The paradoxical results of education for the masses

The paradoxical results of education for the masses

2 Dec 2014

The Churchill wartime government was kicked out by the electorate less than three months after the German surrender in May 1945. Labour won a huge majority and set about a radical socialist programme of nationalisation of key industries and the creation of the NHS and the welfare state. That story is quite well known. What will surprise many people now is that Churchill’s government managed to pass one dramatically progressive piece of parliamentary law in 1944: Rab Butler’s Education Act.

There would be free education for all with selection at the age of 11. Children who passed the 11 Plus were eligible for places in grammar schools – it was intended that the top 25% should reach that standard. Places for the other children were to be offered at either secondary modern schools or technical schools which specialised in scientific and mechanical skills. Sadly technical schools were expensive and hard to staff and there were few set up. This gradually created the impression that the majority of children “failed” at the age of 11 and were sent to schools for underachievers.

The 1944 act also allowed for the creation of comprehensive schools that could incorporate all standards. Perhaps grammar schools were burdened with having been promoted by a Conservative politician, but socialist politicians grew to dislike their perceived elitism and the Wilson governments of the 60s and 70s embarked on a determined programme of abolition. This culminated in an education act in 1976 which stated that state education “is to be provided only in schools where the arrangements for the admission of pupils are not based (wholly or partly) on selection by reference to ability or aptitude.” The class warrior secretary of state for education leading this was Shirley Williams (St Paul’s School for girls and Somerville College, Oxford).

It is a matter of wonder that the most privileged members of the establishment tend to be dismissive of grammar schools and the upwards social mobility that they seem to offer. Our Old Etonian Prime Minister called arguments about grammar schools “splashing around in the shallow end of the educational debate” and “clinging on to outdated mantras that bear no relation to the reality of life”.

You can find any number of academic studies stating that grammar schools do not help poor children. Why is this? The obvious answer is that better off, better informed parents find ways of advancing their offspring and filling the places – they bid up the prices of properties in catchment areas for good schools and they pay private tutors to coach their children for entrance exams. This is surely true. We see it all around us.

The obvious answer would perhaps be to have more grammar schools. Academic studies struggle slightly to counter this. It is difficult simultaneously to argue that privileged children benefit from grammar schools but that grammar schools don’t really confer any benefits but, hell, let’s have a go.

I have seen one argument that says that poor grammar school pupils are no more likely to achieve upward social mobility than poor comprehensive school pupils but (follow closely here) in the rare cases where poor children succeed in achieving upward social mobility, grammar school pupils achieve greater upward social mobility than comprehensive pupils.  Another point made is that grammar school pupils who have gone on to achieve great things are biased, by their own experience, in favour of grammar schools. Chumps. Thank goodness that the rest of us are able to maintain positions of detached logic.  

One of the loudest and most sustained publicly available laughs over the last few decades has been the sight of politicians and other righteous flag bearers espousing one policy for the masses and another for the very tiny minority known as their own children. Shirley Williams herself sent her daughter to a selective (now private) school. Tony Blair, Harriet Harman and Diane Abbott are all high profile Labour politicians who have found themselves unable to consign their own offspring to “bog-standard comprehensives” (a phrase coined by a speech-writer for the last Labour government).

It may seem facile to ask why people favour their own children over yours and mine. It’s human nature, innit? But most of us like to think of ourselves as being supporters of the greater good. It pains us to discover that we are such eclectic idealists. In 2003, Diane Abbott was frank about this: “I had to choose between my reputation, whatever reputation I have for consistency, and my son – and I chose my son.” In fairness to her, in 2010 she told a newspaper that “that school was the making of him”.

I would like to suggest that the wish of some to snuff out selection in education is utterly doomed. Educational idealists seem to think that it is human nature to try to maximise our collective potential. That’s what many economists claim to believe as well, though they tend to be right-wing and to think that we are initially motivated to maximise our personal wealth, thereby maximising collective wealth as a benign by-product. .

George Cooper’s book “Money, Blood and Revolution” points out convincingly that mankind is actually motivated by the Darwinian urge to compete.

“We are instinctively competitive. We measure ourselves and derive our happiness from our relative position to our peers.”

A person being competitive can look as if they are trying to maximise their share of the pie but as Cooper says, what they are really worrying about is how much pie the guy next door has claimed.

When we contemplate our baby children we tend to look for what has been genetically inherited (perhaps subconsciously motivated by a desire to dissipate any doubts about paternity – don’t lie: the thought has occurred to you). First, physical characteristics – he’s got his mother’s eyes, his father’s long legs. Then, as he gets older, personality traits – he has X’s sense of humour, Y’s determination.

