Elite Educators Have Milked the System for Long Enough

Yves here. I am impressed that a UK think tank was able to do the heavy lifting to document the spending differences between elite and public schools as well as give examples of the outcomes, such as vastly better ability to adapt teaching approaches to Covid limitations. It would be revealing to see a similar study in US. Admittedly we have more types to consider: public schools, charter schools, and no bones about it private schools. But hint, hint, perhaps readers can provide anecdata in the meantime.

By Sol Gamsu, a geography PhD student at King’s College London. His research examines social and spatial inequalities in post-16 education in and outside of London, focussing in particular on unequal patterns of entry to university. Twitter: @SolGamsu. Originally published at openDemocracy

COVID-19 revealed the depth of economic, social and educational inequality in England. State schools had to deal with rising levels of child poverty and inadequate provision of laptops. In response, the government promised state school catch-up funding worth only £50 per pupil – which is pretty palty compared with the £12,866 per pupil average advantage enjoyed by private schools.

In 2017-18, state schools in England had a median income of only £5,782 per pupil, while the figure for private schools was nearly four times that – £18,648 – my recent report for the Common Wealth think tank found.

It’s little wonder then that throughout the pandemic, private schools had an advantage over their state sector peers. They were able to provide more online teaching than state schools – a gap that actually widened between the first and the second lockdown – and emerged the winners of two summers of chaotic exams.

Private schools claim to be “independent” from the state. But many of their sources of income are protected by the state, with favourable tax and regulatory regimes safeguarding their charitable status, business rates exemptions, tuition fee income, stock market investments, property rents and spin-off businesses.

Meanwhile, state school spending per pupil is lower than it was in 2010, and will remain so despite increases announced in 2019 that will run to 2023, according to new figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

The crucial question is, not just why state school funding has fallen, but why are children in private schools always worth more, and protected more, than their state-educated peers?

Over the last 150 years, acts of parliament and legal judgements have created a system that reinforces the financial advantage for schools of the elite and middle classes. The land and stocks that imbue private schools with much of their wealth and income were often donated with the intention of providing free education for local children. But legislation passed in the 1860s allowed schools to ignore the original charitable intentions of their founders and use the money for the education of the middle and upper classes.

The Social Democratic Federation argued that this wealth was “the rightful inheritance of the people” and should be used to build an education system for the majority. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the early trades union movement demanded the return of the economic wealth held by the likes of Eton and Harrow, as well as Oxford and Cambridge.

Given the woeful state of education that most children in this country are forced to endure, isn’t it time to return to these demands?

At the apex of the private school system rests organisations with simply astronomical levels of wealth. Thirty-seven private schools in my Common Wealth study enjoy incomes of more than £30,000 per pupil. Heading the list are Marlborough (£64,427 per pupil), Eton (£55,712), Christ’s Hospital (£49.765), Wellington (£49,405) and Winchester (£47,646). As my study shows, England’s largest gap between the private and public sector is in the wealthy rural shires.

Among the day schools that predominate in cities, the capital – particularly West London – has the wealthiest schools and thus the biggest inequalities, although inequalities in the provincial cities can still be significant. The country’s wealthiest day school is St Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith, with an income of £27,721 per pupil. Eight other day schools in the capital had incomes of more than £20,000 per pupil.

Faced with widening educational inequality due to the pandemic, ministers have floated the idea of state school pupils and teachers having shorter holidays and longer school days. Prominent former private school heads such as Antony Seldon backed the latter suggestion, saying it would help “bridge the gap” between the state and independent sectors.

But such claims are laughable. They serve only to distract attention from the huge economic inequalities between private and state schools that create these gaps, and that underpinned the different experience of privately educated pupils both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Why should state school teachers and pupils be made to work harder and longer to reduce inequalities that private schools create?

Rather than accepting these inequalities as inevitable, requiring harder work on the part of those already disadvantaged to “catch up”, or indeed “level up”, it’s time to lay out a roadmap to reduce these inequalities, in both education and throughout society at large.

Private Schools, State Support

The Common Wealth report that I wrote earlier this year does just that. (You can explore the full data from the report here.) As a practical first step, voluntary donations, in the form of payments towards business rates or donations to local state schools, could be campaigned for through local petitions or open letters signed by residents and politicians. The aim would be not only to win money but to build consciousness and debate towards a longer-term aim of wholesale integration of private schools into the state sector.

Another key proposal is using the investment and endowment income of private schools in England (upwards of £81m per year) to create a people’s educational endowment, in which pupils, education workers and parents could vote on how to distribute funds in their area, alongside a well-funded state system.

The original capital that many of the now elite schools benefited from was originally donated for free local educational provision. It has been used for the education of the elite and middle classes for long enough.

