The Samovar

Should left wingers not send their kids to private schools?

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.


great — a new post!


(a) a perspective i feel is hardly ever given voice in this discussion is that of the `child’. when my mother and sister moved back to london (she was 16), my sister refused point blank to go to a private school for 6th form. she went to state school, albeit one that was not particularly nearby, and everything went very well and it’s clear now that this was a good decision. i wonder what diane abbot’s children think.

(b) of the arguments you discuss, it seems clear the most serious is symbolic, which perhaps you don’t give enough space. unlike many other things a parent might or might not do in support of a child, the choice of schooling also has a public dimension and is a political act (even for non-politicians). independently of other circumstances, sending a child to a private school legitimises the existence of such schools, ultimately allowing state schools to be worse because the (upper?) middle class will opt out.

the idea that you can `offset your schooling emissions’ via charities precisely misses this symbolic dimension, by reducing the role of a parent to that of a concerned consumer, rather than a political actor. i might say that it is this disappearance of politics (in the uk/us at least) that means that we are all screwed.

(c) a dimension you don’t mention: what is the function of schools? while intellectual development is clearly one, is there a better place where people might actually enter into (potentially genuine) contact with people from significantly different backgrounds? some people on the left might give particular weight to this second function of schools and might want their representatives to share this vision. i.e. one might ask does why does diane abbot want her children to grow up already emotionally embedded within the jet set (even if they maintain their presumed leftwing politics intellectually speaking).

the concern that society is drifting (back?) into two very disconnected units related only by the fact that one groups hires the labour of the others is real and reasonable. the concern that even supposed left politicians are (increasingly) under a sort of imaginative and intellectual slavery of the point of view of the `haves’ is also rather reasonable. a choice of school has a political dimension that may suggest where the parent politician stands on these two issues.

Comment by sean h

Hey Sean – yep, I know it’s been a while!

I agree on (a), although I guess that often the choice is being made when the child is much younger.

I have to confess I have mixed feelings on symbolic actions. Take voting for example: on the one hand it really makes no difference for a particular individual if they vote or not – it won’t change anything (except in the highly improbable case that the election is decided by one vote). However, if everyone thought like that nobody would vote and then would have a big effect. So maybe the symbolic act means the necessity of a slight private irrationality in support of a public rationality? But I haven’t sorted that out in my head. What is the trade-off here? How much private irrationality should people be expected to indulge in? What is reasonable / possible?

In any case, it’s true that the existence of private schools allow the state schools to be worse as you say, but this doesn’t seem to be related to the rest of your point in (b) about symbolic acts. The whole point is whether or not it’s acceptable to send your children to private school even though you think private schools ought to be abolished.

I agree that the offsetting your schooling emissions idea is not good on reflection, although possibly not for the same reasons as you. Rather, I just think that that money could probably be better spent elsewhere. Ultimately, I think it’s possible to be political, to be radical even, based purely on pragmatic reasoning. Perhaps we could go further and say that ceding the pragmatist point of view to the political right may actually doom the left, because most people are basically pragmatic and not ideological?

Point (c) is interesting. Basically you’re saying that there is an extra signalling mechanism that I hadn’t considered: that the politician in question wants / is happy to have their children grow up amongst the haves, sharing their preconceptions / etc. In other words, it tells you something about what they want their children to be, and not just about what advantages they want their children to have. That’s a fair point, and I’d say it was definitely something that’s worth taking into account then, but still not enough to justify the instant rejection of anyone who has sent their children to private school.

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

hey dan — yes, the pragmatic/symbolic (or ideological) tension may be the ultimate chicken and egg problem. i don’t know how to resolve it and the private school issue should probably boil down to a case by case consideration. i would say though that i’m not sure the right is more pragmatic — in fact, i would say that being seen as more pragmatic is part of their ideological framework. it is easier to be seen as more pragmatic when the dominant consumerist-individualist worldview is working in your direction. e.g. is bailing out banks and then cutting services to pay for it `pragmatic’? — well, i think that obviously depends on ideological questions.

so my problem with the notion of pragmatic is that it is not abstractly defined. what is possible is conditioned by ideas. you might even say that the current labour party is what happens when the left becomes pragmatic. i’m pretty sure that is how they see themselves.

