There’s been an insidious flow of articles in the last year or so that seem to take one of two positions, but with much the same end goal. The first is the most obvious, the lament that “prejudice” against private schools is “the last acceptable prejudice”. These usually equate suggesting that perhaps, just perhaps, every elite institution shouldn’t self-perpetuate by only selecting from fee-paying schools with racism, sexism, homophobia or disablism. Because punching up is exactly the same as punching down. Power dynamics never meant a thing. Similar articles also argue that any attempt to widen participation in higher education, by modulating results and taking into account socioeconomic factors that impact on exam results are THE GREATEST INJUSTICE TO MAN. Because if one Etonian who gets three As is passed over for a state schooled kid from a council estate in Hull with equal grades, on account of the fact it’s unarguably harder to attain those three As given their background, the slight done to that Etonian is a slight to the entire concept of fairness. Examples include these charming articles.
The second is more sly, and makes me more angry – the article that argues that poorer kids may just be happier skipping university, and that “quality, not equality” should be the aim of our education policy. This is industrial level bullshit for a number of reasons. First of all there’s the snide and fallacious argument that disadvantaged children are poorer in intellectual ability, as well as economic happenstance. It fits a certain political narrative to argue that, but it’s patent rubbish, as research has proven. If you admit students from the state sector, and the private sector with the same grades, state school students outperform them. Yet at the same time, as various voices in the media worry about poor little rich kids losing the places they’re “entitled” to, the most advantaged 20% of young people are still eight times more likely than the most disadvantaged 20% to go to university.
And it matters, because education is still one of the easiest and most cost effective ways to increase equality. And the UK Is desperately, increasingly unequal. Our cabinet reflects this, austerity increases this, the recession has deepened this. Having more children being born into poverty, and fewer of these children going to university is a great method of increasing inequality. Filling our universities with the privately educated children of the rich is a great way to increase inequality. With warnings that postgraduate studies is becoming the “domain of the wealthy” and that – surprise! – when it comes to Oxford admission, private school pupils are still at an advantage it’s obvious that broadsheet fears the rich are being spurned by the Russel Group is bunkum. Despite the claims that the rich are experiencing “reverse classism” it’s obvious as ever that the elite take care of their own. Seemingly benevolent arguments that the poor may be better off with vocational courses, or going straight into work (despite the huge unemployment rates concentrated around the areas the disadvantaged live in) serve the most comfortable in society, and reinforce the idea that only certain types of people benefit from education.
Education should be free, but it isn’t. Don’t let that be the basis on which to let people with an agenda propose keeping poorer students out of higher education.