During the summer, the Department for Education enthusiastically supported suggestions for children to sing that they are “one Britain, one Nation… united in one great team”. But schools are not united, and no amount of appeals to a dystopian nationalism can disguise that.

The previous Labour leadership seemed serious about tackling educational inequalities, including the unfair advantages enjoyed by private schools. But maintaining the hope that many of us campaigners felt back in 2019 has been hard as the double blows of COVID-19 and the current government have worsened matters.

We need both optimism and a more practical strategy to engage, enthuse and keep our campaign for change alive, amid the day-to-day struggles in schools, colleges and universities. Education is the best way to give all children a fair start in life, and so our school system needs an urgent overhaul to tackle the increasing inequalities created by capitalism and COVID.

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    1. Karl Greenall

      Absolutely correct!
      The fundamental issue in British, particularly English politics, is the appalling level of propaganda and accompanying blanket misinformation put out daily by the MSM. Even the Guardian is a guilty party in this.
      One would think that the mild-mannered Jeremy Corbyn was an IRA/Hamas, terrorism supporting incarnation of Beelzebub from what many people believe.
      And a purely instrumental, poorly designed education system plays it’s part in enabling this.
      Great article!

      1. ex-PFC Chuck

        ” . . the appalling level of propaganda and accompanying blanket misinformation put out daily by the MSM.

        Good thing we don’t have that here in dog’s country, the good ol’ US of A.
        O, wait . .

    2. JohnA

      That is not entirely correct. The first past the post system means that very few votes effectively count. Until there is some kind of proportional representation where the percentage of votes matches the same percentage of seats, this will remain the case.

    3. Count Zero

      Nobody is asking for your sympathy — obviously something in short supply. That’s not the point of the article. It’s about how social inequalities are reproduced hiding behind the apparent equality of educational achievement. And it offers practical solutions to remedy these injustices — some of them originating in misappropriation of public funds.

      A minority of the electorate have voted for successive Tory governments anyway.

  1. Sound of the Suburbs

    I’ve got a great plan for education.
    We give a first class education to 7% of the population in private schools
    The education of the other 93% we can under-fund, as the all the important people go to private schools.

    That’s what we do already.
    It ensures the children of the wealthy get the best jobs, which is what we want.
    Pretending it’s a meritocracy can be tricky, but I think we’ve got away with it.

  2. Maritimer

    “Pretending it’s a meritocracy….”
    Why the emphasis on Industrial Education? Well, because, there are huge vested interests controlling it, just like War, “Health”, Finance….Keep in mind also that a lot of this education is compelled, coerced like….Vaccines!

    Why not examine how people actually get jobs? Much of it is connection, connection and more connection. There is a lot of truth to “It’s not what you know, but who you know.”

    And all that study, study, rote, rote. How much of that is actually ever used on the job?

    And in terms of the Decline/Fall of America, how much of it is due to the fact we have an unmeritocracy? Neil Sheehan got it right about Vietnam. If The Best and The Brightest (were they?) gave us that debacle what have the Worst and the Dimmest given us? Dot Com crash, Afghanistan, Iraq, anti-social Media, 2008 Bailout, Covid Disaster to name the lowlights.

    1. John Wright

      I see the problem as a broken feedback system in which those that promote these disasters never pay a lifestyle price.

      Witness the extraordinarily damaging George W. Bush being rehabilitated by various people as “better than Trump”..

      Questioning events or exposing malfeasance is cast as treason (Snowden, Ellsberg and other whistle blowers).

      Going along with the current order seems to be the way to power, wealth, and positions at think tanks and universities.

      Obama managed to finesse the system very well, liberals may still maintain he was prevented by the Republicans from doing the “right things” as he kicked the can down the road (limited financial industry reform, maintaining Iraq/Afghanistan/Libya, tailoring Obama care for insurance companies and big pharma) and in the process, becoming wealthy.

      Obama is truly a master of the craft.

  3. PlutoniumKun

    I’d just add that for the UK (and Ireland and several other countries), private schools also get even more income from foreign students. I suspect that the clampdown on private schooling in China will add even more. Its not just the very rich, I know several Chinese of fairly moderate wealth who have devoted an enormous amount of their time and income to getting their children into ‘name’ private schools in Europe. They see it as well worth the investment. This feeds a whole related infrastructure of businesses devoted to serving this market. This is, for very many of the cosmopolitan nouveau riche a very big attraction of England and Switzerland in particular – they can shove their children into a new upper class with no allegiances to any country via the private schooling system.

    I have a fairly wealthy single mom friend in London who gives me her daily update of the monstrously cut throat behaviour of the various Russian, Middle Eastern and Chinese mothers she knows as they force their children into the maelstrom of getting into Eton or equivalent. It sounds horrendous and seems guaranteed to raise a whole generation of well educated cosmopolitan sociopaths.

