Private schools, privilege and the “liberal” conversion narrative

If you follow me on Twitter you may already have seen me go into Hulk-smash mode about Guardian education writer Janet Murray’s article, “Why I sent my child to a private school.” Here’s my (slightly) more reasoned response:

Firstly, I won’t scold individual parents deciding they want to go private. I’m sure at least some of my friends will go down that route and, though I may disagree, I’m not going to lecture them at one of those Islington dinner parties us strawman liberals are alleged to attend every weekend. I know there are situations — for example extreme bullying, behavioural issues or unusually poor teachers — that might lead some parents to decide that their current school isn’t working. Just have the decency not to pretend that you’re taking a brave stand against an overwhelming tide of left-wing militancy that doesn’t actually, y’know, exist.

Murray’s article is a classic mugged-by-reality conversion tale, like the recurring Daily Mail story where a repentant vegetarian poses happily with a bacon sandwich and makes jokes about lentils. In this narrative a liberal belief is a naive fairy tale that collapses on impact with the brutal truth. Or at least this one starts out that way. By the sixth paragraph she’s admitting “deep down I don’t think I ever really had a problem with private education”. By the tenth she’s approvingly quoting free-market hardliner Niall Ferguson. She isn’t abandoning a principle because she never held it in the first place. If her opinions were so flimsy and easily led back then, I’m not sure why we should listen to her new ones now.

The worst thing about Murray’s article is that she extrapolates her personal experience into a celebration of private schools and an attack on state ones. It’s an insult to the teachers, the children and the parents at those institutions. One thing defensive private school parents always say is that they want the best for their kids, the inevitable implication being that anyone chooses a state school doesn’t — that there could be no earthly reason why anyone who could afford a private school wouldn’t choose one. Well, it’s called principle. A weird concept, I know. Some people actually (a) trust state schools to educate their kids, (b) think that a school that reflects its environment, rather than being stuffed to the gills with wealthy white kids, might have social advantages, and (c) think that the private system is an indefensible means of cementing privilege.

I attended a private school, on hugely reduced fees, as did my oldest friend. I’m grateful for the education it gave me.  It had some excellent teachers who cared deeply about their pupils. It also had layers of class snobbery which made me sick, no girls until sixth-form and so few non-white pupils that I can still name all of them. But my experience is irrelevant. Purely on principle — that word again — I think the system should be abolished, or, more realistically, lose the charitable status which means the taxpayer funds them to the tune of £100 million a year. Contra Murray, it is far and away the major obstacle to class mobility and equality of opportunity in Britain.

My daughter goes to a local state school. It happens to be a church school but there was no “lying or cheating” (Murray again) involved. We said we weren’t religious; they let our daughter in anyway; it happens sometimes. So far, the school has handily disproved all of Murray’s smears on the state sector. It has a strong discipline, high standards and attends to each pupil’s individual needs. It’s not the kind of beacon high achiever that drives up house prices and causes middle-class nervous breakdowns during application season, but it’s a fine school with a tremendous sense of community and inclusiveness. The society inside that school is the same society I walk through to get there every morning and, despite many obstacles, it works.

Despite her initial protestations, I don’t believe Murray was ever remotely left-wing. She speaks the language of the pure market, where you choose a school like you choose a childminder or a masseuse. “Until local schools meet families’ needs and cater for each individual child, can you blame people for putting their hand in their pocket?” Yes, I can actually, because if you are raised by well-educated parents who value reading and learning then, congratulations, you are already privileged. Every state-school teacher I know says that the bright middle-class kids, except in very unusual circumstances, are bound to do well. The ones that might benefit from a private education are the ones (a few scholarships and assisted places aside) who don’t stand a chance in hell of getting one. A socially mixed school, instead of a ghettoised one, benefits every pupil.

Murray has the gall to suggest she is doing less privileged kids a favour by freeing up a space, whereas in fact she is simply withdrawing herself from them and leaving them to their own devices. In London, where different social classes live cheek by jowl, this feels like a particular betrayal: I’ll live down the street from you but there’s no way I’ll let my kids attend the same school as yours. Of course, state schools could be better — they always can — but their chances are hurt if affluent middle-class parents won’t even consider them an option.