As the beloved approaches adolescence, it is inevitable that these observations come with an occasional negative twist. He’s going to need a little nudge, or possibly all the help he can get, to achieve his potential because he has clearly inherited his mother’s aversion to reading and his father’s dislike of homework. We realise that junior is stuck with his genetic dividend. But there is plenty that we can do, perhaps by way of apology.

Parents who are informed and motivated know that they are already keeping up with the game because many children are burdened with parents who are neither. Darwin is kicking in, if I can put it like that. Not everyone can go to the best school and not everyone can be in the top maths set. We know how our children are doing by reference to how their peers are doing.

Parents who can afford to, often pay for private education. Others pay for private coaching to help their children get into competitive state schools. I have heard of private teachers in such demand that they test children prior to agreeing to accept money for coaching them. And the fees that the best private schools charge have risen sharply.

Since 1970, the overall number of children being privately educated has not budged (621,000 according to the ONS). Yet the cost of private education has multiplied even more than the rise in house prices. (Disclosure: my 76x number is based entirely on the “bog-standard” private school that I attended for the first time in 1969-70).

Price multiples

Given that total participation in private education has not risen, 76x is a pretty stunning number. The only rational explanation that I can give for this explosion in valuation is, as ever, relative to what else is on offer. And this can ostensibly be explained by the demise of grammar schools. Bluntly, parents of  children whom they fondly imagine to be clever and sensitive are frightened of delivering their precious babies into the indiscriminate care of the comprehensive system.  

The next chart shows total places at private (non-maintained) and grammar schools since 1970.


In 1964, there were 726,000 grammar school pupils. In 2009 there were 221,000 (from a recorded low of 149,000 in 1981). 

Arguably the point of most concern to competitive parents and children is university entrance. If you pay £15,000 per child per year you will hope that you are buying, at the very least, an informed and competently managed university application. In truth, you silently tell yourself that your loved one is favourably handicapped for life’s race and that admission to a top university is an outcome passionately to be wished for.

Academic, media and political commentators are disapprovingly unanimous that this is the case. It seems that everything they say is designed to push parents to pay up for private education or private coaching while castigating them for doing so.

But facts would appear to be facts. Social mobility, as represented by university admissions, is apparently just not happening.

“Only 7% of children attend private schools, but 17% Russell group university entrants and 34% of Oxbridge entrants have been privately educated.”

Source: Professor Becky Francis and Dr Billy Wong, King’s College London

I find this very surprising. In my experience, university academics tend to lean to the left politically. When I was at Oxford in 1983, the dons could hardly contain their excitement at the emergence of the liberal-left SDP as a new (and as it turned out transient) political force. In 1985, the Oxford dons voted by more than 2 to 1 to reject the customary offer of an honorary degree to the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. The idea that this lot discriminate in favour of privilege is ridiculous.

Let’s look again at our headline fact. Seven percent of pupils go to non-maintained schools. According to the ONS, that looks about right.


The Independent Schools Council represents around half of the country’s 2600 independent schools. In its 2013 census, it gives a breakdown of private school pupils by age.

At the age of 7 just 4% of pupils are privately educated. By 11, this rises to 6%. By 16 it is nearly 14% and at 17 nearly 16%.

The last time I checked universities do not select pupils at the age of 11. If they do have a bias it is towards students who apply at the age of 17 or 18.

So let’s check that “fact” again. Russell group universities take 17% of their admissions from private schools which account for 16% of potential applicants.

What the hell are these so-called Russell guys thinking of? Do they not realise how much political capital, how many academic theses, how many newspaper columns and how many blasted school fees have been devoted to the worship of their inherent and irretrievable bias?  

Look, I think we had better keep this between ourselves. It could cause a lot of damage if that got out. 

This is an investment blog. Buying your child an education is supposed to be an investment, though it’s outcome can never reliably be measured (because you will never know how they would have fared without it). Advantages in terms of university entrance are less clear than the opponents of private education claim. One wonders why they don’t change their tune and point out, as I do, that it can easily be a huge financial outlay for little or no return. It may well be that they treasure the moral high ground in what passes for a class war.  

Saloon bar economics would suggest that the rise in demand for private school places as illustrated by a 76x increase in the cost would result in an increase in supply. But as we have seen, there are no more places than there were in 1970. So, a paradoxical result of universal education is that some of the parents of 621,000 children seem to be buying education for reasons other than education. Its exclusivity, despised by its opponents, makes it a kind of luxury good.  

If the price of a loaf had kept up with the cost of private education since 1970, it would now cost £6.84. Paying for your kids’ education may deliver uncertain benefits but it sure implies that you gotta lotta bread. 


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