    1. Questa Nota

      The US collegiate system has its own funding methods including different tuition based on residence. In-state students pay less than out-of-state and foreigner students. You can guess where that is headed.

      Clever clogs rebalance the admissions shares toward less of the former to fund those attractions that state tuition and budgets just don’t cover. That leads to periodic protests and promises to push for more prosody more equitable treatment of local proles.

    2. CountvZero

      Well we do need a new generation of well-educated cosmopolitan sociopaths to follow in the footsteps of the current generation of well-educated cosmopolitan sociopaths.

  4. witters

    PNAC Rules!

    “I have a fairly wealthy single mom friend in London who gives me her daily update of the monstrously cut throat behaviour of the various Russian, Middle Eastern and Chinese mothers she knows as they force their children into the maelstrom of getting into Eton or equivalent. It sounds horrendous and seems guaranteed to raise a whole generation of well educated cosmopolitan sociopaths”

  5. David

    I’m not sure how the “funding gap” is supposed to be calculated, and I haven’t the time or inclination to dig into the background, but I’m only surprised that the author is surprised. Most English people have known about this situation for decades.
    “Public” (ie private) schools began for the most part as charities, and they have been able to retain that status, even though they are in effect businesses. (Most of them are not boarding schools like Eton, but just day-schools). A removal of charitable status, which has often been talked about but never pursued, would probably make some of the unviable, which, in the end, would be a good thing.
    Such schools often had bequests of land, and rents from land make up a large part of their income. (The same applies to some Oxford and Cambridge Colleges by the way.) Whilst removal of charitable status would presumably mean they had to pay taxes on this income, there’s no way in which an entity that owns property can ever have the same financial basis as one that doesn’t.
    Finally, of course, and most importantly, private schools can and do charge huge fees to parents who want the status of not having children in the state system. In addition, most of these schools have stuck to traditional concepts of study and discipline, and obtain substantially better examination results as a result. They also have the ability to effectively expel students who don’t look as if they will succeed.
    As long as what are effectively educational businesses are allowed to survive, then wealthy parents will have a massive advantage over ordinary parents. That’s the real issue, and it’s a fundamental political one. To a large extent detailed funding calculations are beside the point.

    1. Jeff

      Apologies if this question comes across wrong, but what’s wrong with the rich paying top dollar for top shelf education? Isn’t the issue the gap between the very top and the average, not that the top has the best?

  6. Hayek's Heelbiter

    I’ve lived in the UK on and off since the days of Ted Heath – garbage strikes, brown outs, shillings in the gas meter – and permanently since 2010.

    I, too, had the average American’s view of the England as a “green and pleasant land” based upon non-stop watching of British imports on PBS.

    It has taken me decades to realize that despite all appearances to the contrary, England remains essentially a feudal society (albeit with skyscrapers and electricity), nearly a millennium after the Norman invasion.

    Almost any issue you care to investigate, such as the inequality between state schools and “public” schools, can be traced back to the “Greatest Land Grab in History.”

    Ground rents. The fact that the Duke of Westminster owns half the real estate in London

    The revolving door of Oxbridge graduates in the government, media and corporate governance despite an oft-demonstrated incompetence they demonstrate in their positions.

    As an Oxford graduate barrister once remarked to me, “No one goes to Oxford to learn anything You go to Oxford to meet the people who are going to give you a job when you get out.”

    What I find even more fascinating is that the people most disadvantaged by the inequities in the social structure do not question it, and often have a serf mentality, always seeking the favour of those they believe to be socially superior to them. Only the Germans would have a word like “schadenfreude” and only the English would have a phrase like “forelock-tugging.”

    Perhaps this is to be expected as the genetic map of Britain hasn’t really changed since the Anglo-Saxon influx, and for hundreds of years, most people married spouses who lived in three miles of each other.

    1. Pinhead

      Having grown up in America and lived for almost 60 years in Europe (Switzerland, Sweden, England and France) I may be able to add a “citizen of nowhere” view to this debate.
      The problem of unequal income for different schools is real but far less significant, in my view, than the grotesque underfunding of schools everywhere. As usual the Nordic countries do better than the others but that is faint praise.
      Teachers should have incomes roughtly equal to those of other professionls: doctors, solicitors, barristers, chartered accountants, architects and IT specialts. It should be a political principle everywhere that a university graduates can choose a teaching career and know that they will not be financially handicaped for life (and socially ostracised to a significant extent as well) .
      The quality of education everywhere would literally explode in a positive way. A further reform, giving the heads of schools a level of autonomy comparable to that of the owner of a small business would create a pool of diversity allowing all the schools in the world to learn from each other. Quality would rise even further.
      How to convince voters that quality education is society’s best investment by far? Many of those who benefit most from today’s system would probably not object.