In an excellent recent Times piece (sadly paywalled) calling for the withdrawal of charitable status, Matthew Parris examined another motive for private education beyond mere performance:


I maintain that the reasons many parents choose to pay for private education are a tangle between educational and social ambitions, and these are not the same. You’d want a child, I’d want my child, to learn the relaxed and breezy confidence, the loose manner, the intangible sense of entitlement, that comes with a good private education in Britain. There does exist a ruling class in Britain and you’d want your child to join it.

This is not education, but privilege. The purchase of an expensive education is, in part, the purchase of privilege; the social advantage of your child over other children. I am not persuaded that this is the “public benefit” that our definition of a charity requires it to offer. And I dismiss out of hand the hoary old argument that private schools save taxpayers the cost of educating pupils in state schools. You might as well claim charitable status for your car on the ground that it saves local authorities the cost of subsidising your seat on the bus.


I think he’s nailed it. “Five years ago, if someone had told me I’d have a child at private school, I’d have laughed,” writes Murray. “I’d have said I resented parents buying privilege through private education.” Well she may not resent it anymore but that’s exactly what she’s done. By using the cowardly argument that private schools only thrive because of the failure of the state system, she is pretending she had no choice, but of course she did. We all do. Having made those choices, the least we can do is be honest about them.


  1. I like this, although I went to state schools and my primary had one (ONE) non-white child, and I think my high school had about 4. (This was from 1992 – 1999) A lot of this is to do with where the schools are located – all in rather rural areas.

    • Good point. Mine was in Lewisham though, so no demographic excuse.

      • Am racking my brains to think of a private school in Lewisham. St Dunstan’s? Technically that’s Catford, so even less demographic excuse.

        The other problem with opting out of the local school system relates to something mentioned in Matthew Parris’ piece. It’s all very well having the social attitudes and demeanour of the ruling class inculcated into your child by their nice private school, but if you’re living in an area populated by ordinary mortals then that’s going to mark your kid out as different, and not in a good way.

  2. Brilliant piece – and I share your view of the writer. As soon as I read that sixth paragraph “deep down I don’t think I ever really had a problem with private education”, I knew what was coming but also lost all respect for her views.

  3. Thank you for articulating so well why the article was so infuriating (though I think it was, at least in part, Liz jones style link-bait). The Matthew Parris part at the end is bang-on – people aren’t buying an education for their children, they are buying contacts that will serve them well all through life. Which is all well and good for the sons and daughters of the rich, but leaves the rest of us screwed…

  4. This is really interesting. A few points:

    The “white” / “non-white” issue is frequently raised to imply that private-school parents are closet racists. Well I went to a state school with one one or two ethnic-minority pupils and my kids are in a much more diverse environment in a private school with many international pupils.

    On a personal note, I hated my school experience so much that as a parent I have no wish to replicate the process with my kids. My state school was dreary, had no extra-curricular activitites, and really poor teachers. I visited all the schools in my area before choosing a private one for my kids. I did so because it was the most appealing. I don’t think I’m buying them privilege neither do I think I am putting other children down. But this is ten years of my children’s lives and I want them to go to the school with the art clubs, the concerts, the excellent sporting facilities, the scout troup, and the low teacher-pupil ratio, none of which are on offer at the state alternative. I want them to have fun. I can afford it so I’m paying for it – twice in fact as subsidise the state system through taxes.

    I would happily pay more tax for a better state system and wish all the facilities at the private school were available in every school. Unfortunately they’re not and with Gove et al in situ the state system is only going to get worse. Why should I subject my kids to that or be made to feel a pariah for refusing to do so?

    • I don’t mean that the parents are closet racists (although a lot of their kids were in fact non-closet racists), just that it was startlingly homogenous for a south London school.

      In reference to the rest if your post I think buying privilege is exactly what you’re doing (and the “paying twice” idea is bogus – we all pay taxes for things we don’t use) but we’ll have to disagree. I appreciate your comment.

