Private Schools In The UK Push Back On Education Equality

Feb 14, 2020 by

The battle for equality in education is one that’s as old as time and will outlive all of us. Even if it’s true that the majority of people believe that all children have the right to the same level of education, and that ability should outstrip class and wealth when it comes to having access to the best teachers and facilities available, it will never be the case so long as those with the money to pay for their child to skip the queue continue to do so. Now it seems that some of the United Kingdom’s leading private schools are determined to push back against any attempts at modernization.

Of all the countries in the world, the UK is the one that has the longest history of class-based education. Any child who was educated at Harrow or Eton is likely to enjoy a better life than a child educated at any other school, even if that child’s academic achievements are poor. Similarly, a student who attends Oxford University or Cambridge University and obtains a second class degree in physics is likely to be offered better career opportunities than a student who got a first-class degree in physics from any other university, even though they were educationally outperformed. The shadow of elitism is long in the UK, and it isn’t going away any time soon.

Nobody is arguing that private schools or universities should be forced to accept poor students regardless of their achievements, or that they should do so blindly. The process of awarding school and education placements needs to have some kind of structure; else, it would become like a game of online slots, where the outcome is random. Some, however, would argue that it’s already like online slots now because there are winners and losers under the current system, and the actions taken by the winners are no different from the actions taken by the losers. If losing at online slots affected your employment prospects for the rest of your life, nobody would play them. This is precisely why a better system needs to be identified for allowing access to quality education. A student who has demonstrated the academic capacity should not and must not miss out on a place because a rich student is able to buy-in ahead of them.

The almost-absurd argument put across by the private schools that don’t want to accept more students from disadvantaged backgrounds is that doing so may amount to discriminating against wealthier students based on their class – a tone-deaf point that fails to acknowledge that the current state of play is the opposite of that position. An independent report commissioned barely over a year ago has identified that the inequality of education in the United Kingdom is higher than almost any other developed nation in the world. A comparatively-poor child born in Eastern Europe has a better chance of accessing high-quality education than a poor child born in the United Kingdom. Clearly, in a country that has the fifth largest economy in the world, the situation is unacceptable.

The current proposal regarding increased participation for poorer students comes from England’s Office for Students, which has the responsibility of regulating education and education services within the country. If the proposals are followed up, the number of disadvantaged students gaining access to the most prestigious schools in the country will increase by 6,500 every year for the next five years. The Headmasters and Headmistresses’ Conference – a committee that represents the interests of those schools – says that this amounts to ‘robbing some students of a future to award it to others.’

The student admissions cap in the UK was lifted five years ago and has seen substantial growth in the number of admissions at almost every university in the country – with the notable exceptions of Cambridge and Oxford, whose numbers remain unchanged. The executives of both universities claim that they’ve chosen to focus more on diversifying the social and ethnic makeup of their student groups rather than take on more students, but thus far, the evidence they’ve presented to demonstrate that fact has been insubstantial. The most recent statistics available strongly suggest that nothing significant had changed – a student born in one of the wealthier parts of the country is more than five times more likely to be accepted into an elite educational institution than a student who was born in a poorer area, regardless of grades. This suggests that progress is not being made toward the government’s target, which is to reduce that ratio to one in four by 2025 and then no disparity at all by 2040.

Perhaps the most telling comment on the matter comes from Mike Buchanan, who is the executive director of the Headmasters and Headmistresses’ Conference. He has insisted that the right of elite schools and universities to use ‘contextual admissions’ policies – which amounts to scrutinizing the socio-economic background of a candidate – is perfectly reasonable, and should be acceptable when looking at the merits of candidates on an individual basis. So long as attitudes such as his prevail in places where decisions are made, and policies are decided, it’s hard to see how any progress can be made on the matter. Elite-level schools will continue to be be made up of mostly-white, mostly-wealthy students, and those from less fortunate backgrounds will continue to receive a second-class education. Because of that, they’re likely to spend their careers working in second-class jobs.

A wise person once said that when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality looks like oppression. That phrase may never be more appropriate than when used in reference to the way that education is structured, managed, and distributed in the United Kingdom. Students from poorer backgrounds – and those who represent them – don’t want to take places that should rightfully belong to those better off than them. They don’t want to be awarded places as hand-outs, either. They simply want to be allowed access to the best quality of education possible, based on their ability to benefit from receiving that education. That isn’t a threat to the prospects of bright children who come from wealthy backgrounds. It just means that those who do come from wealthy backgrounds ought to be at least as intelligent as the poorer students who they’re slamming the door in the face of.

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