A Bastion of Privilege
By Jisun Lee Junior Staff Reporter
Which one were you born with — a gold spoon, a silver spoon, or a dirt spoon?
These terms have become increasingly popular in Korea recently, used to describe how wealthy a situation or family people are born into. They communicate growing discontent with the societal systems that hand success to those with privileged backgrounds, rather than promoting individual talent. The social gap between the upper echelons of society and those trapped in the lower classes is becoming more visible, rigid, and unbreakable.
This problem is not unique to South Korea. In the UK, social mobility has been virtually stagnant since 2014, according to the Social Mobility Commission of England. Being born privileged means one is likely to remain so for the rest of their lives. Those who are not as lucky remain in the same economic situation for generations. The earliest symptoms of this toxic social phenomenon can be detected in education. Elite private schools, known for producing the majority of the leaders of the country, are at the center of the controversy.
Educational inequality is deeply rooted in British society. Private schools offer high standards of education, various extracurricular activities, and superb facilities to educate and culture the few who can afford it. People who receive private schooling are invited to membership in the upper echelon of society, in which wealth, power, and opportunities are essentially guaranteed. By age thirteen, the futures of privileged children are determined; they will hold positions of power, open to them through an established network of connections in high places. As more students strive to enter those elite private schools to secure their future, fewer students attend state schools. This diverts funding from the state schools and degrades the quality of education in them. While only approximately 7% of UK students enroll in private schools, they are hugely overrepresented in the upper ranks of government, law, and business — including two-thirds of the current British cabinet. Those students would later send their children to private schools, continuing the positive feedback loop and further entrenching the social inequality that already pervades British society.
Entering this bastion of privilege is not cheap. It costs 42,510 GBP (54,869 USD) per year to send a child to Eton College, one of the most prestigious — and controversial — private schools, located in Birmingham, UK. Most of the other private schools cost around 40 thousand GBP (51,630 USD), an amount far above the average income of British families. The accessibility of these prestigious private schools is highly questionable; the notion that only students above a certain level of wealth can access “better” education is regarded by many as a social abomination. It contradicts the idea that everyone should be guaranteed equal opportunity for education. In a society where social mobility has stagnated, and the inheritance of wealth and social status has become a norm, private schools only aggravate this problem.
Upon the election of the incumbent Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, whose alma mater is — unsurprisingly — Eton College, the debate around private education has revved up. As a solution, the Labour Party passed a motion to abolish private schools and strip them of tax breaks and endowments if it wins the upcoming election. Labour suggests the full integration of state and private schools and the nationalization of their endowments and investments. Politicians who endorse the proposal criticize the private education system for protecting the privileges of the wealthy elites and harboring a toxic sense of social superiority.
Of course, it would be a logical fallacy to attribute every aspect of the stagnant social mobility to private schools like Eton. However, it is quite undeniable that these schools exacerbate the issue. Abolishing private education would certainly alleviate the problem by creating an equal ground for competition. While it is true that people have the freedom to decide what kind of education they receive, the priority should be preventing that freedom from encroaching on others’ rights to equal education and opportunity.
Natural Law of Meritocracy
By Jae Hwan Jeong Senior Staff Reporter
Graduating from a private school in the United Kingdom guarantees one a place in an exclusive echelon of the society. The cost of sending a child to one of these private schools may not be affordable for the majority of the population. It is also true that the likelihood of an opportunity to attend these private schools is uneven across different demographics. However, the argument that their mere existence inhibits social mobility may not be as well-founded as many claim. Even more importantly, the abolition of these institutions will not quell political extremism in the UK, nor prevent individuals of similar alma mater from being overrepresented in the government.
The so-called elitist schools come from humble beginnings. When King Henry VI founded Eton College back in 1440, it was to provide education for 70 underprivileged boys and help their admission to other schools such as King’s College London and Cambridge University. The public benefit granted to the college is what initially gave them today’s charitable status. However, after King Henry was deposed by Edward IV in 1461, most of the school’s assets and treasures were transferred. Consequently, the reduced public funding meant that the institution could no longer operate without charging tuition fees. But then what allowed it to flourish even after the funding was cut short? It was the program itself. The breadth of curriculum and improved accommodation attracted many more boys, and a surplus of demand meant that it had to turn to today’s entry system based on wealth.
Some suggest that the Clarendon Commission appointed to look over the management of select few boarding schools is what gave these private schools an advantage. However, even this royal commission was formulated in the wake of internal complaints and not through unjust lobbying within the government. The background of Eton College reminds us that private schools are no different from businesses. They run on simple mechanisms of supply and demand, and these cannot be constrained to work in a designed manner. What this entails is the inevitable presence of such “elite institutions”, because their programs will always be more superior and thus attract more students; the alternative is to have schools with no area of distinction and identical quality of programs, which will inevitably take a toll on the nation’s overall quality of education.
Stagnant social mobility needs to draw our attention not to private schools, but to the lack of specialization of state schools. A report in 2016 from the UK government’s Social Mobility Commission concluded that entry into professional occupations is largely dependent on parents’ careers. It also reported that children from professional backgrounds are 80% more likely to get into professional fields such as law and medicine. Why then do we attribute the difficulty of the poorer population in finding employment to the existence of private schools? If state schools with specialized fields become more commonplace and accessible, it would pave a clearer path for middle and lower-income people to pursue professional careers. The overrepresentation of specific private school alumni is heavy in the government sector, but not so much in other fields. Hence, the more urgent problem that needs to be addressed is how those of working-class backgrounds earn 17% less than their privileged colleagues in the same working environment.
The disregard for employees will not go away by simply removing elite education sectors of the society. A shift in perspective has to come with constant interaction between the government and its people. There are no plebiscitary mechanisms in place for the relevant party to reach out to the general public, and that should be the starting point. The Labour Party can vow to end the inequality imposed by private schools all they want, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they still fail to appease the less privileged segment of the UK.