In defence of Public Schools

Mehdi Hasan of the Hufffington Post recently wrote an article entitled:

Warren Buffett Is Right: It’s Time to Ban Private Schools

Here at The Libertarian Press, we don’t like ‘banning’ things. As such, it is necessary to refute Mr Hasan’s claims that the banning of public schools will do no end of good for the British education system. That is because it simply isn’t true.

I am going to start my argument with an analogy. As an historian by nature I always tend to look toward the past, draw upon comparison. So what compares to the banning of public schools in modern Britain? That’s easy, the Ukrainian holocaust of 1932/33, or Holodomor. Joe Stalin decided one day he rather didn’t like the Ukrainian Kulaks, they were too successful for their own good. So what happened? The Kulaks were rounded up, and if not shot, distributed into new farming collectives. In one year, 7.5 million Ukrainians were dead, Stalin having presided over the systematic starvation of an entire people.

Now, I am not suggesting that banning public schools would be in any way as horrific as what the Ukrainians went through. But the principle is the same. To treat a problem in a system by abolishing the healthiest part of said system is a tragic and deluded idea, that will only lead to more problems.

It seems rather absurd the suggestion that if public schools were done away with, the state school system would eventually become significantly stronger. Mr Hasan suggests that parents would be forced to invest in their local schools, thus increasing the quality. There are 2 problems with this.

1. This ‘elite class’ is apparently quite small, therefore it seems a ridiculous notion that they would make any real impact on their local communities. There simply aren’t enough of them.

2. If, as is suggested, these people are so fabulously wealthy as to afford to send their kids to public schools, one thing will happen the day the public schools are shut down. That is, said fabulously wealthy parents will simply send their kids to other countries to study. We are seeing it happen in the university system already, where kids are choosing to go to prestigious (and cheaper) Dutch and other European institutions that now offer courses in English. There are plenty of private schools in other countries all over the world that would be happy for Mum and Dad to spend their pounds in. Its called the free market.

Any ban on public schools in Britain would release around 615,000 public school children into the already burdened state system. The result would be no less than an utter catastrophe. The infrastructure would simply not be able to cope with such a sudden rise in numbers, let alone the inevitable rise in cost for the government (and ensuing tax hikes to pay for what currently pays for itself!). That is unless, the schools themselves were nationalised, their facilities requisitioned by the state for the purpose of the many. Not only would this be illegal, it would be little better than the actions of Uncle Joe in the Ukraine.

The truth of the matter is that the British education system has been in terminal decline since the introduction of the comprehensive schools. Unlike the state sector, the private sector has seen no such decline, and remain as top quality institutions. It could be argued this is not the school’s fault, rather the exam system of A-levels and GCSE’s. The private sector is dealing with this problem with more and more introduction of the international baccalaureate, which is pretty generally recognised by UK universities. Meanwhile the comprehensive system suffocates in a ‘one rule for them all’ policy, in which the schools are not able to take real control of their education.

I will end this article where I began. Here at The Libertarian Press, we don’t like ‘banning’ things. To ban the public school is to destroy what is functional in the education system. What would be left is what we already have, a dysfunctional state education system that will be nowhere nearer to achieving  meritocratic utopia. We need to fix what is broken, not break what is fixed.

Edmund Greaves is co-editor of The Libertarian Press. He also writes travel articles at the www.curiousenglishman.com

Comments

  1. While I don’t think banning public schools is necessarily a good thing, I don’t think it’s true that people would just send their kids to foreign schools. For one thing, people just wouldn’t want to send their kids to a foreign country. The vast majority of pupils at fee-paying schools don’t board, this isn’t the 1930s. For another, coming from an area where there are a lot of private schools, the people who choose them aren’t necessarily fabulously wealthy. They are in comparison to a lot of the population, but people get themselves into debt sending their children to these schools. I think if you shut down all the private schools around today, only a tiny proportion of parents would then send their children to a foreign school.

    I think at the very least, private schools need to do more to justify their charitable status, or they shouldn’t have that status. If they’re not willing to do anything charitable, then they ought to raise their fees. As you say, it’s a free market. What’s your perspective on that?

    Also, with respect, I don’t think comparing anything to Stalin is helpful. I can see the point you’re trying to make, but it looks a bit hysterical. Good post overall, but I nearly stopped reading at the start because of that.

    • Hi Bryony, thanks for your comment (its Ed, the author!). I think you are right, a fair amount of this article is hyperbole, especially the Stalin bit. I suppose I should have made it more evident, it was an attempt at mocking the other article…I found his title in particular was written for its shock value.

      A lot of parents do indeed run themselves into debt in order to send their kids to private school. This is as much an issue of poor quality in the state sector as anything. The restrictions that parents face with regard to choosing what school they send their kids to (the post code lottery) is essentially a protectionist market. Poor performing schools do not fail as they are unnaturally supported by parents who are forced into sending their kids there. Areas with good schools are subject to unnaturally high house prices as a result, and the opposite is true of the poor school areas. This is a self-fulfilling cycle.

      While I don’t believe the state system should become a free market (despite being a Libertarian I do believe in certain state responsibilities, education in particular), I think that some free market principles should be embraced. Parents should be allowed to choose what school they send their kids to. This will cause some schools to fail, and ultimately be replaced.

      I agree with you on charitable status, they should most definitely have to earn it. I am afraid I don’t know the big picture with the majority, however the school I attended was very involved in the local community, particularly in aiding the development of a new state school. I would hope others do the same.

      • I’m sceptical about the parental choice thing, in that I think it leads to certain schools being completely over subscribed by pushy middle-class parents, while families who aren’t so interested in education just send their kids to the nearest one, which naturally doesn’t do as well because the teachers are having to deal with that lack of impetus from home in all their pupils.

  2. I agree that shutting down private schools would be completely unrealistic, as you say there’s little point in breaking a system that works simply because most don’t have access to it, nobody benefits from that.

    However, that doesn’t discount change of the system, which I would be interested to hear more from you on. As things stand entrance to many of these schools is decided by monetary, not meritocratic factors. This effectively leads us to seeing many who would benefit from such an education unable to do so because of either geographic, economic, or social reasons. It also sees certain socio-economic classes enjoy a monopoly of the best education, followed by the best jobs, and then once again send their offspring to the best schools. Personally, I can’t see how this situation is supportive of any sort of liberty, as certain groups are effectively able to perpetuate their positions in the power structures of society. Though this is a problem of which schooling only makes up a part, social issues making up the rest, surely there must be ways to break this cycle through changes to private education?

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