      • Glad your piece led me here – this is a great blog

    • We do live in a competative society and strive for better housing, jobs and schools for our children. We try to move into up-market areas where house prices mature accordingly and I am sure we all want to get off that councill estate.
      So until we fight for a non-competative society your argument regarding privilege eduction is purely academic

  5. I know that this is a good article is shorthand for “I agree” – but even so, this is a very good article. Well said.

  6. Well said. Not entirely sure why Janet Murray was given 1500 words to wring her hands and explain how right she was all along. Perhaps lots of Guardian readers experience this kind of “dilemma”. It’s depressing how divided the country is, and her attitude will only make it worse.

    • I am from a aspirational working class background (father a fork lift driver, mother worked in a pub and in catering) but my parents wanted better for my sister and I and always encouraged us to well at school and every penny they earnt was spent on extra curricular activities and educational trips to museams etc. We both went to a state primary and both started off in a state secondary where we did ok, I was particularly academic and loved reading and learning and was top of my class in most subjects. However at the age of 14 I was horribly bullied by a group of girls and after months of torment during which the school took no action against the bullies my mother agreed to remove me from the school and send me to private school which she paid for with the small inheritance from my grandmother. It was the best thing she has ever done for me. I thrived in the small classes of happy confident quirky kids, not many of them stinking rich or stuck up, just the normal children of parents whose children who cared about their education. There was a good mix of ethnicities, academic ability and I wasn’t the only one who lived on a council estate. I ended up with straight A’s at GCSE, went to the local college where I got straight A’s at A level and went on to be the first person in my family to go to University. More importantly, my private school enabled me to thrive in a safe and caring environment without constant disruption, bullying and peer pressure to misbehave. The teachers were excellent and students well behaved and respectful and we all got on and had fun. I don’t have a prestigious well paid job now but I am no longer the verging on suicidal 15 year old I was when I left state school and I credit my private school for giving me the tools I needed to regain my confidence and succeed. I am now a 31 year mother of 2 and financially we are not able to send our children to private school. I consider myself to be left wing on most issues but if I had the money I would not hesitate to send my children to private school to give them the best chance of success and happiness in life-i will be doing everything I can to get them into the best state schools in the area as the school a child goes to has such a massive influence over their future. I do not want them at schools full of the children of parents who do not care about their children’s education or behaviour.

      • This is the kind of situation I was talking about in the second paragraph. If you decide at 15 that your local school isn’t working for your child then of course you do what you need to do with whatever options are available. I would, however, be wary of stereotyping all state schools and parents as you seem to in the last paragraph.

      • I’m glad for you, but I don’t really see your point. You had a bad experience at a school and moved to another school. That doesn’t make state schools bad and private schools good. I’ve known lots of public school kids who hated it because of the bullying.

        I also have 2 kids and couldn’t afford to send them to private school. Happily enough they go to a great primary school with a wide range of students—not just by ethnicity, but also by income.

        I actually think league tables and grammar schools have caused just as big a problem. Middle class parents will snap up houses in “good” catchment areas or spend hundreds of pounds preparing their children for entrance exams. This also causes social division.

  7. As the previous commentator said, why on earth was she given that space to say nothing in? not that that diminishes your critique of course 😉

  8. Puts me in mind of Phil Ochs’ intro to Love me I’m a Liberal: [from memory] There are many shades of political opinion the shadiest of those are the liberals, 10 degrees to the left of center in the good times, ten degrees to the right if it affects them personally.

  9. But surely you prove the point? You, having been raised to the middle classes by a subsidised private education, can now socially afford to send your child to the local school, because you know she’ll be alright. The solution should surely be to make charitable status contingent upon taking a certain (large) number of FSM kids.

    • Firstly, my sister went to a state school, is just as well-educated, and has a much more high-powered job than I do, so private school isn’t what made the difference. Secondly, I’d like that option but they’ll never accept a large enough number. I suspect the wealthier schools would rather renounce charitable status than have to do that.

      • The fact your sister has done very well having been through the state sector is neither here nor there when it comes to your attainment. You have no idea whether it made a difference for you, though you seem to imply above you had a very happy time there.

        Those schools that deny it will lose their subsidised status. Those that accept it will demonstrate they really are educational charities. Win/win.

      • As to my family circumstances I think it’s extremely relevant. Here are two children from the same family – one private, one state – and my sister has done just as well, if not better. And I think you’ve misread that paragraph because I didn’t have a very happy time there. I just thought it was important to point out that was not the fault of the teachers.

