« Marxism vs social democracy | Main | The end of liberal optimism »

August 04, 2013



What is the difference between buying a superior education for your children and, say, reading to your children when they are young? Parents who do the latter "don't intend to hurt" the children of parents who don't, but that is "the unintended aggregate outcome" of their actions.


On the margin, would parents with a child they consider to be exceptionally gifted be particularly motivated to send such a child to an expensive private school, even if such is stretching their means ? Or sending only their single most intelligent child ?

Secondly,would parents paying a large sum for a child's education be more motivated to get their money's worth out of the school and not tolerate slacking by either the pupil or the teachers ? While those who send a child to state schools take a view of "you get what you pay for" ? One presumes this effect would be stronger for those to are stretching themselves to pay for such a school as opposed to ones so wealthy that they don't notice the fees.


"Inequalities of outcome [are] indefensible, ethically speaking, when and only when they are due to differential circumstances. Inequalities due to differential effort are acceptable."

Interesting, but rewarding effort is not without difficulties.

For example, with a piecework system of reward, should worker A, whose abilities limit their hourly output to 5 pieces receive twice as much per piece as a worker B whose abilities allow them to produce at 10 pieces per hour? I suspect most economists, with their fancy marginal productivity theories, would baulk at this idea.

On the subject of private education, the government could act to reduce the advantages and privileges that such an education confers by restricting recruitment to the civil service and other public institutions to candidates who were wholly educated by the State. Such a restriction might also be extended to the state broadcaster, the BBC.

The consequent reduction in the number of guaranteed well-paid, secure, influential and prestigious job opportunities should alter the economic calculus of educating toffs privately. The playing field would be more level as a consequence.


the 10% rule is neat but that's it. it's a crude and lazy sorting mechanism that ignores very real underlying differences in ability.

and, of course, the privately educated do have greater innate ability, though to what extent we can only speculate.


Wasn't there a study which showed that people who went to comps did better at university than people who were privately educated?

Philip Walker

If you assume that fee-paying children at independent schools are on average as intelligent (in the raw sense) as children in state-funded schools, then the average independent schoolchild should be more intelligent.

Unless the schools' bursaries for bright poor kids are just being doled out at random, of course.


When I was at school the parents I knew of who sent one child to private school and another to state school sent the less gifted one to private school.


Not an easy one to segregate effort from achievement. If the effect of private schooling is to motivate rather than teach you would have students there spending more time/effort on homework and additional reading. How, and to what extent should that effort be rewarded?

I am also convinced that the line between private and state school is somewhat blurred in practice. Paying a housing premium to get children into a good state school has a similar effect as a direct payment to a private school.

If we distinguish between state and private schools do we also distinguish between different parts of the country that also have different levels of attainment?

Finally, even if teaching and other opportunities are not "fair" between different schools the exams are comparable and are marked in the same way. Pupils with lower grades got lower grades because on the day they could not demonstrate knowledge of their discipline. If our allocation of jobs and university places is based not on this knowledge but on an estimate of some kind of innate ability how do we make up the knowledge shortfall?

Luis Enrique

Hmm. I think discrimination is not the same thing as disadvantages of circumstance. If I am competing for a place in the Arsenal squad against someone who has enjoyed the benefit of the best coaching since childhood, I don't think anybody would say Arsenal was discriminating against me if i wasn't chosen. They might say the other person had an advantage over me. Not the same thing.

Plus the idea that only inequalities due to effort are ethically acceptable is pure nonesense.


"One possibility is that he and I are talking about two different things. He's talking about discrimination as something an individual consciously does against another person, whereas I'm talking about discrimination as an impersonal emergent process; parents who buy private education don't intend to hurt state-school people, but that is the unintended aggregate outcome of their actions. However, it's not at all clear why the one is morally abominable and the other not".

Are you saying that on the one hand institutional discrimination is good/bad and on the other hand personal discrimination is bad/good?
It's not clear which type of discrimination you hold to be abominable.

In this context, a society which allows (even encourages) rich parents to purchase superior life chances for their kids is institutionally discriminatory.

Institutional discrimination, given that social institutions are supposed to be rational and lawful, is far worse than an aggrieved individual victim's reaction to such discrimination.

john malpas

Why not face it - discrimination is now as English as is righteous indignation.
To deprive the ability to hurt the opposition in any way at all would really upset the hoi poloi.


