The Vulgar Priority of Private Education

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It’s recently become fashionable in some parts of Dublin to declare (loud and long) that one has decided to ‘prioritise’ the education of one’s child[ren] by choosing a fee-paying school.  I’m tempted to say that the parents of anybody who attended such a school but nonetheless uses prioritise as a verb should be getting a full refund.  However, as the sort of troglodyte who merely got a good education in Scotland, not a paid-for one, that’s the kind of ‘clever’ thing I would say, I suppose.

Flippancies aside, arguments in favour of fee-paying schools come in various forms.  Let’s examine some.  One argument stresses their superiority over schools of other kinds.  They breed or inculcate, we are told, self-discipline and something called character.   The latter virtue consists of such traits as not being a self-aggrandising show-off and the like.  George Hook tells us that this is so, surely we must agree?  Can man or woman amongst us name a person who more obviously possesses self-discipline and is more averse to self-aggrandisement than he?  Ah, perhaps that’s not the best line of defence to concentrate on…  Okay, I know, that’s an ad hominem argument (we did Latin at my school you see, between mine-going-down and doffing-our-caps-to-our-betters classes).  But let us at least accept that there is no monopoly on virtue amongst those who attend[ed] any school in particular and that some people who emerge from fee-paying establishments are venal, some are vulgar, some are vicious and some are all three.

It is also often suggested that those educated in such schools typically know, understand or can do a great deal more than those schooled elsewhere.  There is plenty of evidence that the former are coached to pass exams more intensively, but this is far from being the same as knowing, understanding or being able to do things.*   Refunds with added compensation are due for those who attended private schools but are so little versed in epistemology, ontology or the capacity to construct and understand arguments that they believe that ‘points’ have some Platonic existence, being tantamount to ‘education’.

Another argument in their favour is one that concerns something called choice or, sometimes, freedom.  Unfortunately, what is rarely said is that this argument is so deeply flawed it can make those really interested in liberty weep.  Maximising liberty is not the same thing as allowing unrestrained choice for some at the expense of others.  An economist (advice from members of which species Ireland has not lacked in recent years – and were not many of the better-known examples privately schooled?  Thanks lads!) might here refer to ‘negative externalities’, but less pompous people would say ‘unfortunate side effects’.  In other words, for as long as it is believed that attending a fee-paying school is always and everywhere better, attending any other will be seen as always and everywhere worse and those educated there will, correspondingly, be seen as less able.  The facts of the matter don’t need to get in the way.  It’s enough for the name of the former school to be invoked for a shallow person (of whom Ireland has no shortage) to make a decision as to the likely extent of the knowledge or skills of the candidate and the matter is closed.  Causa finita est.  (Sorry, but we really did do Latin).  Thus, the decision in family X to attempt to buy competitive advantage pays off, but only at the expense of families Y and Z where the parents either couldn’t afford it, no matter what sacrifices were made, or who may well have chosen to eschew fee-paying on a genuine point of principle, one that results from finding it repugnant to be complicit in perpetuating this situation.   Our choice against paying fees may not make that belief go away, but we won’t make things worse.

However, it can be said that the purchase of schooling is a valuable engine of social progress.  True, there are some families with long histories of attending fee-paying schools but in any generation there will be those, often ‘self-made’ entrepreneurs, who invest in their children’s futures to ensure them opportunities they were themselves denied.  Obviously, drug dealers are entrepreneurs, but I’m probably being ‘clever’ again, so let’s stick to the point.  Surely, there is something noble about this?  Hook (born 1938) characterises his own parents (and I have no reason to doubt him) as industrious, working-class people who scrimped to pay for his schooling.  But they also taught history at my school, which comes in handy for grasping that it’s mendacious to conflate the decision to choose to pay for second-level schooling in pre-1970s Ireland, where there was effectively no alternative, with doing so now.  If a moral/human right is denied, such as the child’s right to experience education to an appropriate level, it’s not wrong to take reasonable steps to achieve redress.   Conscientious Irish working-class parents who ‘did the best by’ their children up to the late 1960s and sent them to fee-paying schools did not necessarily hurt anybody else by doing so.  But using superior purchasing power in this way today is, for reasons noted above, as morally indefensible as driving a huge pedestrian-crushing/future-environment-screwing SUV ‘so the children are safer’.   Whose children?  Faults notwithstanding, the current school system provides opportunities across the board.  Hence, the only extra opportunity afforded by the fee-paying sector is for implicit lessons in ‘deil-tak-the-hindmost’ individualism.

