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Private schools for left-wingers?


The UK Labour party is currently having a leadership contest. The most left-wing candidate, Diane Abbott, has been criticised for sending her children to a fee-paying school. In the eyes of many socialists, this should be an instant disqualification for any left-wing political career. But is this a reasonable point of view?

I can see two reasons why you might want to rule out any candidate that sent their children to private school.

  1. It’s hypocritical to be against private schools but send your kids to one. This hypocrisy suggests that you don’t really believe what you say, and therefore if you got into power you wouldn’t necessarily act socialist.
  2. Sending your children to private school gives them an unfair advantage, and by doing so you are promoting inequality – not good for a left-winger.

The first criticism says that sending your kids to private school signals that you don’t really believe in socialism. There are two responses to this: first of all, it’s not clear that this is a correct inference. There is a difference between what someone believes they should do, and what they believe government policy should be. It is entirely logically coherent to believe both that we should live in a society with no private schools, and that given that we do live in a society with private schools, it is better to send ones kids to them than not. The two statements are simply not comparable, they live in different moral worlds: on the one hand choices about the nature of society itself, and on the other hand choices about what to do when the nature of society is fixed. So there is no reason to think that someone who sends their kids to private school would oppose the ending of the system of private schools, or indeed any other socialist policy.

The second response is that we also have to consider the signal sent by doing the opposite. If someone believes that sending their kids to private school would give them an advantage, and they’re financially able to do so, what does it mean if they choose not to do this? One possibility is that it means they value their political career more than the future of their children. If this were the case, then it’s not only a disturbing feature of their personality, but it suggests the sort of thing they would do if they got into power: anything that was necessary to further their career. That wouldn’t bode well for socialism.

However there are other reasons why they might not send their children to private school even if they thought it would be advantageous to them. They might, for example, think along the lines of statement (2) above – that someone else is being hurt by their sending their children to private school, and that this is not an acceptable price to pay. Alternatively, they might believe in the importance of symbolic commitments: that by performing certain actions you assert your commitment to ideals. An example of this is voting: any individual is wasting their time by voting, as their single vote almost certainly won’t change anything, but by doing so they assert their commitment to the ideal of democracy. The value of this sort of belief is debatable, but one wouldn’t want to assign any bad motives to someone who had such a belief. One final reason for not sending your children to private school even if you had the means to do so would be that you believe that state schools give a better education.

Given that there are many good reasons for not sending your children to private school even if you can – we certainly don’t want to deduce that people who choose not to have put their career first, but it is a possibility and it’s therefore not clear that someone who chooses not to send their kids to private school is likely to be better than someone who does.

The second criticism is that sending children to private school is in itself a sort of act of violence – by giving your children an advantage you must, almost by definition, put someone else at a disadvantage. This is a reasonable point of view, and to a certain extent must be true. There is another way of looking at it that makes it less clear though. It may be the case that sending someone to private school only makes them more likely to succeed – it doesn’t actually change the distribution of success or failure in society. In other words, the individual act of sending someone to private school may only improve their chances of success without changing the overall levels of inequality at all. Suppose you could choose between two possibilities: either your child is successful and consequently someone else’s child is unsuccessful; or someone else’s child is successful and consequently yours is unsuccessful. All other things being equal, we would have to be dubious about someone who chose that someone else’s child should be successful instead of theirs.

Let’s take this one step further: if we believe that we shouldn’t give our children an unfair advantage by sending them to private school – doesn’t this also mean that we shouldn’t give them an unfair advantage by doing other things that we know improve a child’s chances in life? Like talking to them and playing with them? Like taking an interest in them and helping them to understand the world? In other words, by being good parents? And what on earth would we make of people who thought like that? One response might be to say that there’s a difference: that sending children to private school and being a good parenting, that the former increases inequality whereas the latter does not. But what evidence is there for that? We know that ‘cultural capital’ promotes inequality in much the same way as financial capital does, and isn’t it precisely this cultural capital that is increased by good parenting? Rather than argue that parents ought not to work to give their children any advantages, which is I think absurd, I would argue that parents should work both to make their children’s lives as successful and happy as possible, whilst at the same time working for an equal society, a society in which everyone can have a fulfilling life, where fulfillment is not necessarily gained by doing better than others.

In conclusion: I am not arguing that parents ought to send their children to private school if they can afford to. There are, as I outlined above, many good reasons for not doing so. Instead, I’m simply arguing that the arguments of many critics against people who choose to are poorly grounded, and that following through on the type of reasoning they have followed to reach their conclusion would lead to some weird conclusions. Beyond this, I think that there is a danger that by insisting our politicians uphold certain standards that we haven’t through very carefully, we actually provide perverse incentives that work against our interests. By insisting that socialist politicians cannot send their children to private school, do we not thereby increase the chances of getting politicians who are more interested in their own careers than in their children? And if we’ve learned anything from Tony Blair, isn’t it that government by those who are more interested in their careers and the exercise of power itself than in the ideals they claim to believe in is an enormous wasted opportunity for the left?

I’ll finish with a suggestion: left-wing parents who want to send their children to private schools could make donations equal to the school fees they pay to a charitable trust devoted to giving grants to send children to private schools from families that could not afford them. I’m not sure if this is a good idea or not, there are some questions to be asked about it: perhaps there are better uses of that money? What about parents who could afford to send their children to private school, but could not afford to double that cost?

Disclosure: I was sent to private school by my parents. Make of this what you will.

Article cross-posted from my blog.

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