The Politics and International Relations (PIR) Society hosted a discussion on the merits of abolishing selection for school admission on Thursday 7 November.
The event, which was open to members of the university community, was led by Professor Philip Cook, a lecturer on politics and international relations, and Anna Pultar, a PhD student in social policy.
Before opening the floor to students wishing to air their views on the subject, Cook and Pultar delivered often highly technical introductory remarks on the debate’s historical roots and its key features in the present.
Cook began with a critique of the mainstream debate around fee-paying schools, saying that it does not adequately represent all of the moral and policy aspects of the issue.
Pultar, an Austrian national, then spoke on the development of education in Europe, which began as a private good limited to society’s elites before emerging nation states took over and created new educational institutions for the masses.
In contrast to much of the rest of the Continent, education in Britain remained voluntaristic until very late.
Cook highlighted equality as the main moral issue arising from selective school admission, saying selection affects the “future life chances” of children: the jobs that are open to them, their cultural resources and experiences, and who they meet.
He also framed education as a “positional good” in that it helps to determine one’s place in a metaphorical “queue”. Places at top schools and universities are limited and in high demand; those at the front of the queue are admitted and are then automatically placed at the front of the queue for top jobs, which likewise place people at the front of the queue for other scarce goods and opportunities with tangible implications for quality of life.
For this reason, Cook said, selective education should concern egalitarians because of its effects on the societal distribution of valuable goods. He also cited research indicating that selective education actually has little impact on student aptitudes, effectively placing its recipients in advantageous positions relative to their similarly or more-apt but state-educated peers, and calling into question the modern concept of meritocracy.
In his most controversial remarks, Cook likened school selection to South African Apartheid and American “separate but equal” education before the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, arguing that the goal of selective school admission is to ensure that students have the “right friends”.
Cook finished with a suggestion that selective, fee-paying schools be allowed to continue operating, but only as a supplement to compulsory, state education, for example in the form of evening and weekend classes.
The vast majority of the students who offered their views were privately educated, and many were sympathetic to Cook’s views.
Jonny Ross-Tatam, President of the Buchanan Institute and a third year PIR student, highlighted a lack of diversity at his fee-paying school and said that uniform expectations that its students should all attend prestigious universities and secure “good, middle class jobs” in medicine and law meant that many students were left feeling like failures for having chosen different paths.
In response, a former state school pupil in the audience said: “I come from a comprehensive school in southwest London, so it was very mixed and very multicultural. And at the same time, though, easily less than 50 per cent of kids at my sixth form went on to university, so I find it really strange hearing from private school kids who are like, ‘oh, it’s so rough on us, we have this expectation that we have to go off and become lawyers or doctors!’”
“At my school it was like, ‘well, yeah, you probably shouldn’t apply to Oxbridge because, you know, you’re not going to fit in.’ Even Edinburgh’s ‘oh, it’s a bit far away, it’s red brick, why’d you wanna go do that? Go learn something vocational and useful.’
“It’s very strange to hear people complaining about having high expectations put on them.”
A former US boarding school student who wished not to be named told The Student: “I think the discussion completely ignored the culture of philanthropy that some private schools foster through their scholarship programmes, many of which are funded with full-paying students’ tuition.
“I’ve been privately educated all my life, and my family has never paid a cent in tuition. I’m profoundly grateful to my schools for that.
“So I think it’s a shame that many of the former private school kids at the discussion evidently were more critical than complimentary of their school experiences. My entire education was a gift. I have little sympathy for the private school students who complained about their education. If it just wasn’t for them, fair enough, but they should have left to make room for students who would have been more appreciative of what they were getting.”