The Perils of Privilege

Are you familiar with the term ‘NIMBYism’? It stands for ‘Not In My Back-Yard’. Let me tell you a story to help you understand this concept in practice. About six years ago, my family together with many others in our community awoke to discover that a neighbouring house had become a residence for homeless young people; this coincided with a spike in car crime and petty house burglaries in the area. Conversation around the subject became very interesting. The government had to do more to support young people, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, and, of course, it was necessary and a great idea to open up more homes to care for the homeless youth population… However, “not next door to us!” “For Heaven’s sake, there is a school down the road”, “the area is quiet and respectable”, and, above all, “house prices will inevitably suffer”. You see, anywhere else it qualified as an out and out duty, but Not In My Back Yard. Six years on, the home has closed its doors, been auctioned off, and a collective sigh of relief was breathed by the community.

It was with the same great interest that I read about the Labour party’s motion to abolish private schools. Having had the privilege of experiencing both the private and state school systems, and with many close friends still attending state schools, this motion captured my imagination.

To put it in layman’s terms, Labour delegates endorsed plans to remove private schools’ charitable status and redistribute their property, investments and endowments into the state sector. They also approved the motion that would mean universities would be limited to admitting only 7% from private schools to reflect the proportion of private school students in the wider population. Eye-watering motions if they do indeed find their way into the Labour party manifesto.

However, is it so wrong that all children should have access to the higher standards and levels of education within a salubrious and life-enhancing environment? An educational panacea that would do away with candidate selection through examination or ability, (natural or bought), and hot-housed in order to perform sufficiently to reach their academic goals. An environment that would celebrate learning, inclusivity, attainment and social mobility. Surely, this is a vision that is both admirable and worthy, isn’t it?

As a student who has the privilege of attending both a state school and a private school, I find myself wondering if I’m succumbing to NIMBYism.  If private schools did not exist, I would not have been able to come to WHS, and by extension had the wonderful experiences that I have been fortunate enough to gain.  However, if I had been guaranteed a similar experience within one of the state schools around this community, would I have needed to attend a private school in the first place?

It seems to me that this notion of dismantling private schools is not such a radical plan nor is it just a sound bite to win more votes from other sectors of the community.  The real question is how well we separate the ideal from the reality of implementation.  Remember, most educational institutions are already grappling with the idea of private vs state.  Many universities, initiated by Birmingham university, have been offering unconditional offers to students in order to appeal to a broader spectrum of the student body.  Cambridge and Oxford – which most assume are the natural home of private school students, are actively reducing their intake from private schools to the advantage of state school students. In 2019-20, the Cambridge cohort will be made up of 68% from state schools, in a progression that Cambridge University described as “deeply encouraging”.  As well as universities, private schools, such as ours, are increasing their number of bursaries.  Latymer Upper School, in London, is hoping to increase its bursaries to one in four by 2024.  Clearly, there is a step change and a movement towards greater inclusion and cooperation. 

And what about those students who attend private schools but do not come from financial privilege nor quality for bursaries? Pupils whose families believe the educational experience is so vitally important that they are willing to take the hardship and difficulties presented by the financial burden in order to give their children the opportunities not afforded by the state provision? They face the double-whammy: financial burden and being overlooked by universities!

The issue is that in an ideal world we would not need to have private schools and state schools. We would simply have schools – academic institutions that provide a safe, happy and supportive environment for all their students and staff to learn, teach, achieve and inspire.  However, reality suggests that we are a very long way away from such ideal scenarios, (the history and present state of the NHS is a good lesson and template).  To change the status quo is like steering a juggernaut through a maze.

I suspect the Labour party will have much greater claims on their time and resources over the next couple of decades to even consider changes to the present system. Is it so radical to dream, to strive for equality? It seems that we all want equality, but as soon as our privilege is challenged, we revert back to the fundamentals of individualism, or more simply, we become NIMBYists. But just for now, I’d like to give a mention to all my teachers who attended state schools and are now bringing all their knowledge and experience to enrich ours and our futures.

It is only when we think the unthinkable that we propel ourselves towards a better future. In the words of Douglas Adams:

“Let’s think the unthinkable, let’s do the undoable. Let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself…”