As someone who attended private school, I am acutely aware of the advantages and opportunities that have been conferred on me throughout my life. My parents came to the UK from Pakistan, and were determined that my brother and I should have every opportunity to succeed in their adopted homeland. They forked out for private education right the way through school, believing it to be the most important thing they could give us.
Alongside the education came violin lessons, dance lessons, trips to art galleries, evenings at the theatre. I remember my mum sitting with me patiently as I struggled through comprehension and cried over the (unnecessary) embroidery homework that my all-girls school deemed it important to dole out.
My parents did everything they could for me and my brother. And so, while I now disagree with private education, I cannot fault or blame my parents for the decision they made.
After all, as the Independent Schools Council observes, it is a decision most parents would make if they had the means. But when the average fees for a day-pupil at a private school are £14,289 per annum, and the median household disposable income is £28,400, the numbers just don’t work out for the vast majority of families.
And so, though I understand the impulse that led my parents to pay for private education, I realise that this impulse rarely translates into a reality for most UK parents. Although some parents of privately educated children like to emphasise how much they have sacrificed to send their offspring to elite establishments, it is damaging and unfair for these parents to try and pretend that everyone else could do the same if they just scrimped a bit here, and saved a bit there. The gulf between private school fees and average earnings is simply too wide for statements like this to be anything but absurd.
Parents who send their children to private school do so because they can. Simple as. They want to resolve the issues presented by an overburdened state education system, and they choose to do that by avoidance.
It is easy for critics of such parents to dismiss them as selfish, as people who disassociate themselves from society at large for the betterment of their own family unit. But by its very nature, parenting is selfish. Yes, it requires selflessness from parents towards their children, but it is a parental instinct to look after one’s own children above all others. We do not live in a communal society, where everyone is responsible for everyone else. While there are elements of this that ought to be a part of all good societies, fellow feeling does not take precedence over the family unit in most communities.
Sonia Sobha’s article in the Guardian, which argues that parents ought not to be blamed for sending their children to private school, and that change should take place at a systemic level, resonates with my own thoughts on this matter. As someone who believes in a collective society, I am nevertheless aware that human instinct will often override duty to a community. While I do believe in individual responsibility, I am skeptical as to whether large swathes of individuals can ever independently make the right choices for society as a whole.
While many on the left exalt examples of individual principle, such as Jeremy Corbyn’s split with his wife after she sent their son to a grammar school against his beliefs, it is also important to remember that a leftist worldview typically emphasises the importance of the state.
And the way I see it, this means that it is up to the state to ensure that individual ambition does not widen the divides in an already fragmented society. This is not me trying to absolve individuals of responsibility, nor is it an attempt to rationalise my own education within a leftist worldview. Far from it. While I benefitted from the private school system, I do not believe in it. I think it leaves some children better off at the expense of the rest of society.
But I am twenty-one, with no children of my own and no plans to have any for quite some time. It is easy for me to sit behind my laptop screen and pontificate, all the while having no concrete real-life stake in this debate. I hope not to change my mind in the future, but how can I legislate for what parental instinct might make anyone, my future self included, do?
And so, as long as individuals can choose to socially engineer their children’s education, do not expect most of them to make their choices in the interests of society as a whole. Parents do not have a moral responsibility for everyone else’s children. But the state does. And this is why the decision must be taken to abolish private schooling and overhaul and equalise the education system in the interests of all.
I believe that the state should have a stronger role in public life, and that it should invest in housing, education and healthcare for all. But my base instincts, like most people’s, will probably always truly lie with self-advancement and the advancement of those I love, no matter how hard I try to believe in a collective society. And so, the state must step in, and make sure that schools are evenly funded and invested in – no matter who those schools serve. It must make sure that a good education and equal educational opportunities are afforded to all children. Because I genuinely believe that when things are good for everyone, society is better as a whole. When things can only be good for an elite few, I don’t know many who would choose not to be part of that few. The state can stop people from having to make that choice.