        Re: your policy point, it sounds like it would be an improvement on the current situation without changing the fundamental imbalance, but I don’t know enough about how it would work to say for sure.

  10. Matthew Paris is very wrong here: ” You’d want a child, I’d want my child, to learn the relaxed and breezy confidence, the loose manner, the intangible sense of entitlement, that comes with a good private education in Britain. There does exist a ruling class in Britain and you’d want your child to join it.” I would hate it if my son carried himself like a Cameron or an Osborne or a Johnson. There are lots and lots of Brits whose manner is charming and whose company is lovely. My social circle is full of them, I work with many, I meet many more around the place. None of them carries him or herself like that,and virtually none would by anyone’s definition have found his or her way into the ruling class. People I have played music with, played rugby with, worked with, protested with, lived on the same street as, drunk with – there are many amongst them who I would love my son to see as role models and to grow up to be broadly like. But if he ended up as Paris describes our apparent ideal, I would love him to bits, but would feel I had failed as a parent. The assumption that ‘we’ all want our kids to have that ruling class swagger reveals the limited nature of Paris’s social circle rather than anything about ‘our’ ambitions. Sorry – I know he’s being held up as someone sort of on ‘our’ side here, but that passage really grated. On the other hand, Dorian, you’re spot on.

  11. Her credibility takes a further hit when you dig a bit deeper and realize how poorly researched her article is. I commented the following:

  12. Reblogged this on The New Stateswoman and commented:
    A blog post that hits the nail on the head. A lot.

  13. From my own experience of being on the assisted place scheme it felt specifically like a form of social engineering, designed to take the brightest kids out of poor backgrounds, isolate them from their communities and so instil in them a meritocratic conservatism that says you can succeed if you only try, therefore those who haven’t succeeded haven’t tried. In the same way that taking the engaged parents away from the state schools robs them of a certain kind of support, [trying to] take the smart kids away always seemed like a tactic to take talent (as percieved by an elite) away from poorer communities.

    Although maybe this is just me being terribly paranoid – I did get a lot out of my private school education as well.

  14. Brilliant stuff. This, in particular, rang all too true: “In this narrative a liberal belief is a naive fairy tale that collapses on impact with the brutal truth. Or at least this one starts out that way.”

    The irony, of course, being that the unfettered free market is far more of an airy ideological fairy tale than any liberal project. There’s still financial lobbyists arguing that the banking crash was down to over-regulation!

    Janet Murray’s piece was just one of many millions of examples of middle class self-interest trumping any kind of civic duty. Seriously, what’s the point of principles if they don’t apply in real-life situations?

  15. This is a great article. However, when I got to the bit about where you send your own kid, it occurred to me: aren’t you doing more or less the same thing, taking advantage of an unfair, corrupt and socially divisive system (in this case, the faith school system rather than the private school system) and excusing your own involvement in it, because, well, *your* kid’s school is nice, and they let her in?

    • Good question. I should have been clearer.

      1. It wasn’t our first choice.
      2. It’s not *that* nice. Most other schools in the area have similar OFSTED gradings. It’s good but it’s not one that parents bend over backwards to get into.
      3. Most of my daughter’s best friends are muslims so obviously it’s not the strictest of faith schools. I agree that the faith school system is in theory divisive but individual schools vary and this is an inclusive one whose intake appears to mirror the social mix of the surrounding area. I must admit I was surprised. My initial instinct was not to apply but they told us right away that they took children from different religious (and non-religious) backgrounds.

      Whether that changes your mind or not I don’t know.

      • Thanks for a non-defensive reply! I did mean “nice” in the “they let her in” sense, not the “academically desirable” sense.

        I …don’t know, either. I think the whole faith school system is so corrupt and divisive – certainly around where I live – that any nice things said about it rile me up, but I also actively want faith schools to do as your daughter’s school is doing, so I have to see your daughter’s school as at least moving in the right direction. I also think that unless you have pots of money, you takes what you can gets, so I really can’t condemn you for finding a nice local place and making the best of it.

