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Why Life needs to be fair

Life isn't fair is probably one of the earliest lessons we learn in life. Things don't always work out the way we want or indeed deserve. Yet one of the touchstones for Democracy is that the brightest should at least get a chance to compete with the merely privileged. If there can not be equality of outcome, then at least there should be equality of opportunity.

What happens though, when it becomes increasingly obvious that no matter what your skills, there is and will never be even the pretence of fairness? In the UK now there is a crisis of education, but it is not the crisis that a bunch of articulate, self interested University students would have you believe. The crisis rests in the fact that unless you go to a fee paying, private school- which the English, perversely, call public schools- then your chances of social and economic success are a fraction of the small minority that has attended such schools. In some areas of the media and in the law the proportion of ex-public school educated employees is approaching 90%. Indeed in journalism, it is remarkable the degree to which they are concentrated not merely in certain schools, but even in certain families. This is a very narrow "elite" indeed.

The fact is that the chances of entering certain professions depends on choices that were made not by you, but by your parents. Of course if your parents did not have the money to educate you at the right school, the chances are so low of entering a senior position in law that it is essentially pointless: your chances are less than a tenth of those who were privileged.

What is worse is that the trend is getting worse.

Whereas in the sixties and seventies the Grammar schools were turning out a new generation of leaders, the rise of the comprehensive returned the public school system to the levers of power. Indeed, the political elite is firmly in the hands of the public schools. The days of the "grammar school boy" have clearly gone. now we are accustomed to think of Grammar schools as elitist, but in the 1960s there was considerable bitterness about the way that the public schools lorded it over the state educated even then.

This trend is dangerous.

If it becomes clear to the brightest that they can not hope to achieve their ambitions, then they will come to oppose the society that denies them the opportunity to do so. Social cohesion depends on fairness.

I do not propose to tear down the public school edifice, but it seems to me that access to such schools must be opened up to the very brightest, while at the same time the rest of primary and secondary education needs acquire the access and power that the existing public schools already have. De facto we have selection by wealth- or rather house price- for the best state schools. The time has come to allow wider selection by educational potential. A greater diversity in secondary education can help local schools offer the opportunities that are still- shamefully- the unique purview of the rich.

It is only fair.


John said…
this is very interesting - can you put a slant on it that describes the way vested interests are being challenged? where does this place pupil premium, free schools and acadamies. Are you perchance arguing that Clegg/Cameron are giving away the advantages of their own children while some in Labour are keeping those interests for themselves.
Malcolm Baines said…
One of the other interesting developments in contemporary society where background is incredibly important is the rise of the "celebrocracy" i.e. those who become rich and famous simply because their parents are already rich and famous - in my view its the new aristocracy.
Gareth Aubrey said…
As one of the rare modern-day grammar school boys I've written about this myself (

Two things strike me from being in that position; I'm conscious that having gone to a grammar school pushed me much further than the local comp would have, and I'm also conscious that it didn't erase the other advantages that wealth and connections and such gave people.

The former is solvable, the latter not so much, but you capture the fundamental point; we already have selection, so why expend so much effort in a wholly damaging effort to pretend that we don't?

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