Open Thinkering


Education: sometimes it’s not complex (a reply to Nick Dennis).

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Walled garden

In a way I don’t really want to write this post.

Over the last few months my good friend Nick Dennis and I have been debating the merits and otherwise of independent schools. I made my position clear in this blog post.

Nick – who, unlike me, is still working as a classroom teacher and senior leader in an (independent) school – has finally had time to respond. He’s written a thoughtful, considered post entitled Beyond stereotypes and raincoats. You should go and read it in its entirity before reading this post any further.

I don’t really want to write this post because I’ve tried very hard to separate what I see as Nick’s implicit justification of his position with my criticisms of the independent schools sector. I don’t want to attack my friend.

What follows, whilst borrowing quotations from Nick’s blog post, shouldn’t be taken as an attack on him per se. Instead it should be seen as a critique of those who seek to justify the existence of a private walled garden of education available only to those who are able to pay.

As far as I can see it, Nick makes five main points in his post:

  1. Those who are anti-independent schools lack a nuance of approach to the ‘complexity’ of the UK school system
  2. Some state school places attract a de facto ‘price tag’ as houses in the catchment area are disproportionately expensive
  3. There are some independent schools that cater to minority interests – faiths, ethnicity, learning difficulties, and so on
  4. Independent schools are caused by an unequal distribution of wealth
  5. The founders of independent schools were virtuous individuals with noble intentions, therefore independent schools have a moral purpose

At the end of his post, Nick presents a dichotomy inspired by the film The Matrix, asking the reader to choose between different ‘pills’:

[Y]ou can take the pill of the state/private stereotype as it stands and the story ends and the debate will continue with no real resolution. Alternatively, you could take the pill that allows you to move beyond reductionist stereotypes and be part of something life changing

I would reject this dichotomy. As I hope to show by going through the five pillars of his argument in turn, what he terms a ‘stereotype’ is based on a very real (and very divisive) truth that pervades our education system,

1. The simple truth

Nick claims, mainly through the anecdote that introduces his post, that we often jump to conclusions based on mental models. These shorthand ways of thinking he refers to as stereotypes. It is implied that stereotypes are bad. And, for the most part, I would agree.

Another caveat: I have never worked in an independent school. I went for an interview at one, but withdrew from the selection process as I felt I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself had I taken the job. As I mentioned recently, I think we should be aiming for the high ground in our lives more generally.

Why do I see independent schools as occupying anything other than the ‘high ground’? Because they’re an extreme example of market forces in education. Independent schools are walled gardens that charge for entry. Pointing to the fact that some independent schools have bursaries is like saying Glastonbury gives away free tickets. It’s still a paid-for event.

There’s a market in the state sector. Of course there is. Sadly. There’s grammar schools, selective schools, girls’ schools, faith schools, and now Academies, Free Schools and almost every kind of school you could imagine. But two wrongs don’t make a right: markets have no place in the education of our young people. End of story.

2. The mobile middle class

My wife works as a teacher in a Primary school one day per week. We were considering moving to that area at one point but couldn’t afford the house prices in the immediate vicinity to the school. That’s an example – even in the North East – of inflated house prices caused by Ofsted deeming a school ‘Oustanding’.

Middle-class parents moving to ensure their children get a place at the school of their choice isn’t an easy problem to solve. Even if you remove the market-based rhetoric of ‘choice’ in state-funded education provision, the problem would remain. Some people use their capital – financial, cultural, intellectual – in an attempt to gain advantage over others.

The fact that people act in selfish and sociopathic ways does not mean, however, that we should institutionalise such behaviour in the system itself. It be morally wrong for middle class parents to move houses to secure a state school place but, I would argue, it’s definitely wrong for them to buy a place outside of that system in an attempt to advantage their offspring.

3. Special cases

The debate between Nick and I has, on occasion, spilled out onto Twitter and led to some interesting exchanges. Many people have pointed out to me that some parents send their children to independent schools out of sense of desperation. The state sector, they argue, just doesn’t provide what their children need.