Comment by sean h

No, the right is not more pragmatic, but the point is not to let them define themselves as the more pragmatic party by letting go of the term ourselves! Likewise, the Labour party may think of themselves as pragmatic, but it’s pretty straightforward to see that they’re highly ideological. Similarly for the right. Pragmatic isn’t easy to define, but then what is? In any case, reclaiming the word wouldn’t be a matter of finding a definition, but of showing how our way of using it is better – probably that would involve using it as a concept in our analyses, etc. To do that, we have to point out that sometimes the only pragmatic thing to do is revolutionary.

As a first step on a (political) definition, I’d highlight that pragmatism doesn’t mean doing what is easiest to do, but means judging ideas and policies based on what they actually involve in practice. So, for example, PFI schemes are not pragmatic, even though they are politically easy to achieve (both the Labour party and the Conservatives are more or less in favour of privatisation, and the corporate media likewise), and you can show that in practice they are inefficient and unjust in many ways. That’s enough to make a pragmatic case against them.

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

alas, i think you can throw all the data you like at people (about e.g. PFI) and without a sense of injustice and possibility of empowerment it won’t be enough. one has to want (`desire’ even), it’s not enough to know. which isn’t to say that a cool pragmatic analysis is unimportant or doesn’t have its place, of course it does..

but anyways — i don’t want to hijack your blog and i mostly agree with you, perhaps i am more skeptical about the role of rationality here.

Comment by sean h

I’m not about to write a long intellectual diatribe here (I only went to a State comprehensive school), but it seems to me that for a Socialist to choose to send their child to a private school would indicate that he has thrown away his principles. Though I wouldn’t describe myself as a Socialist, there are many Socialists who I have respect for because they adhere to their beliefs (Jeremy Corbin and Tony Benn come to mind) and refuse to be tempted by hypocrisy. Diane Abbot is a classic example of a theorist who looks at society as how it ought to be rather than the way it actually is. Michael Foot was another. There are two kinds of Socialist: the first are those who want a Socialist state today; and the second are those who want a Socialist state just as soon as their children have finished their private education. I know that’s a simplistic statement, but there’s a lot of truth in it. Private education has become a more popular option since the abolition of selection from much of the state sector – and Diane Abbot benefited from going to a grammar school because she happened to do well. Therefore, by my reckoning she should be lauding the fairness of a selective system based on ability and not, by sending her son to the City of London private school, based on privilege.

Comment by Anders

So where does my argument above go wrong then?

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

There’s an excellent article here about why the destruction of Grammar Schools has led to a much more divided system between state and private school pupils:

Comment by Anonymous

I’d like to share my story if I may. I have attended both state and private schools. I went to a state primary school in a low socio-economic area of the English midlands, and attended two local state high schools in years 7-9. I was miserable in both. My mother is Australian, and she took me back to Australia when I was 13, which was the beginning of year nine in the English school calendar, but in the Australian school calendar I would be just finishing year eight. Private schools in Australia are a great deal cheaper than in the united kingdom, and therefore it is not for the ultra elite, so my mum could afford to send me to the local catholic high school (fee paying) and it wasn’t great, but it was better than the state schools I attended in England, where I had been utterly miserable and refused to go to school towards the end of year seven, and I was really badly bullied because I spoke good English and didn’t lose my virginity at the age of twelve. At the start of year 11, which in Australia is basically the start of your a level equivalent, I moved to a more expensive (though still cheaper than British private schools) catholic school, and I had the most amazing school experience ever. I was truly truly happy, I made really lovely friends, I had the best teachers ever. The school made you really socially aware, and it kept the ethos that it started with when the Mercy nuns created the school to educate poor catholic girls who otherwise would not have received an education. I consider myself left wing, but I had an amazing experience at my school, much better than the state education I received in the uk.

Comment by L

There’s an excellent article here about why the destruction of Grammar Schools has led to a much more divided system between state and private school pupils:

Comment by Anonymous

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