Richard Arens is a Sixth Form student at Wyggeston and Queen Elizabeth I College in Leicester. Later this year he hopes to begin a university degree in History & Politics.
Hear the label Etonian and you picture a rich, entitled egoist who cannot be trusted. Eton is perceived to be a cocoon, sitting at the pinnacle of private education in the UK, in which young boys are bred for Oxford’s Bullingdon Club, before they claim their Divine Right to the top jobs in banking, politics, and law. The resentment the rest of us are supposed to feel is part of that ancient struggle between us, the majority, and our Norman oppressors.
This suspicion of an elitist conspiracy has led to calls to abolish private education. It is asserted that society ought to opt for equality of opportunity, and let meritocracy take over. As noble as this sounds, it glosses over a problem. At every election, the Etonian label is used to discredit a candidate. Yet this is paradoxical: claiming to be meritocrats we yet judge someone’s qualification to hold public office on the basis of his background, rather than his character (or indeed his manifesto). To judge a person because they are privately educated sounds quite regressive, especially considering that education is largely the choice of parents and not the children themselves.
This divide between Us and Them perpetuates the idea that independent schools exist at the expense of state schools. The decline in grammar schools as a halfway house has arguably added to this binary polarisation. Governments can still improve state education without doing away with private education. Parents who pay school fees are still required to pay taxes that go to state schools. In other words, make our state schools more like our independent schools; with smaller class sizes, better trained and better supported teachers, and enriching extra-curricular opportunities. Do this, and the demand for independent schools might decrease on its own.
'Governments can still improve state education without doing away with
It leads us to ask what would actually be achieved in a world freed from institutions like Eton. Would we have equality of opportunity, or would there still be the problem of regional inequality? Would committed parents still find ways to help their children get ahead, by giving them more attention or engaging a private tutor? Some parents are simply better equipped, with time or expertise, to help their children with homework.
Beyond the slippery slope argument, there are also other ethical questions. Why abolish something that is undeniably successful, just because you have not benefited from it yourself? One could take the neoliberal angle too: is it right to frown upon people who, either through hard work or good fortune, have managed to become less reliant on the state?
By all means consider different models of taxation, or ways to improve state schools like mine, but to abolish private education would indulge a destructive rhetoric. A more constructive proposal, for example, would be to introduce a modernised form of National Service. This could have the potential to bridge together intersecting cultural, regional, financial, or ethnic divides, under the banner of the Union – without trying to eliminate the rich diversity that defines it.