What else can be mustered in these schools’ defence?  Aren’t they calmer environments, especially for sensitive, intellectual or otherwise ‘different’ children?  Can you buy safety from the rough kids who live on the estate?  Perhaps.  But have you read Tom Brown’s Schooldays?  Bullying was invented in fee-paying schools to give those who were headed for careers in the Victorian imperial military something to keep them busy in the meantime.  Now, it’s careers in stock-broking, but it’s only the nature of the battlefield that’s changed.  You might end up finding your children have problems with some thuggish boys or girls whose parents own estates.  Don’t get me wrong, as the father of a bookish, eco-conscious daughter I fret about bullying (I don’t even like the word, as it seems to trivialise what can be raw aggression) in a society that’s profoundly consumerist and distressingly anti-intellectual so that she sticks out like the young-Lisa-Simpson that she is.  But, ultimately, the behavioural problems in fee-paying schools are often just better disguised, not any the less.

Still, typically there are excellent sporting facilities associated with fee-paying schools.  And, to paraphrase a well-known fictional teacher, if that’s the sort of thing you like, then you’re welcome to it.  In fact, almost the only advantage any parent certainly purchases by going private is guaranteed access to a rugby or hockey pitch.  The person with a rugby or hockey ball where his/her brain ought to be, so to speak, will be impressed by this consideration.  A parent interested in knowledge, skill or personal achievement (real achievement, not the vainglorious ‘achievement’ of the sports field) may be less swayed.  Wait!  No!  Surely, there’s the sheer glamour of attending one of Dublin’s world-famous-in-Ireland schools… Well, look at it this way: of Eton, Harrow and Winchester the world knows; of, as they say in England, ‘minor public schools’ in suburban Dublin it knows not.

What’s at issue here isn’t paid-for schooling, but good schooling.  If I knew exactly what that consisted in and how to achieve it at a stroke I’d bottle the mixture and sell it (thus making certain that I no longer had to do this job for a living – teaching in Trinity College, one of the oldest universities in the English-speaking world, what a long way I’ve come for a free-schooled morlock).  But I don’t.   However, I do know that, as parents, we give priority (that’s how you put it if you don’t want to sound like you’re an ill-educated fashion victim adopting clumsy Americanisms) to our daughter’s learning at every turn.  I know that we do what we can to fill our time with her with conversation about books, plays, science, politics and the like.  I know that we try to teach her to value people for who they are, what they do and what they know, not where they went to school.  And I’m pretty confident that she’s not going to grow up using prioritise as a verb.


*For example, insofar as these things have any worth, a ‘value-added’ league table worked out by academics from the University of Ulster in 2009 placed the non-fee-paying St Louis High School, Rathmines, Dublin first amongst girls’ schools in the country, well above many far more ‘prestigious’ fee-paying establishments of that kind (Irish Times, 9 August 2009).  Roughly speaking, what a calculation like this shows us is that there are schools with superficially impressive academic results where teachers are typically coasting, while teachers in other schools work far harder to promote genuine learning amongst their pupils.

David Limond is a lecturer in history of education at Trinity College Dublin.

The photo is of Dr. Hook, who was chosen by the DIT to receive an Honorary Doctorate for outstanding achievements in his particular rugby field in 2006.


One Response

  1. Sue Denim

    September 26, 2011 4:27 pm

    The use of “prioritise” as a verb is widespread (you want, maybe, to use it as a noun?). It may frequently be used in a manner that offends leftist sensibilities, it may be ugly, it may even originate in America (OMG!!) but it is certainly not incorrect.