The How-to Guide on Eliminating Education Disparity in the UK

By Jurin Katayama

Income inequality is the biggest challenge that the UK’s education sector faces today. From law, politics, medicine and journalism, 39% of the top positions in these fields are dominated by the 7% of the total British population that has been lucky enough to afford and receive private education. Upper-class parents are more than willing to pay for the average private education’s £13,194 per year price-tag (£30,369 for boarders) as they are able to justify the real advantage. The small class sizes, high-quality facilities, and teachers that are more likely to hold higher degrees (such as PhDs) are offered by these private schools to ensure that their students receive the most opportunities in creating a top resumé for high-standard universities and influential jobs.

The successes of the elite private education heavily contrast the underfunded state education. The opportunities provided by the private education yields a difference between attendance in universities. Statistics show that 60% of independently educated students attend universities and that the 37% of those students are part of a Russell Group university. In comparison, only 48% of students from state schools attend universities with 11% of those students belonging to a Russell Group university. The gap between private and state educated students are thus highlighted in the attendance of universities and is further enlarged in later career earnings. Studies showed that after six months from graduating, the average earning difference between the private and state students were £1,300 per annum and that by the age of 42, men with private education made up to 34% more money.

The advantages that private schools provide – from getting into highly ranked universities to ultimately earning higher salaries – only stimulate a further future income inequality and disparity in opportunities for all. However, this should not mean that private schools should be abolished. Despite the fact that private schools are only attended by a very small percentage of the population, it paves the way for where UK’s education should aim for the near future. It may be better put by the shadow minister who declared in September 2019: “If the state system did not get some of those resources, then getting rid of those [private] schools would not help. We want to lift the overall standard, not bring everyone down to the same level.”

Unlike the far-left perspective of abolishing private schools, The Sutton Trust and Social Mobility Commission takes a softer approach in being more socially inclusive in the education sector. By paying for long-term internships, encouraging universities and industries to adopt contextual recruitment in their admission practices, arguing for fairer admissions practices in comprehensive and grammar schools, and opening up private schools to more people outside upper-class families, the Sutton Trust and Social Mobility Commission expects an improvement in the quality of total education sector in the long-run. The points made by the Sutton Trust and Social Mobility Commission are definitely important and must be immediately implemented by schools, universities, and jobs. Nonetheless, considering that the private schools already use their scholarships to give middle-class families discounts rather than provide opportunities to students from truly disadvantaged backgrounds, “opening up private schools” seems to be an extremely slow and unproductive response to a pressing issue.

More efficient responses than opening up private schools and encouraging contextual recruitment in the admission practices (but are not as dramatic as abolishing private schools), would be for private schools to no longer hold their charity statuses and pay VAT. Reflecting on the study that shows that “[private] schools interpret public beneficiaries widely to include one or more of state school pupils, local communities, other charities, and general society through raising socially responsible adults”, it seems that private schools are not doing enough to help the total education sector and that they are taking advantage of their charity statuses to save money and benefit themselves.  

In June 2017, former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn announced plans for private schools to pay VAT to fund-free school meals for primary school children. Although this plan has since been seemingly abandoned by the Labour party, the fact that 15.4% of British students were eligible to claim free school meals in January 2019 should ring alarm bells to the country. It is clear that the UK needs to take importance in transferring funds to reduce the disparity. Even if it is not free school meals, charging VAT to private schools could mean smaller classrooms, better facilities, and assurance that all students would have access to textbooks and stationaries in state schools. Prices of private schools may rise due to the VAT; however, by improving the quality of state schools to have the same high standard, overall, more pupils in the UK would have access to better opportunities.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not represent the views of The St Andrews Economist

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