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Why you can’t dress up a state school Despite our progress, there's a reason the education gap is so vast between the state and private school systems

Children. Britain needs them Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Children. Britain needs them Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

September 16, 2019   4 mins

As children across the country head back to school, we asked our contributors to do the same. In this series, our writers share some lessons they learned at school – and how it shaped the way they think about education today.


Have you ever worn a boater? I confess: I have. There is surely no more potent symbol of our nation’s class divide than this most singularly pointless and poorly designed piece of headwear.

I owned a boater for the one year I spent at a school called Croftdown, at the age of six. It is almost impossible to settle a boater comfortably on your head. They look ridiculous. Only a school confident its parents had enough money to disregard practicality in school uniform would ever inflict a boater on its pupils. And yet: these schools exist, and the boater manufacturers of the world remain, tragically, in business.

When I tried, in the coalition government, to ban state schools from including boaters in their school uniform, my interlocutor Jo Johnson MP accused me of “class warfare virtue signalling”. He had no idea I was simply acting out a 25-year-old vendetta.

Most people who’ve been to public school understand their privilege. David Cameron – an old Etonian like Johnson – used to say he was passionate about education reform precisely because he wanted every child to have as great a schooling as he had experienced, at Eton. That instinct is to be admired. But my schooling convinces me that he and so many posh-boy reformers are on the wrong crusade: they’re missing half the point of what makes a private school education so valuable.

I went to a lot of schools: seven in total. The reasons would be too much of a distraction to bother you with them. (But if you’re worried: no, I was never expelled nor did I explode any school buildings). The seven include the full spectrum of all educational opportunities available on these British isles, from a prep school so ostentatiously privileged it had its own steam railway, to a comprehensive in rural Wales where a suspicious number of children disappeared during the lambing season, and only half made it to sixth form.

So I have experienced at first hand the extraordinary divides between our state and private school systems. And if those who’ve experienced a luxury education want to have even a chance of recreating it for those less privileged, they need to go beyond their usual areas of focus, which seem to be uniform and academic standards.

There is zero evidence that uniform improves children’s attainment. The trend for blazers and ties at state schools is based around a set of flawed cultural assumptions that making people look like posh kids is good for them. There is no place at all in our state system for any of the ludicrous items I was forced into by my fee-paying schools (which include a magenta gym slip and matching gym knickers, a special blazer worn once a week for church on Sundays and peach-coloured shirts only available at vast expensive in the school’s own shop).

Academic standards, by contrast, are important. The expectations of children in our private schools are, indeed, usually higher than in our state schools. I learnt Latin at seven, quite absurdly. But public schools take a completely different group of children from state schools. Many are selective. It is easy to expel difficult children. They don’t have to trouble themselves with kids too hungry to learn, kids in foster care, kids with disabilities. It isn’t remarkable that they get good results; it’s remarkable they get any bad ones.

We have made real progress over the last decade at improving the academic standards of our state schools, and I’m glad of it. But even if our state schools churned out children with the same GCSEs as their private counterparts, we would not have closed the gap. Because the biggest difference of all between the state and public systems is that, the posher the school, the more parenting it does for its pupils.

This is counterintuitive. It’s so often the rich who condemn people who argue that schools should offer breakfast, for example. “It’s the parent’s responsibility,” they say. Meanwhile, their own children at boarding school get breakfast at school every day.

Between the ages of seven and 11, I was at school from 8.30am to 7pm every weekday, and from 8.30am to 4pm on Saturdays. I did homework at school. I was fed two meals a day at school. I learned hockey, and tennis, and competed against a league of other schools every week. I had music lessons at school, and learned the flute. The school had its own Brownie pack, and Cubs for the boys. When there was an outbreak of headlice, it was Matron who combed chemicals into every child’s hair. School organised exchange trips with France and Spain, and penpals, too. They took us skiing.

My daughter is now 7, attending our local state school. She is their responsibility from 8:50am until 3:30pm, and I can expect them to teach her the national curriculum and nothing more. The difference with my school experience at that age is not that she isn’t learning Latin. It’s that sports, homework, music, brownies, travel, health, food: it’s all for me to organise. And I have to pay for childcare from the end of school until the end of the working day, because our school system is chronically incompatible with working life.

I don’t mind. I can afford it. But millions can’t. And it’s what makes the gap between private and state schooling so vast.

The public school system makes life easy for parents. We should enable the state system to do the same.

Polly Mackenzie is Director of Demos, a leading cross-party think tank. She served as Director of Policy to the Deputy Prime Minister from 2010-2015.


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Alka Hughes-Hallett
Alka Hughes-Hallett
3 years ago

Spot on.

It kind of begs the question why we were asked to “clap for the NHS” only. Where was the merit in that?
Why not clap for the waiters, shopkeepers, brick layers, gardeners etc and the lawyers, businessmen, even bankers (!) Why not? Clap for the students and jobseekers too as they have the most to loose now.

We tend to focus on meriting one or the other category and instantly putting on or removing them from sacred list. This elevation and cancellation is telling of an angry society blowing like a flag.

So could the solution be in tolerance with a wide variety of views and in not judging everyone hastily? Every individual has merit if one wants to learn from them.