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Engines of Privilege—Dismantling an education system for the powerful

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Public schools help to entrench an unequal society. We can build something better, writes Miriam Scharf
Issue 2639
Harrow School
The rich pour out of private schools and into boardrooms (Pic: Robert Cutts/Wikipedia)

In new book Engines of Privilege, authors Francis Green and David Kynaston say loud and clear that Britain’s private schools are a social problem.

It looks at a system where the rich can pay for a separate and much better-resourced education for their children.

We are reminded that our governments—both Labour and Tory—are largely made up of posh boys.

The authors argue this phenomenon is unique to Britain.

They are alarmed at the public school clique, a lack of social mobility and the travesty of unequal opportunity of education.

Green and Kynaston show how private schools provide access to Oxbridge, then well-paid jobs and the social network of power and privilege.

This inequality is indefensible. It means the rich and their lobbyists are always ready with dishonest and spurious arguments.

But they rarely have to engage their forces, so weak have been the attempts to challenge the unfair school system.


They do however detail the few real attempts to tackle these “engines of privilege” under Labour and Tory governments—and the ways changes have been derailed.

This provides important background for their main focus.

The motivation behind writing the book is not merely to describe the gross inequality of education, but to change it.

The authors show convincingly that no systems of bursaries, sponsorships or partnerships have had any impact.

And they also argue that removal of tax relief or charitable status would “barely register on the Richter scale of their bursars’ anxieties”.

The penultimate chapter examines options for reform”.

This is the nitty gritty. Socialists, left Labour Party members and educationalists could skip to here.

Various ways of resolving the problem are offered. They suggest more open recruitment by bosses, which would involve workers stating their schooling on job applications.

Green and Kynaston think elite universities should be made to fill a quota from private schools.

And they approve of Labour’s manifesto commitment to increase tax on private school fees.

But better, they say, would be to start the integration of private schools into the state sector.

This could pose problems—as partial integration could end up with the state subsidising private schools.

They suggest around 33 percent of state-funded pupils in a school with both fee-paying and non fee-paying students.

Green and Kynaston finally consider and then quickly reject a policy of full integration, with no places left for fee payers.

In effect this would nationalise the sector—Finland has done it, with great educational outcomes.

“Reform of the private schools will not alone be sufficient to achieve a good education for all, let alone a good society, but surely it is a necessary condition,” is the authors’ conclusion.

This book provides warnings and lessons of what doesn’t work and ideas of what policies could work to dismantle these “engines of privilege’.

Their message—enough outrage, it’s time for action.

Engines of Privilege
By Francis Green and David Kynaston
Available from Bookmarks


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