I realise there’s sensitivities in this area. My children do not have learning disabilities (that I’m aware of at the moment). We’re a white, British, middle-class family. Our aggregated religious beliefs are not strong enough to make it a factor in school choice.

Despite all this, I do feel that it’s still dubious to send your child to an independent school instead of fighting for understanding and better provision within the state sector. These two things are not mutually exclusive, of course, but often (again, in my limited experience) sending a child to an independent specialist provider is seen as a ‘solution’ to the problem rather than the beginning of a campaign.

I have to say that I have more sympathy for this argument. But I still think it’s problematic to argue that fixing the problem for your children is anything other than, at the end of the day, a selfish decision.

4. The rich get richer

To his credit, Nick points out in his post that there’s a clear link between independent schools and the most powerful, privileged and wealthy individuals in our society:

Despite this, all the differences seem inconsequential in light of what many see as the burning issue with the ‘independent sector’ – the dominance privately educated students have on British ‘Public’ life which recent government reports and speeches confirm. The phrase ‘morally indefensible’ was used to describe this influence and the waste of talent within the country and this was picked up fairly quickly by those who buy into the ‘stereotype’ of what an independent school is.

Nick’s conclusion is that this link obscures the ‘real’ issue which is the unequal distribution of wealth within our society. This, somehow (he seems to claim) means that this unequal distribution is the root of the problem.

To be honest, I don’t really understand Nick’s argument here. I absolutely agree with his central premise that we need a more equal distribution of wealth but his acknowledgement that independent schools specifically militate against this seems not to tally?

One last rejoinder to this point. Nick claims throughout the state/independent dichotomy is problematic and that this lacks nuance. I’d agree with this to the extent. We’ve internalised the logic of the market to such an extent that we find it difficult to criticise those who choose to pay for their education. Somehow, access to money is seen to be ‘earned’ within our society – no matter how this has come about.

5. Intentions last forever?

When I studied for my MA in Modern History at Durham University my dissertation title was ‘Educational ideas in mid to late Victorian England: their origin and application’. In the course of my research I found out that, surprisingly, when state schools were introduced in 1870 attendance attracted a fee.

Previous to the 1870 Education Act the only education provision was through Dame schools or those set up by men of privilege. Nick’s argument is that because these schools were set up by individuals of (perceived) high moral fibre that this somehow gives them a perpetual raison d’être.

I’d argue otherwise.

Not only that, I’d argue that such a position is hypocritical. Many, if not most, independent schools have charitable status – at the same time as charging £30,000 per year for tuition. This makes a mockery of charities who do valuable work and actually need the tax breaks and other perks that charitable status provides.


I like Nick. I respect his position. I’ve tried very hard in this post to examine the arguments he put forward in his post – arguments that others have also presented to me over the years. I hope I’ve gone some way to responding to these and why I feel they’re not strong defences for the continued existence of independent schools.

And for those who say that things aren’t like to change anytime soon, I present you Evidence A: the introduction of Academies over the last few years: state-funded and under direct ministerial control. I’m against those as well (and have worked in one!)

It’s not likely given that most ministers themselves attended independent schools, but an Act of Parliament could oblige all parents to send their offspring  to state-funded schools. Of course, at the same time I’d like to see the abolition of grammar schools, faith school, selective schools, and any type of system in education that allows for walled gardens.

What I’ve proposed may be utopian. It may have you quoting lyrics from John Lennon’s Imagine at me. But I refuse, whilst I still have breath in my body, my own children, and a strong interest in education, to believe that de facto situations can’t be changed.

(and I hope I haven’t upset Nick!)

Image CC BY recursion_see_recursion

9 thoughts on “Education: sometimes it’s not complex (a reply to Nick Dennis).

