Equality of Opportunity – The Case against Private Education

28 Jan 2018


Equality of opportunity is not a new concept. It can be traced back to the earliest known days of political thought with Plato stating that ‘social position should be based strictly upon individual ability and effort’  . Essentially, the circumstances you are born into should not affect your opportunities in life. Put this into the context of contemporary politics and one looks towards policy that seeks to alleviate inequality in its most basic form – in this case, education policy.


Few politicians would argue against the idea that a child should have the same basic opportunities as his or her peers. However, few are brave enough to suggest the radical idea that this means creating a system where all schools are equal – in essence, scrapping private and selective schooling. It is unfair that a child may be barred from future opportunities and careers based purely on their lack of a competitive education. Figures from a recent article in the Independent show that the gap between the number of state and private school students attending universities stands at 43% . It is evident then that children who don’t have the luxury of attending a private school miss out on opportunities later in life. 


At the very least, it is ludicrous that private schools such as Eton are registered charities and as such pay no tax. Surely even those in favour of private education would agree that private schools are a luxury good and should be taxed as such. Naturally, there are benefits of a child attending a private school and a teacher working at one. The resources are generally better, the classrooms smaller and the extracurricular opportunities broader. However, does this not discriminate against children attending state schools, should such resources not be evenly distributed amongst all children?


Another common argument made in favour of the preservation of private education is that it is the parents’ right to send their child to a school of their choosing, as surely any parent wants the best for their child. This is a fair assumption, but one that has a far too simplistic view of society. There are numerous reasons why families are restricted from making the choice to send their child to a private school. According to Eton College’s website, it costs £12,910 per term to attend the school, that’s £38,730 an academic year. It doesn’t take much thought to realise this amount of money is greatly out of reach for many parents. It is true, there are bursaries and scholarships but these support a small minority of students. The website itself says that scholarships reduce the fees by up to just 10%, which barely scratches the surface. To access funds through a bursary, ‘an independent company will assess the family finances during a home visit and make a recommendation’ . This is an intrusive process and one that has no guaranteed outcome. It is obvious then that private schools such as Eton are inaccessible for many purely on financial grounds. 


Finally, the very idea of private education creates a segregated society which allows tension between groups to flourish. Children who attend state schools often feel as though they are somehow worth less to society than those who attended private education and vice versa. There is a certain stigma in some positions towards those both from state and privately educated backgrounds. Indeed, this works both ways with stereotypes existing in both groups. Those who attend private schools are often labelled as stuck-up or out of touch by their contemporaries. Would the abolition of private schools therefore benefit not just the poorest in society, but also the most privileged? 


In any case, the education system currently in play in the United Kingdom is far from perfect and does little to promote equality of opportunity. Abolishing or at least taxing private schools would certainly be a step in eradicating gross inequality in this country for good. 

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