  7. enoughisenough

    Important article, but atrocious title. The title implies that it’s the teachers living off public largesse, as scroungers. It suggests the article wants to make a case for austerity, to punish those greedy educators.

    That’s not what the article is, at all. What maniacal editor came up with that one. I could really use less teacher-bashing from the press. :/

  8. Felix_47

    How about shutting down TV for 23 hours per day? How about encouraging children to read. Adults don’t seem to read much any more. Youtube is impressive if you want to learn how to fix your plumbing or whatever but just free range reading for kids seems to work best for mine. Aimless curiosity. Sadly that is not encouraged in schools at all. I don’t think I ever learned anything in school and I did a lot of it. I found school was something you had to do to get to the next gate and it interrupted learning and I was in STEM!! And aimless curiousity is what generates high SAT scores. The tests are pretty aimless. It is remarkable how successful home schooled kids are. Schools are about regimenting behaviour. Grades are about regimenting knowledge. And if we feel that minorities are getting cheated on the hiring front how about just randomizing hiring? We already know that if someone is a great golfer they will have a great career in business. Golf is a lot more important in the investment industry than, for example, math skills. One can always hire a programmer. But getting the pension trustees, usually political hacks, to give you their retirees money to invest has nothing to do with anything but golf, alcohol and other sorts of things. But if we want to be fair just randomize hiring and promotion. Set a basic standard and let everyone apply. We will never get fairness focusing on schools.

  9. Sam F

    There is no controversy of significance pitting public vs. private education.
    No one decides to give private education more money.

    The main problems of public education are that:
    1. it is underfunded to keep property tax down.
    2. spending is controlled by ignorant local politicians.
    3. It is extremely distorted by mass media ignorance and disinformation.

    So the solution are:
    1. Mandate funding at the federal level at federally fund differences;
    2. Put control under state authorities
    3. Restrict mass media funding to limited individual donations (no advertising).

    The restriction of election funding to limited individual donations would eliminate plutocracy, which is probably necessary to reform media funding.

    That doesn’t happen because the tools of democracy are already controlled by the rich.
    No reform is possible until the US declines to the point of revolution, which requires the poor to infiltrate and control all enforcement agencies to deny enforcement to the rich scammers who control them.

  10. Ep3

    Yves, this article made me think of 2 points. One, the lack of a strategy to deal with kids missing over a year of school (I’m not talking about colleges either. They seemed to have all the support & advising that they wanted or needed. Gotta make sure those “student-athletes” don’t miss any eligibility. I won’t ask how much bailout money they got. I bet it’s a lot.). Second, a year before the pandemic, here in my small town, we voted a property tax increase to fund over $100m in renovations & updates (Olympic swimming pool, expanded weight room, all the things that make kids smarter). Not only was that work stopped, but the question came up about why we were investing money into buildings that were now going unused. It became really serious when folks started asking for the connection between an Olympic size swimming pool and getting kids educated. (Luckily those discussions were quickly squashed by focusing on the fascists making kids wear masks). Instead of rethinking how to get kids educated & prepared for the workforce, we continue to dump millions into fancy buildings & sports facilities (not to mention these contracts are part of the wonderful lobbying kickback cycle).
    Competition is a nice way of saying survival of the fittest.

  11. Dave in Austin

    And exactly how does the English system differ from the American system, where the children of our leaders go to $40k/year Sidwell Friends and Congressional in DC, Dalton in NYC… St George in RI… I’ll spare you the laundry list.

    But it isn’t just the money spent. Some of the highest test scores in the US come from the small-town, low cost schools in the upper mid-west and in Utah with all those Mormon kids jammed into clasrooms while NYC, Baltimore, etc spend well over $15,000/student and get very little for the money. Parents routinely move to towns in Texas which spend relatively little on schools because the number of disruptive (and expensive to school) students is small.

    Catholic schools are another embarrasing exception- high results and low costs with 40 kids/class and almost no administrative overhead because the teachers simply don’t have to put up with disruptive kids. In my good-but-not-perfect Catholic HS in Pawtucket, RI a few of the good- natured rough kids used to be invited downstairs to the boxing ring by a very nice, not large Christian Brother who had been, if I remember correctly, the NYC Golden Gloves champion in his weight class in 1940. I was an overweight nerd but I never feared for my safety there, unlike kids I knew in the nearby public high school.

    Private schools sometimes have the advantage of great money, but the biggest advantage they have is safety for both the students and teachers, which creates an environment with low costs and high results. And the badly raised kids? What should we do about them? I don’t have an answer. But allowing them to disrupt the education of the other students and impose extra costs on the system isn’t working for anyone’s benefit.

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