  1. It is always interesting to see how intertextuality comes into play when reading responses to what you have written! Let me start by replying to the numbered points: 

    1) You are right there are market forces in education and I am not suggesting that they are right (one point was to make it clear, as you have mentioned elsewhere, that the logic of the market pervades every aspect of our lives). Recognising this is important as it provides a starting base if you want to change it…

    2) Suggesting that certain that certain behaviours should become institutionalised is not the point – the end is to suggest that we (and I mean the people that are interested in doing something about it rather than aiming a critique – more on this later) have the power to do something beyond what already exists. 

    3) This is an interesting point to discuss as a child’s formal educational window is brief but fighting for better provision could take years. As someone pointed out to me in the comments on my blog, people with children tend to take either one of the extremes…

    4) I think this is a misrepresentation of the argument and reading the post in its context makes would make it work. The point is that privilege usually finds a way of securing it – through moving house to attend a better schools (school fees by another name), paying for private tutors or attending an independent school. 

    5) On the last point, heaven forbid that I am trying to ascribe good intentions on some of the founders of independent schools! Some were very nasty individuals who appear to have set up schools to cover their misdeeds and possibly ‘buy’ their way into heaven (note the use of the word ‘often’). Nor does it give them a perpetual morality that can go unquestioned. What I am suggesting is that the humanism of the Renaissance helped propel some of the ideas behind these schools (and which, we labour under today in all schools) but is obscured by the focus ‘getting a job’ or ‘protecting narrow interests’. The comment about hypocrisy is noted, but rests on something that is not being argued. If charitable status is the point here, I am willing to listen to the alternatives. Some may even move to become academies as Liverpool College has chosen to do:

    To conclude, there intention of the post was not to try and change your mind (as if a simple post would do that) but you have missed the point – this is not a defence of independent schools per se, but as you have suggested in your previous post, taking the higher ground to see if we can use the opportunity before us to actually make a change and this is something I am also *very* interested in. Gramsci suggests that there are two positions to take in changing the social order. The first is a ‘war of manoeuvre’ where a direct attack on the state is the method. If you choose this option in a liberal democracy, I would guess that your attempt will fail. The second is a ‘war of postion’ where the capacity for alternatives and institutions to the current social order are created (is this not essentially what Puspos/Ed was set up to do?). 

    I would agree that change is necessary and that we can certainly agree on. The methods, however are a different matter…

    I would also argue that we live in an age of hypocrisy and that the equality aimed for by bringing down paid ‘walled gardens’ would create geographic ‘walled gardens’ or some other form if we do not think about the issues in the round. 

    Finally, of course I would expect you to reject the dichotomy at the end, it is, after a challenge I knew that you would not accept and a call to action that you are not prepared to take. I look forward to our continued ‘academic’ discussion!

    1. Both dead and of debateable value.  As another revolting person said with respect to the impact of the French Revolution: it is too early to tell.  Indeed, on this theme, the chances of change are about the same as the Western Peripheral Bypass for Aberdeen being built in my childrens’ childrens lifetime. 

  2. Great article Doug. Fascinating to read both sides of the argument being so well presented by both Nick and yourself. 

    I’d be interested to hear how you balanced your opinion of academies whilst actually working for one?

  3. > Despite all this, I do feel that it’s still dubious to send your
    child to an independent school> instead of fighting for understanding
    and better provision within the state sector.After having spent 10 years in public sector schools, fighting (without any great success) for services to which son is (in theory) legally entitled, I’ve given up.  Arguably, the resources are there, but the implementation is almost wholly inadequate.The difficulty with ‘fighting the good fight’ is that your child gets caught in the crossfire.  Unfortunately, the public school system (which has been, in my experience, quite excellent (for the neurotypical)) is a blunt instrument.  Intelligent kids with learning differences simply aren’t well served by a model of 1:100+ teacher to student ratios and class sizes of 20-30.  The essential component of timely, actionable feedback just isn’t possible.  Alternately, these students are shunted to a remedial class where the academic bar is too low and they (rightly) feel marginalized.

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