        I hate the “you won’t understand until you have a child yourself” thing (which competes with “speaking as a parent” for a Most Annoying Phrase award), but what I have found is that having a kid is one of the factors which has made me take notice of the changing school system in a way which I never bothered to before, as I’m not a teacher or a policy analyst. And what I’ve found is that it has changed beyond all recognition to what it was when I went through it. It’s no longer a straight division between “state = socially good” and “private = socially divisive” (which is what I’ve always previously believed). My kid, for example, walks 40 mins every morning to go to an “undesirable” state primary school in another borough, serving a huge council estate, because the state primary school *right next to my sodding flat* would not give us an application form, as we are the wrong faith. The “undesirable” school is, in reality, a really great school, and I’m very happy with it, but going to a primary school so far away has inevitable repercussions for my kid’s social life (especially as an only child) and me getting to work enough hours. Like your daughter’s friends, most of my kid’s friends and classmates are Muslim kids from the estate, because the primary alternatives in that area either don’t let Muslims in or don’t let poor people in. When my kid hits eleven, the nearest state secondary schools to us are run by either the church or by Toby Young, and both of those, IMO, are at least, if not more, politically and morally problematic as the private sector, at least in regards to schooling, and my kid has an absolutely zero chance of getting into any of them. My kid in theory has *more* chance of getting into the closest private school, and having access to the education they offer, even though their fees are more than I earn in a year, as they offer scholarships (although in reality that chance is also pretty much zero, as I spawned someone who is fairly smart but not a bleedin’ genius).

        This is absolutely not an apologia for the private sector, but just to point out that there are now many state school choices which are every bit as politically and socially divisive as the private sector, but which some liberal parents can choose, and give their kids privilege not accessible to other local kids, and still keep their liberal halos publicly intact. The whole system needs overturning, and if I hear the word “choice” one more time I will *scream*.

        …that was a bit of a long rant, sorry. But that’s why I have a bit of a reaction to the notion of state faith schools as an ethical and perfectly reasonable choice. (And don’t get me started on free schools.)

      • PS – when I said “thanks for a non-defensive reply”, I wasn’t being sarcastic, honest! I just re-read it and thought ooops, better clarify. It’s genuinely nice to be able to discuss this honestly.

      • Thanks for the response. I agree it’s an imperfect system and far too much depends upon luck – what borough you’re in, how open faith schools are, etc. Your situation sounds very difficult.

  16. I’m not sure I see the point of this article. Guardian writers aren’t obliged to be militantly opposed to private education. Beyond critiquing Murray and guilt tripping parents who chose private education (why should they feel bad for wanting the best for their kids just because *you* think that implies they’ve made a judgement about state school parents not wanting the best?), you neglect the major issue. A good upbringing is the foundation for a good education. Abolishing private education won’t stop the parents who care more spending more time with (and possibly money on) their kids. Any primary school teacher will tell you they can already see the gulf within a class before the pupils even begin reception. Also, when you say your experiences are ‘irrelevant’ then draw on your negative experience at a public school and your daughter’s positive experience at a state school, your condescending appeal to ‘principle’ loses its rhetorical potency.

    • Well the point is to respond to a specific article which justified a personal decision by trashing the state system and those who support it. It’s all in her piece – I’m not making it up, it’s in her piece, and I wouldn’t have written this if she hadn’t written that. Nor do I neglect the importance of a good upbringing – that’s a jor point in my blog. Nor did I have a “negative” experience at private school any more than I had a positive one – it was complicated – and the reference to my daughter’s school was not to claim that ALL state schools are good, but to dispute Murray’s suggestion that they were incapable of dealing with pupils with a range of needs. In short, you seem to have misread pretty much the entire blog.

    • “why should they feel bad for wanting the best for their kids just because *you* think that implies they’ve made a judgement about state school parents not wanting the best?”

      This is to completely and wilfully miss the point. Middle class parents being crafty about postcodes or paying for private education doesn’t “imply” a value judgment, it clearly is a value judgment. What it says is: “These local schools are okay for some children, but they aren’t good enough for my child.”

      Your point about a class gulf being clearly visible early in primary school is a) true, and b) completely reinforces Dorian’s whole point. Bright middle class kids who have been read to and forced to undertake hundreds of extracurricular activities will do well regardless. It’s those kids who are least in need of an extra push and small class sizes that get it through private schooling.

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