Private schools are on the brink of collapse. Thank you, coronavirus.

Eton College and Boris Johnson looking shocked
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There may only be one positive outcome of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. And it’s that dozens of private schools in the UK are on the brink of collapse.

“Terribly sad”

In the UK there are around 2,500 independent schools, educating about 630,000 children and young people. On Saturday 6 June, the Telegraph reported that around 30 private schools were facing closure. It noted:

Nine private schools have already formally announced that they intend to shut down, but… there are around 30 overall which are in a similar position.

The chief executive of the Independent Schools Council (ISC) Julie Robinson called the situation “terribly sad”. She told the Telegraph:

It is impossible to predict with accuracy the full impact this pandemic will have… Of course it is already affecting independent schools like all small businesses and also the livelihoods of fee-paying parents.

Not over, yet

There’s no glee to be had in people losing their jobs. But in terms of societal betterment and egalitarianism, the collapse of parts of the private education system is a good thing. Of course, one underlying challenge with ending the private education system in the UK is funding. Because the majority of independent schools are charities. For example, 1,000 of the 1,374 schools that are members of the ISC are classed as charities. Therefore, their funding is maintained through donations; hence the pandemic may not have hit them quite so hard.

But there are many reasons why the UK’s private education system should end.

Read on...

Socioeconomic divisions

As professor Francis Green wrote for the Conversation, children tend to get a higher level of intellectual education at private schools. He said:

Large-scale studies confirm the clear academic advantages to be gained from going to a private school in Britain. This holds true, even after allowing for children’s prior abilities and for the fact that children tend to come from affluent family backgrounds. At each stage of education the progress made by the privately educated is modestly but significantly above that of state-educated children on average.

Also, private schools entrench class divides. Playwright Alan Bennett summed it up well when he said of his experience at Cambridge University:

That weekend was the first time I had come across public schoolboys in the mass and I was appalled. They were loud, self-confident and all seemed to know one another, shouting down the table to prove it while also being shockingly greedy. Public school they might be but they were louts. Seated at long refectory tables beneath the mellow portraits of Tudor and Stuart grandees, neat, timorous and genteel we grammar school boys were the interlopers; these slobs, as they seemed to me, the party in possession.

But perhaps the Good Schools Guide inadvertently best nailed the biggest problem with private education.

Creating the elites

The guide states on its website:

Many private schools are happy to accept children with mild special needs, but numbers with the welcome mat out dwindle rapidly as degrees of additional support required increase. … And bear in mind that during your tour of the school or chat with the head you are quite likely being assessed to judge whether you are likely to ‘fit in’ with the parent body.

Private education does appear to have little to do with ability. It has everything to do with lineage, socioeconomic status, and conditioning children to create a certain type of human being: one that is born to hold power.

The Elitist Britain 2019 report found in certain influential jobs the following percentages of privately educated people:

  • Senior judges – 65%.
  • Government permanent secretaries – 59%.
  • The high-ranking armed forces – 49%.
  • Newspaper columnists – 44%.

But politicians are perhaps the best example.


Only 54% of MPs went to state school. Of those who went to private school, the breakdown was 41% of Tory MPs and 14% of Labour ones. This is compared to 7% of the general population who receive private school education. Moreover, 62% of Boris Johnson’s cabinet is privately educated.

But there’s another important point to be made within this. Three of the four BAME members of Johnson’s cabinet were also privately educated. In the context of the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, this is crucial. As jiggaman said on Twitter:

And as Green summed up:

Part of what comes with a private education is ‘positional’. It enables pupils to jump the queue for many of the high-status rungs of British society. Of course, this is privately advantageous, but socially it is of little overall value if others are held back.

The cogs keep turning

Private schools often create people who think they have the right to lord over the rest of us. The system nurtures the ‘elites’ of this world and pushes them into positions of power. When they have that power, the system is maintained and its cogs keep on turning – with the elites’ children going to private schools, ending up in positions of power etc. But the biggest challenge isn’t private schools themselves. It’s the economic and social inequality that allows them to exist in the first place.

