Seldon and the myth of private school superiority

In last Sunday’s Observer, Anthony Seldon once more condescended to share his thoughts with a grateful nation. For context, this is someone who has never worked outside the private sector of education and who runs a school charging £22,545 a year for a day pupil – about four times what state schools get to educate a secondary pupil and not much short of the national average wage. It also seems to be someone who doesn’t need to spend too much time actually running a school when you look at all the other things he gets up to.

Fundamentally the article is an attack on private schools who won’t join Wellington in sponsoring academies. He is clearly very cross that not many schools are doing what he’s telling them. Seldon sees this as the way in which private schools can justify their charitable status and, others might say, continue to lord it over the English education scene. It’s to be a way of “offsetting the critique that Britain is becoming a less equal society and independent schools are key in making it so” – his words.

Don’t for one moment think that Seldon actually wants a more equal society – he just doesn’t want private schools criticised for it. The first part of his article reminds us that “they (private schools) have provided disproportionally high numbers of top entrants to universities. They’ve educated many of the top sportsmen and women. The upper echelons of British theatre, film and the arts have been saturated with (their) products.”

And he is very clear that we should be grateful. Grateful that private schools have been key to shutting doors for the vast majority of the population. Grateful that they have produced an elite whose first purpose is to hang on to their wealth and their privileges at all costs. (top rate tax cut v making people homeless by cuts in housing benefit – remind me where Osborne went to school?)

There is a token recognition that state schools actually know a lot about teaching, learning and leadership. But it’s very clear that deep down he doesn’t really believe that. His model is that private schools will sponsor a lucky few state schools so as to “pass on their expertise to state schools”. The model is a patronising top down one based on the quite insufferable sense of superiority that is typical of the English private school system.

Part of Seldon’s motivation, it seems, is that he is worried for the future of private education. The recession, he predicts, will see many schools closing in the next few years. He identifies opposition to the current system in all parties but particularly in the Lib Dems and Labour “who might be in power from 2015.”

The tactic is to build up the myth of the private schools as world class centres of excellence – putting on the Sunday Times Education Festival is all part of the image building. So you absolutely can’t touch them, can you? Then toss a few goodies to the masses who are kept firmly below the salt and pretend that somehow this solves our problem of inequality and lack of social mobility.

For some reason, we’ve been persuaded that the people who run these schools have some special gifts and insights that are denied to the rest of us. The reality is that their life is a doddle compared to any state school head – vastly more money, choose the pupils you want, kick out those you don’t.  But remember too that it has been demonstrated consistently that state school pupils are more likely to get a good degree than comparable pupils from a private school. So maybe they’re not quite so clever after all.

It really is time we stopped pretending that these people have anything to offer society as a whole. Their concern is the self-interest of their institutions and their well-heeled clients. Yet, they seem to need to justify their existence by claiming an excellence that is wholly unjustified and then by patronising everyone who doesn’t have their massive advantages. We need to see through them

One Comment on “Seldon and the myth of private school superiority”

  1. David Pavett says:

    Anthony Seldon’s article is a gem of upper class prejudice and snobbishness. Everyone should read it:

    He says that “British public life would be unthinkable without the contributions made by these chastised heads, and the schools that they run.”

    In other words he believes that if public schools were not there we would no longer be able to find people to fill the top jobs currently dominated by the products of the public school system. He must be really puzzled how countries less obsessed with private education manage to do it.

    From that angle this TES article is worth a read

    I just loved this line “Whatever we may think of Tony Blair and David Cameron, they display impeccable good manners and courtesy to all. What if boorish Gordon had been to such a school?”

    The pure snobbishness of this remark is hard to credit. But then to say this sort of thing you have to have a mind set that regards the antics of the likes of the Bullingdon Club as youthful high jinks whereas comparable behaviour of working class youths is criminal action requiring an appearance before a magistrate or judge and possibly a spell inside.

    But beyond that sort of nonsense Anthony Seldon can’t even make a coherent case.

    On the one hand “We now know … that Britain is becoming a less equal society, and independent schools are key in making it so.” and “The reality is that most governing bodies don’t want to bond with state schools.”

    But nevertheless “Unfashionable though it is to say, the country should be deeply grateful to independent schools.”

    There is more nonsense. Anthony Seldon says that independent schools should help to set up Academies so that their educational expertise and leadership can spread to non-fee-paying pupils. He adds “True, it will only ever be a drop in the ocean …” and that despite that “… independent schools at last working together and learning from each other will powerfully heal Britain’s uniquely polarised society.”

    Clearly a very powerful drop in the ocean

    Finally the piece ends with a call to independent schools to get stuck in and help those less privileged than their usual clientèle: “Let us get the power and the might of these schools working not just for those lucky enough to attend them, but for all our children. Leadership and courage are needed from public schools – two of their core virtues. Display them, and the heads will earn the right again to lecture the nation.”

    He knows as well as the rest of us that people send their children to private school overwhelmingly to buy social advantage. It that social advantage were to disappear then whatever the alleged quality of the education we can be certain that the majority of such people would not feel that they were getting value for money. Anthony Seldon’s idea that private schools should help out but showing state schools how to do it (and thereby giving themselves the right to lecture the nation) is predicated on the continued existence of massive inequality. His proposals amount to no more than an effort to obscure the unpleasant educational reflection of that inequality while leaving its causes untouched.

    I do not want people like Anthony Seldon messing with state schools.

    P.S. What on earth can he mean by the claim that British independent schools “lead the world in exams”?