"What is the difference between buying a superior education for your children and, say, reading to your children when they are young? "

Or consider two sets of parents. One set has a parent stop work in order to take care of the children, and this parent provides a lot of enriched education to their state-educated child. The second couple, with identical starting incomes, prefers to remain with both parents
working, and pays for private education with their larger income.

Why is one child advantaged over the other? Which one is advantaged?



The one who received private education. He/she will be favoured by employers even if their qualifications are not as good as the state educated one.


Criticising the Eton-educated for their parents' choices is unwarranted, unfair and misses the point.

If we don't like the fact that employers, universities and political parties prefer the Eton-educated, they're the ones we should criticise.

However, we should be nuanced in such criticism. After all, it's not unreasonable for universities to seek the best academic performers for their courses, nor for companies to seek them for future leaders. Clearly an Eton education adds more value than a Tower Hamlets sink school does.

Besides, there's a limited number of top jobs and Russell Group places available. Most people are going to end up disappointed. So presumably the real issue is privileged access to better education (and therefore the best opportunities), which leaves you with three options:

1. Lottery
2. Merit (coaching and genes make the difference)
3. Bought access

Arguably the fairest of these is some form of lottery, but this is disempowering. No parent is going to be content to leave their child's education to chance - so don't expect to win any votes with this.

Banning private schools would simply swell a grey market in cramming and tutoring where money wins again.

Whichever way you cut it, you can't stop people with money choosing to spend it on giving their kids an educational advantage. Neither can you blame them for it - what else is wealth for, ultimately, if not to improve the lifestyles of the people you love? The most society can do it try harder to improve the basic standard of education for everyone while it takes other measures to reduce income inequality.

In the meantime, hating on people whose parents sent them to Eton is wrong and vindictive.


We focus too much on the role of schools and universities in securing jobs and sinecures. The old school tie is just a signalling device. The real discrimination occurs at hire (so its an institutional problem among employers), which is why levelling strategies like the Texas 10% rule would ultimately be side-stepped.

It is worth asking why the privately educated tend to concentrate in certain jobs, typically rent-extracting professions and roles that are well-paid but less than onerous. If they were innately smarter than the hoi polloi, you'd expect them to seek out intellectually demanding jobs and even discount their salary expectations.

For example, 50% of FTSE100 CEOs were privately educated, but the figure for CFOs is 70%. There are a number of obvious structural explanations for the former (inheritance, capital, networking) but less so for the latter, unless you believe that bean-counting requires Latin.

Similarly, the high percentage found in media clearly reflects a) the undemanding nature of many roles (I'm thinking columnist rather than beat reporter), b) the primacy of good contacts, and c) the opportunity for "stellar" pay (consider Boris Johnson's £250k from the Telegraph).

Focusing on Eton is just a distraction.


Not everyone who gives their children a private education is a toff. It's that assumption that really galls. Sure, some are and just take a private education for granted, but a for a lot of families (including mine) it's a big financial commitment and one they struggle to afford. I'm a lot worse off that others I know who send their children to state schools - it's me in the modest house and the old car, and I know others in a similar situation. It's a personal choice. It seems giving your children a good start in life is applauded in almost every way except when it comes to choosing a private education.

Where I live it is 'pay or pray'. There is a good senior state school but it demands parents' church attendance (and monitors that rigorously) and the other state schools in the area have a poor reputation. To my mind that's as discrimatory than ability to pay. Why should a child's quality of education be determined by its parents (actual or feined) religousity? I choose not to be a hypocrite, though I cannot blame those that go down that route, especially when writing out the cheques.

Banning private schools won't stop there being poor state schools. And it won't stop (richer, better informed) parents playing the system to their children's advantage. At least the private system is honest about it.

Luis Enrique

alternatively, you could have said that you agree that discriminating against people because of where they went to school is wrong, and then have pointed out that employers discriminate against state schools kids.


Bruce - that really nailed it for me.

The faith school system in the country seriously restricts parental choice. There's no way I'm placing my children in the case of the biggest child sex abuse ring in the world (Catholic church) or Welby's apologists for the Dark Ages.

