Primer in principles

How not to Be a Hypocrite
May 30, 2003

Alison Wolf reads the case against private schools

Formal education now determines more about more people's lives than at any other point in history. It is therefore not surprising that children's schooling dominates parents' conversation (and not just in the middle classes); or that disputes over university admissions go straight to the headlines. What this beautifully written book by an Oxford undergraduate admissions tutor makes clear is that education policies also encapsulate the principles on which our society, as well as our individual lives, are based. Because education is now so important, our educational choices say an enormous amount about how we think a society should be run.

Adam Swift's book is presented as a guide to perplexed parents who are wondering whether they are justified in sending their child to a private school. This may sound like a small audience. In the UK, unlike in some other countries, most private schools are not heavily subsidised by either the state or religious organisations, so most people cannot afford them. Of those who can, I doubt if most lose sleep over the morality of the decision.

However, the morality of "school choice" should be of much wider interest than this suggests (not least because much of the argument generalises to higher education as well). The fact that some people do agonise suggests that a genuine moral dilemma exists: Swift agrees. Almost all of us believe that our own behaviour should be ruled by more than short-term self-interest, and that government and social policies should have a moral basis. Swift argues that the right choices on schooling can be derived in large part by arguments from a few moral principles, with decisions tipped one way or the other by empirical evidence of what different policies produce.

The book is in two parts. The first argues for a set of general rules from which parents should make decisions in a particular case. The second takes 20 justifications for sending your child to a private school and examines which of these stand up, when and why. Examples include: "It's wrong for a parent to sacrifice her children to her political principles"; "Opting out is no worse than moving house to a better catchment area"; and "Sending him to the local comprehensive won't achieve anything".

This is a neat device, and contributes a lot to the book's readability. It also provides a template for the analysis of a wide range of other policy decisions. On the other hand, by the time you have read the first part you will know what Swift's take is on each of these justifications: and also whether or not you will end up on the same side as him in any particular case. It is the first part of the book that is significant, and that makes a case for a particular set of principles and a particular policy outcome: the outright abolition of private and selective schooling, and of the right to establish private schools.

You can find this book enormously interesting and stimulating without accepting this conclusion at all - which I do not. Principled decisions depend on deciding which rules you subscribe to, which ends and outcomes you think are valuable and also on the relative weight you ascribe to each.

And that weight can and should be affected by evidence on the likelihood of achieving a given outcome, and on what other consequences may come attached for the ride.

The most important bedrock principle in Swift's argument is that you are morally obliged to give your children a fair chance, but no more. So you are justified in making every effort to send them "to a fair-chance school, not a better-than-fair-chance one". This is a normative statement, obviously, not a description of general human behaviour. It is a highly demanding moral principle, reflecting the continuing influence of John Rawls on contemporary moral philosophy. It is also one that can be argued very powerfully, as Swift demonstrates.

Another of Swift's own explicitly stated values is that the preservation of high educational standards and of educational subjects whose value is intrinsic are goods in their own right, and that the effects on them of any educational policy must be taken seriously. His discussion here is also one of the rather rare points in the book where he goes for optimistic assertion rather than empirical evidence in concluding that there would be no real threat to these under the fully state-run, non-selective system he advocates. And if that is true for schools, why not for universities too?

If you agree with Swift's bedrock principle of fairness, and accept his reassurances on content and standards (or don't care), then he may carry you the whole way to his conclusion that private education should be banned. For me, however, his arguments give far too little consideration to issues of individual liberty. This is because he is so rooted in the particular and peculiar British case. In very few countries are private schools both so much the preserve of the affluent establishment and so dominant a route to elite status as here. Equally, very few countries have enjoyed essentially benign and non-arbitrary government for anything like as long; and the British have become complacent. Declarations of human rights include the right to choose your children's education not in order to preserve the privileges of the wealthy but because the world has seen, repeatedly, how governments with total control over education can and do abuse these powers. Swift seems to have no sense of this: which is why he can dismiss so lightly counter-arguments made on the grounds of freedom.

The publisher's blurb quotes an approving reader to the effect that Swift shows the "shallowness of the arguments supporting" private schools. This seems to me completely wrong. What this book shows is that arguments over private education are complex, interesting and important. And that is why you should read it.

Alison Wolf is professor of education, Institute of Education, University of London.

How not to Be a Hypocrite: School Choice for the Morally Perplexed Parent

Author - Adam Swift
ISBN - 0 415 31116 0 and 31117 9
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £40.00 and £9.99
Pages - 189

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