better.

This is a fairly basic liberal idea, and it's weaker than most versions. It doesn't require you to allow people to do things that you think are bad but they think are good. It only requires that you allow people to do things that you allow to be good, despite your belief that there are better alternatives. Feeding, clothing, and educating children are generally regarded as good. Improving the education given to a child is also regarded as good. Thus, parents who wish to improve the education of their children are doing something that is good, and that the opponents of private education must, in general, admit is good. The opponents of private education do not, normally, argue that private schools are very bad for children, and so should be stopped. Rather, it is that they give the children an advantage in life -- that they are good.

It is true that the wealthy will be more able to give their children these advantages than others. This is inevitable, as that is what 'wealthy' means -- more able to acquire and transfer advantages than average. The standard view is that the children get a benefit they have done nothing to deserve. That may be true, but I don't think it is the over-riding perspective. You must also consider that the parents are doing what they think is good, and that you agree with them that this is good, and yet you want to stop them.

In the absence of state education, this would be prone to producing horrible injustices. However, the answer to this is to provide and improve state education, not to ban private schools. If an evil can be remedied by means of a good, that should be done. It should not be remedied by means of another evil unless there is no alternative, and the other evil is lesser. In this case, it isn't even clear that the other evil is the lesser evil. An equal society in which people are only allowed to pursue state-sanctioned good acts strikes me as a far greater evil than an unequal society in which people are allowed to carry out any good acts they wish.

Let us extend the question a little. Suppose that a poor but intelligent father chooses to spend an hour every evening reading to and with his children, introducing them to a wide range of subjects and encouraging them to discuss them critically. Once they start school he tries to supplement the curriculum, rather than treading on the teachers' toes. Clearly, this will be of substantial benefit to the children. Would those who want to ban private schools also like to ban this? Would they like to ban parents from doing any good for their children at all, requiring merely that they refrain from actual harm? That is clearly absurd. Paying for someone else to teach your children is morally no different from doing it yourself, and may be morally superior if you know yourself not to be a skilled teacher. Indeed, saying that uneducated parents should not have access to any means to improve their children's education, as they would have to pay for it and that should be banned, seems at least as unjust as the situation that banning private education is supposed to rectify. I suspect, in part from personal experience, that someone on more than the minimum wage who really wanted to send her children to a private school could afford to do so. It would be very far from easy, of course, but should it be banned? It is easier for the rich to do so, true. It is also easier for the intelligent and educated to help their children with their homework. Should those who find it easy to do particular kinds of good be prevented from doing so? I think the suggestion is obviously absurd.

So, it would be immoral to ban private education, as it is immoral, in general, to stop people doing good in the way that they choose, at least if you admit that they are doing good.

Thus, there is a two-fold defence of private education. On the one hand, it helps preserve a diversity in the state which serves as a defence against totalitarianism. On the other, it would be positively immoral to ban it. Those who oppose private education in general, then, seem to be both misguided and, albeit unwittingly, attempting to do evil.

David Chart
13 April 2003
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