Why are we still so accepting of public schools? They breed social inequality

Public schools perpetuate a system of social immobility. Kevin Gulliver argues that to build a fair Britain we need to end the likes of Eton and Harrow.

As the Brexit shambles and Tory infighting trundle on, Theresa May’s “burning injustices” recede as major policy priorities.

The Prime Minister pledged 18 months ago to lead a government that works for all – not the just the “privileged few” – and to boost social mobility.

Never mind that the whole Social Mobility Commission board resigned last December in protest at May’s failure to make good on her promises. Or that it has still to be fully replaced almost a year later. Or that progress on tackling May’s range of injustices has been glacial to say the least.

The reality of today’s Britain is one of rising inequalities, stalled social mobility and jarring poverty that Tory-led governments since 2010 have worsened through imposing austerity on public services and the welfare system.

Such injustices go unacknowledged in the Tory ranks. Instead, ways to improve social mobility-reducing privileges of the wealthy, a far more progressive tax system, taxing wealth more widely, and most importantly, reining-in massive public school advantages are overlooked.

The extent that the “privileged few” still control the commanding heights of Britain’s political economy and culture are depicted by Robert Verkaik in his new book Posh Boys: How English Public Schools Run Britain:

“Only 7% of the population attend public schools. Yet public school pupils represent 74% of senior judges, 71% of senior officers in the armed forces, 67% of Oscar winners, 55% of permanent secretaries in Whitehall, 50% of Cabinet ministers and members of the House of Lords, and a third of Russell Group university vice-chancellors.

“Nearly 44% of the captains of industry and business men and women on the Sunday Times Rich List attended public school. Following closely behind are 43% of newspaper columnists, 33% of MPs… Eton College educated more MPs (twenty) than any other school.”

Public schools spend seven times more per pupil each year than state schools, benefit from superior infrastructure and investment, and are featherbedded by the tax system. It is estimated that public schools, as registered charities, receive £0.5bn annually in tax breaks and that the Exchequer forgoes £1.5bn annually since public schools are VAT exempt.

Public schools offer their pupils privileged paths to top universities, top jobs and top salaries.

Rich parents subsidise unpaid internships and pass on considerable wealth down the generations. And public schools provide a readymade network of contacts that can further careers in informal ways.

Former Etonian code includes the priceless phrase “Did you go to school?” – as if it is only one school that matters.

Ex-public school pupils create a “system of self-perpetuating advantage and social immobility” according to Verkaik, that any government would find it difficult to counteract. Even if it had radical intentions at the outset.

Against all this privilege embedded in the public school system, coupled with the growth in wealth accumulation at the top of the income scale, May’s ambitions to tackle such “burning injustices”, even if taken at face value, are sure to be stymied by the privileged class that still runs Britain.

Public school privilege perpetuates social immobility. The only way to give everyone a chance is to end the public school system.


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