‘Public’ schools

Foreigners are puzzled why citizens in the UK have to pay to attend a ‘public’ school. I tell them, it is the same reason why you need to use a knife and fork to eat a banana! Melissa Benn has written in the Guardian today that our ‘public’ school system is “morally rotten”. I might use different language, but tend to agree that we do have a problem. My solution? Like in Finland, I would not ban private schools, just make the state schools better. I would make two changes:

  1. The government would be mandated to fund state schools at the ‘market’ rate per pupil. So, if the average private school fees are say £12,000 per pupil per annum, then this is what we need to invest in state education.
  2. In the interests of equality and diversity, I would require all public organisations (government, law, universities, BBC etc) to rebalance their quotas of private vs state educated to match the UK population as a whole (roughtly 6% private).

Point 1 would require roughly a doubling of state funding of education. Point 2 would have a big impact on so called ‘top’ universities, where privately educated students are over represented by a factor of 5, and on parliament where ‘public’ schools are similarly overrepresented [1]. Maybe one day we might even see an MP from my old school?

[1] The quotas would have to be one parlimentary candidates within each party as we cannot mandate how people should vote, but still a party could stuff its 6% into safe seats if it wanted to, so the final outcome may be different.



  1. David Howdle -

    I agree that re-balancing is long overdue. I’d suggest a further change. “Public schools” are, I believe, almost universally charities although it is difficult for me to understand why. I’d do away with that privilege. By all means let there be “public schools”, but let them make their way in the education world without what amounts to additional state funding which simply tilts the playing field against state schools even more.

  2. Peter May -

    All very good ideas – agree entirely. It’s a scandal that state schools are 50% underfunded and the pseudo conditions that in order to be a charity they must open their facilities to others seems more honoured in the breach than the observance and also panders to the idea that the poor state cannot ‘afford’ things that the wonderful private sector can.

  3. John D -

    Peter – a point of detail. Private schools in Finland aren’t illegal but private funding is. This from Quora:
    “Private schools are not prohibited in Finland, private funding is. Our constitution states that everybody has a right to free basic education (Suomen perustuslaki 16). Also, our Basic Education Act states that an educational institution (school) can’t aim for financial gain. Schools can’t collect tuition fees or other kind of private funding – all funding must come from municipalities and/or the government.
    It is very much possible to establish a private school if you are a non-profit private company, society or a trust and get the funding from public sector and the education you are providing is free for the students.”

    Like so much else of what Finland does, this seems like a good model for other countries. A radical reform of our so-called ‘Public’ (Private) School system is long, long overdue. But who will have the courage and the majority to do it? As with so many of our institutions we’re still bogged down in the 19th century while the rest of the world has moved – or is moving – on

    1. Peter May -

      John, very good points but prob you meant to address Charles, the author. For once this wasn’t me!
      Agree very much that the governing classes look nowadays to the past. We all used to laugh at Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’ but at least he was looking to the future.

      1. John D -

        Oops …. should have gone to Specsavers! Apologies Charles. and thanks Peter for your response.

    2. Charles Adams -

      Indeed Finland is a good model. I have heard some UK politicians say that they ban private school but you are right they don’t, they just make the state schools so good that there is not a strong motivation to go private.

  4. Graham -

    While I agree with much of Charles’ argument I would go further and ban them. Public schools inculcate attitudes and beliefs that are inimical to a fair society, such as notions of entitlement, exceptionalism and superiority. They also promote nostalgic myths about the “Great” in Great Britain, the age of Empire. And, most damagingly for society, parents choose to send their offspring to these schools because they provide a well greased and effortless route to the top professions and political power through networks of like-minded people – irrespective of their fitness for these positions.

    Johnson is the embodiment of the pernicious effect public schools have and are having on the UK.

    And, as an aside, the horrible irony of public schools is that they were founded as schools for the poor.

    1. Charles Adams -

      As noted above the Finnish model (without a ban) seems to work, and I guess I am a bit reluctant to ban things unless there is direct threat to life or the rights of others. In principle, it should the job of the school inspectorate to ensure than any school, state or private, does not promote ideas or attitudes that are detrimental to society as a whole?

      1. Peter May -

        Absolutely agree. The lack of a ban would also enable parents from abroad to install their offspring in these private schools because they are, it appears, so impressed with them. Indeed I’ve heard it suggested that Rees Mogg and Cameron wouldn’t get in to Eton today because of the wealth (in all senses!) of foreign ‘talent’.. ..

      2. John D -

        Just a final observation (if permitted). Having lived on the Continent for 13 years (where my children received excellent state education as did 95% of the country) and having also spent some time in the US, I’ve never encountered any other nation so obsessed with what SECONDARY school a person attended. Nobody cares a toss. Uni perhaps; but secondary? Really? This alone speaks volumes about systemic class distinction in the UK.

  5. Boris Holgate -

    The average cost of all non-State education appears to be less than the cost of State education.
    I presume that Charles doesn’t want to take financial resources away from State schools.
    Oh, you didn’t include community education, religious education done privately, self-learning, parenting, private tuition. Imagine telling parents they can’t pay for private tuition because it will increase the formula Charles uses to decide how much money should be spent in the State sector.
    Not going to work.

    1. Peter May -

      @John D
      I think that’s a very good point, But don’t forget there are lots and lots of foreigners – presumably because they like English – who are keen to receive a private and ‘English’ education of allegedly fine quality…

      Is that the vestiges of empire?

    2. Charles Adams -

      “The average cost of all non-State education appears to be less than the cost of State education.”

      What is your reference for this?

      Average private school day fees are £15k


      whereas state funding per pupil is less than £6k.


      Why would you add private tuition to the state funding? Private is private.

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