Seldon and the myth of private school superiorityPosted: July 3, 2012
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