Voices: Sunak and Truss have got it wrong on private education

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The Tory candidates are desperate to prove they clawed their way up from some kind of slum (Getty Images)
The Tory candidates are desperate to prove they clawed their way up from some kind of slum (Getty Images)

If I had a pound for every privately educated person who told me their parents weren’t rich, just really hardworking, well, I’d have enough money to send my own little nipper to any well-to-do school in the country. It was a line repeated by Rishi Sunak during the Conservative leadership debate with Liz Truss on Monday. The former chancellor said he’d address the private school "issue", since Truss had brought up her own (comprehensive) education in a previous discussion.

Looking positively shocked that his background was in any way relevant (despite touting his parents’ "humble beginnings" – Robert Jenrick’s words, not mine – at every opportunity), Sunak tremblingly explained his parents worked "day and night, saved and sacrificed" to send him and his two siblings to private school, for which he is "nothing but enormously grateful".

As well he may be: 48 per cent of MPs were privately educated, as were 65 per cent of senior judges, 51 per cent of leading journalists and 48 per cent of FTSE 350 CEOs. In short, privately educated people disproportionately dominate the media, business and, yes, Westminster. But in a strange game of poverty Top Trumps, the Tory candidates are desperate to prove they clawed their way up from some kind of Dickensian slum through sheer grit. Such was the performative nature of the pair’s “humble childhood” recollection, it’s a wonder they didn’t break into a chorus of “Pick a Pocket or Two” as the debate’s end credits rolled.

The opportunities a private education provides are numerous – the flip side being that those opportunities are well out of reach for a lot of people outside of the public school system, regardless of how (deep breath) really, really hard their parents worked. Some of those opportunities are born of having wealthy parents. But, as many private school attendees are absolutely desperate to tell you, they’re not that wealthy, just hardworking. Sure.

Let’s break that down a bit. The average cost of private school in the UK is £14,940 per year (or £4,980 per term). The mean average salary for full-time workers in the UK is around £38,000, and the average monthly mortgage payment is £753. If you’re bad at maths I’ll simple this out for you: private education is nowhere near affordable for the average single person with one child, while an average couple with one child would be losing 25 per cent of their take-home pay and, presumably, would not need to make rent or eat much in any given month. Sunak’s own education at Winchester College currently costs £45,936 per year for boarders, and £33,990 for day pupils. (Best knuckle down, parents: if you can’t afford this, you’re probably not working hard enough – or so Sunak seems to think.)

Sunak appears to have forgotten that some of the country’s hardest-working people – the paramedics, carers, teachers, people we were all falling over ourselves to clap during Covid – earn way below the national average. It won’t matter how hard they work; their chosen fields do not pay well. So they are very unlikely to send their children to private school.

Truss is hardly better in the humble beginnings-touting stakes. Her description of comprehensive school education suggests she barely made it out of the crumbling building alive before clambering into Oxbridge, waving farewell to a few chimney sweeps en route.

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Both of them do hard-working parents and the comprehensive system itself an injustice. Before I went into journalism – a field highly populated by privately educated kids who are definitely, definitely not rich, just have parents who “saved loads of money and then granny died and it was really hard actually so why are you suggesting I’ve got loads of money and I was actually picked on at private school because I’m really very poor” – I was a learning support assistant at secondary schools across London, mainly working with autistic children and those struggling with behaviour problems. For some, school was just a way to kill a few hours; for others, it was a springboard to a bright future. It was the antithesis of the school Sunak attended, which afforded him real opportunity, and it killed me every day that the children I worked with did not get those same chances.

But private education isn’t the cure for this, it’s part of the cause.

Separating children according to wealth (or according to their really, really hard working parents) perpetuates social inequality; removing kids from the state system makes that system worse for everyone. If the Tories really want to "level up", they’ll stop at nothing to make comprehensive education first class so that everyone gets the same golden opportunities Sunak is so grateful he had. Of course, this would mean the Tory politicians of the future wouldn’t be able to use their education as leverage to prove their ever-so-humble beginnings. But I think we’ll all cope.

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