Ending private schools won’t suddenly dissipate rich people’s wealth. Money still talks, and even without that system of education the well-heeled will still find ways to exert control over the rest of us. As Black, working class anarchist Lucy Parsons once said:

Never be deceived that the rich will allow you to vote away their wealth.

Private education is a small part of a species-level problem – where some people, due to wealth and family, exert control over the rest of us. People whose lives end up being seen as more valuable than everyone else’s. Removing private schools would be a very small step in addressing this fundamental flaw in the way our society is structured.

Featured image via Wikimedia and ITV News – YouTube

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  • Show Comments
    1. I think it just reflects the coming state of the economy, whereby the number of private schools that close will be closely related to the loss of wealth soon to be felt by the middle and lower-upper classes. The ladder is about to be pulled up on them, many of whom were until recently affluent themselves. And in a society as class-ridden as Britain (it’s almost a caste system), to preserve wealth and privilege then the devil must take the hindmost.

      Unless the very rich lose all their wealth too some private schools will survive (and if not they’d get government funds to do so, because “they’re an important part of our heritage”). So the elite and executive class will still have expensive schools to send their kids to. Only now they’ll be even more elite.

      1. I agree. The welfare state legacy (e.g. large public sector pensions for senior public sector employees) combined with a ‘trickle-down’ effect of forty years of ‘neoliberalism’ has benefited a small number of ‘upper middle-class’ who could never afford Eton for their children or grandchildren but could manage the fees for numerous private schools, often former ‘grammar schools’ in urban locations and not the stereotyped ‘boarding school’ most of us imagine when we think ‘private education’ – mainly because we read too much Enid Blyton or Harry Potter stories when young! Ditto, in affording university fees at ‘Russell Group’ major universities.

        When recession (pandemic plus no deal brexit) hits the UK economy late 2020 into early 2021, even the formerly ‘comfortable’ will be impoverished to some degree and that will remove the demand for these recently privatised schools. As small private schools often run on a shoestring budget, only a small fall in demand will close such a school. The privileged-private education sector will contract – fewer but more expensive and exclusive schools (and universities) for the oligarch class.

        However, this does not mean an end to privatised education just a fall in quality because everyone else too poor for e.g. Eton or Harrow will be experiencing an impoverished-privatised state school / ‘academy’ education run by private investors for mainstream education or sub-contractors on behalf of the state (e.g. ‘special needs’ schools that are not profitable enough for private enterprise to take on without state subsidies).

        These impoverished-privatised schools (and colleges and polytechnics) will focus on (1) cutting costs and squeezing profits, thus narrowing the ‘core curriculum’ for the poor to the ‘three Rs’ plus STEM (or whatever is dictated by the oligarchy as fitting their needs), with all ‘extras’ such as music, sport, foreign languages, humanities etc being offered only to those able to pay ‘add-on’ charges.
        (2) setting a new focus for ‘education’ designed not to foster curiosity or creativity or empower learners but to create a passive population willing to accept low paid, precarious employment without complaint – the ‘servant class’.

        Johnson has already indicated this shift to impoverished-privatised education with his assertion that post-brexit ‘global Britain’ will offer ‘apprenticeships for all’ i.e. training into work to cut costs for employers, not educating into autonomy or citizenship. Note also the shift to online teaching by schools, FE and struggling universities, and two-year degrees – all designed to minimise quality of education for poor while maximising profit for the enterprises providing education to the poor.

        Meanwhile, professional education (health, law, media roles, architecture, state politician, senior civil service, military officers etc) will still require many years of very expensive education so that the oligarchy will control not only the state and economy but the professions which are supposed to hold state and economic powers to account.

        OpenDemocracy has an interesting series of articles exposing the links between private investors behind impoverished-privatised education, who are also Tory party donors, and chums of Cummings and Gove, and through them having a corrupt influence on British government policy. Reading ‘Britannia Unchained’ also enables one to predict exactly how education is likely to develop in the coming years. It is not a cheering prospect.