I'd rather go to Wonga to fund private education than send my children to a church school.

Churm Rincewind

I'm rather surprised by the assumption that "private schools give people better education" in the absence of any supporting evidence or argument.

FromArseToElbow has it right. A private education is a signalling device rather than a reflection of ability, though this obtains primarily in England as opposed to the rest of the UK.

In short, it's all to do with the English obsession with class, which distressingly seems to have been taken for granted both by the original OP and by many posters above.


While anecdote isn't data, I half wonder if it is not the private schools that give the children of the rich their advantages, but simply contacts: having family and friends who know the rules of the game. And perhaps expectations...

I'm that cliche of sorts, the person who grew up in a family on income support, went to the Russell Group university, got the first class honours degree, but in the subsequent 15 years or so, has watched others race past me, as it were, in the world of work. How much of that is that I didn't even realise what the rules of the game were until I was in my thirties, and how much that, having been used to having no money, a steady middle class graduate income left me thinking 'I've got what I need, not working my arse off to climb the greasy pole' I'm not quite sure.


"What is the difference between buying a superior education for your children and, say, reading to your children when they are young? "

The latter requires that you actively take part in your own child's education and the former takes advantage of being able to procure better education, or to buy success.

It could well be argued that a society based on the vast inequalities we have so distorts things that the best minds are not discovered and the rich crowd out access to the best facilities. Surely if society is more equal, and people can't simply buy success, then you have more chance of finding the best minds and matching them up with the best facilities. And these best minds can then be put to the service of society as a whole.

Another related problem with the vast inequalities we have, and the fact that those with the money decide how society's resources are put to use, is that the best minds end up serving those very people who can afford to pay! I knew a friend at school who was a brilliant student and he ended up working in a bank. What a waste of a great mind! What a utter tragedy. Think of all those great minds who work for KPMG and whose sole responsibility is to help the filthy rich avoid tax. Again, what a tragic waste.

I don't think this debate really has anything to do with people who went to Eton, if people are happy for things to go on as they are then so be it. But if we can persuade the masses that the current system is unjust and corrupt and counter productive, then the wealthy have no choice. They will have to change, simple as that.

Remember the lesson - the powerful are only powerful until they aren't. Just ask Mubarak!


To treat a private education purely as a signaling device is to ignore the difference in grades between private and state schools.

You could argue of course that it does just reflect a very strong correlation between domestic effective educational support and ineffective but conspicuous class displays through schooling but I don't think this is credible.


"A private education is a signalling device rather than a reflection of ability"

But most private schools select according to ability - or rather performance.



2 reports showing that at university, pupils educated at comps outperform those educated privately. So I think this makes the statement that "most private schools select according to ability" extremely dubious.

The reports showing that pupils educated at comps outperform those educated privately would strongly indicate that class does indeed play a part in education, and the upper classes are screwing the rest of us over royally.

Churm Rincewind

@ James: Certainly private schools in the UK achieve better grades (by which I take you to mean standards-based external examinations, though this is by no means a majoritative criterion of educational excellence - in Austria, Belgium, Chile, Greece, Mexico, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States such examinations do not even exist). That's to be expected, given that the single biggest determining factor in educational performance is the socio-economic background. However, if we consider reading ability (for example), and correct for socio-ecomomic factors, then we find that UK state schools outperform private schools. In this specific respect private schools do not provide a "better education", though in the event the inadequacy of the education they provide in that instance is trumped by the privileged socio-economic background of their pupils.

My argument is that the superior performance of the privately educated in standards-based external examinations has little connection with private education as such, and everything to do with the background of the pupils.

Which brings me on to Shuggy's post. No, private schools do not select initially on performance. Their first and primary consideration is the parents' ability to pay. As a result, the English public school system automatically selects pupils from privileged socio-economic backgrounds - i.e. those pupils most likely to outperform.

What a private education essentially indicates is a particular socio-economic background. I repeat, it's a signalling device rather than an indication of "ability" (whatever that means).

My evidence for all this can be found in the Pisa 2009 report, with the UK results usefully summarised by the OECD. JGI, as the young folk say.

Louis Vuitton Outlet Online

“fast internet and phone connections to billions of people in far flung corners of the earth.”

The comments to this entry are closed.

blogs I like

Blog powered by Typepad