    2. As the ‘elite’ and ‘wannabee elite’ sections of our ‘caste system’ dwindle, actual bloody and messy revolution drifts closer to the cliffs of Dover. Families and neighbourhoods will move to opposite sides of the barricades. Blood will flow because conversation didn’t; the conversation faltered as the louts that Mr Bennett suggested “these slobs, as they seemed to me, [are] the party in possession…” [and] as Mr topple and Jiggaman correctly pointed out the elite are not all white but they are in Government and so run an education system that would have been unacceptable, just from the perspective of class sizes, to the schools they attended. Is that just hypocrisy?

      1. To decry ‘hypocrisy’ is to counter rhetorical trope with a rhetorical trope. It might be good practice in a debating society set up to score points but it does nothing to change the balance of power.

        If you want a better society, you have to move on from rhetoric, acting-out, protesting, rioting and other ‘gestures’ and switch to identifying the problem analysing the cause and effect, proposing solutions which remove causes while mitigating effects, then presenting this effectively to the community to garner support, then using that popular support to campaign for the necessary changes to politics, law, society, culture.

        The switch we need is from talk and protest to think and campaign. From complaint to political activism. From activism to political power. From empowerment fundamental and irreversible change. You do not get a new life for the oppressed without all of that blood, sweat and tears.

        I see angry people but I do not see anger organised to make effective change. People in pain have to organise themselves – they must be their own leaders and stop looking for rescue from others. What is the point of demonstrating outside Downing Street or parliament? Do you think Johnson or the ‘Westminster Bubble’ gives a shit? At best they will mouth platitudes but the reality is that they will not and cannot make the changes that need to be made because they are too blinded by their class, race, and other privileges to have any empathy or insight. And when politicians have narcissistic personality disorders (as people like Trump and Johnson certainly appear to do) you are knocking on a brick wall thinking it was a door. That is no door, and it will never open even if you knock til Doomsday! You must find parts of the elite that have ‘open doors’ and are willing to collaborate with you (Opposition party MPs?) or make your door – get your own people elected to deliver the changes you hunger for.

    3. It’s telling that Julie Robinson, chief executive of the Independent Schools Council lets slip that they are “small businesses”, rather than stating they are charities.

      By the way, Alan Bennett went to Oxford, not Cambridge.

    4. Awwwwww, all those “Harry Flashman” types will have nobody to sodomise! They’ll just have to bugger each other, or make like the Tory MPs they hope to be and go down the ‘Dilly and PAY FOR IT!

      1. This makes no sense. Who are the Flashman types (presumably privately educated boys) buggering now if not each other as they always have? Why would a change in school make a difference?

        Do you realise that sodomy and buggery are the same thing? Not that this clarifies your comment in any way.

        Homosexuality exists within all political parties; your comment seems to serve to cover some latent desire that is probably best left within your own imagination.

    5. Can someone explain to me how the British Education system is going to absorb 630,000 children of school age into their already impoverished system? Approximately 31,500 unemployed teachers, plus all the other staff that work in these schools will lose their jobs, and be forced to claim Universal Credit. Private schools should have been abolished simultaneously with the creation of the NHS and the Welfare State after the Second World War. They are classified as charities, but this is recognised by all as a pretence.

      The buildings and grounds are owned by the schools, so, unless these are requisitioned (is that legal?), someone is going to profit from their sale.

      The figures quoted in relation to the legal, political, journalistic, and military professions is just the tip of the iceberg. The question is, why is this the only ‘rich’ country that is unable to provide an education that give chances for all to succeed.

      If the schools go, the universities will follow, and this will be a country without education. Before bending knees to thank Coronavirus for the potential collapse of our education system, perhaps the question of who this most affects should be considered, and the long term economic consequences considered. The future for any teenager currently looks bleak.

    6. What a fucking stupid article. Disa hits the nail on the head. Steve, take your head out of your arse, remove your class war envy tinted glasses and try acting like a journalist rather than a complete clown.

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