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Review of ‘Engines of Privilege: Britain’s Private School Problem’

  • 27 February 2019
  • By Nick Hillman

HEPI has recently hosted book reviews of Melissa Benn’s ‘Life Lessons: The Case for a National Education Service’ and of ‘Social Mobility and its Enemies’ by Lee Elliot Major and Stephen Machin. Here, Nick Hillman reviews a third important new book about education and social mobility: ‘Engines of Privilege: Britain’s Private School Problem’ by Francis Green and David Kynaston.

The State of Independence

This is a superb book. The two authors, one historian and one economist, each bring something to the party. Together, Francis Green and David Kynaston deliver a heady mix of economics, history, politics and policy. It is well written, with pace, dodging the wistful romanticism that infects so much of that which has been written over the years about independent schools.

In some respects, it is perhaps the most wide-ranging assessment of the state of private schools in the UK for decades. On the other hand, there is a slew of other recent good books on the topic (both pro and anti), from Martin StephenDavid TurnerRobert VerkaikMark Peel and Alex Renton. Another, The State of Independence, with contributions from over 50 different authors (including – to declare an interest – me), will arrive soon.

So Engines of Privilege is unquestionably a good book, but it is also unusual because it tries to cover so much – probably too much – ground. For example, as well as offering some fairly objective history, it is a polemic on seeing off independent schools.

The book has already been widely reviewed elsewhere. A challenging piece in The Times said it may have the opposite effect of the one intended. Instead of fomenting anger against private schools, Hugo Rifkind claimed the descriptions of the independent sector are more likely to make people say, “I gotta make sure my own kids are on the right side of that”. 

So, much of what could be said has already been said. I shall focus instead on just two angles, and places where I disagree. Fittingly, given HEPI’s function and the two authors’ professorships, they are on policy and higher education.

Are bursaries the answer?

Green and Kynaston’s policy solution to “Britain’s Private School Problem” (the sub-title of the book) is a “Fair Access Scheme”. One-third of places at private schools would, initially, be reserved for state bursaries.

This is unexpected. Much of the book slams independent schools for harming the state sector by removing good staff and pupils. Creaming off 2 per cent of the nation’s children for state-subsidised bursaries at private schools (some of which would be academically selective) won’t fix that. Indeed, independent schools have often argued that state-sponsored places would strengthen rather than weaken their sector.

The Fair Access Scheme resembles the Public Schools Commission’s failed 1968 report (though that was on boarding more than day places), which I have written about elsewhere. One member (the economist, John Vaizey) said the Commission’s ill-fated proposals risked creating “semi-comprehensive semi-grammar schools … making up their student body half from the tax-payer and half from the private fee-payer. These seem to me to be extremely odd schools.” Me too.

The authors’ policy idea is influenced by the Sutton Trust’s similar-but-different proposals. But I could find no mention of other more challenging research published by the Sutton Trust and produced for them by the Boston Consulting Group. This suggested sponsored places at independent schools could be the single least cost-effective social mobility intervention out of 12 that they tested (shown as ‘Belvedere’ in the chart below).

It seems unfair for the book to castigate politicians and the media so strongly for not doing what the authors want, when the existing evidence suggests there are far better ways for policymakers to spend their time and taxpayers’ money.

Indeed, if the higher education sector were more willing to learn lessons from schools, we would have realised long ago that bursaries are inefficient. It is nearly a decade since legal action by private schools against the Charity Commission confirmed that bursaries are over-rated. Moreover if this were not enough, similarly ancient output from the old Office for Fair Access (see below) confirms the point.

Yet our highly-selective universities, and their donors, continue to splurge money on bursaries that would be better spent more parsimoniously on other things – for example, the University of Oxford has just announced even more cash for bursaries.

This matters for one important reason above all: if we aren’t prepared to follow the evidence on what works, then we won’t get heard when we complain about policymakers having widening participation budgets in their sights. Remember, Aim Higher went because of the shortage of hard evidence on the benefits of the programme.

Snaffling the best university offers

A second reason why the book strongly opposes private schools, beyond pinching some of the best students and staff, is their success in “snaffling for their own people the best university offers.” A fairer school system would, the authors say, provide fairer access to what they describe as “the top universities”. That is true (though there are other ways to do it too – such as more contextualised admissions, which is covered in the book).

But this, for me, is where the argument also comes a little unstuck. It treats the most elite, autonomous and well-resourced schools as an embarrassing stain on society that should be removed, but simultaneously assumes our elite, autonomous and well-resourced universities are a welcome fact of life.

Similarities between our top private schools and our hyper-selective universities are real even if they are usually ignored. Both are much wealthier than their competitors, both disproportionately cream off people from certain sections of society and both offer cloistered environments away from the main thoroughfare of life.

Alan Bennett’s infamous 2014 speech knocking independent schools is prayed in aid. He said:

Private education is not fair. Those who provide it know it. Those who pay for it know it. Those who have to sacrifice in order to purchase it know it. And those who receive it know it, or should.

But these crisp words were spoken in that holy of holies, King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, so I have always assumed they bounced off the walls before fading to nothing.

In discussing the private school sector’s weaknesses and its impact on society, we should not hold the schools to a different set of standards to the university sector. How can we reconcile condemnation of independent schools for delivering success in the labour market for their pupils while celebrating highly-selective universities for doing the same for their students?

Yes, public schools and Oxbridge colleges are different, and – in part – differently funded. But if the authors’ main motivation is to deliver more educational equality, it seems odd to challenge the extra resources and selective practices of independent schools while accepting as a normal part of life the extra resources and super-selective practices of our oldest universities. If private schools are ‘engines of privilege’, doesn’t a cursory glance at the latest widening participation and employment outcomes data suggest Oxbridge colleges might be so too?

Tim Blackman’s HEPI Occasional Paper on comprehensive universities shows there is another way of doing things. He says the arguments for comprehensive education should be applied to university education, as in other countries. If the existence of elite independent schools sucks vitality from state-funded schools, perhaps a similar argument applies to higher education institutions?

One potential excuse for treating independent schools as a weakness while seeing our autonomous universities as a strength is: higher education is different. University, so the cliché runs, is not just big school. It operates on a higher plane and should be assessed differently. Perhaps that is so. But if we believe it, then surely we need to prove it?


Some people will accuse me of ‘whataboutery’. I am discussing a book about schools and have managed to make the review partly about universities instead. But is it right for university professors to condemn inequality in another part of the education sector without shining the spotlight on inequality in our own garden?

For the authors of Engines of Privilege, experience in other countries proves the UK does not need such an elitist private school system. But those other countries don’t have such selective higher education systems either, and the one flows (at least in part) from the other.

The hierarchy of schools and the hierarchy of universities are intimately intertwined: a primary reason why people send their children private is to increase their chances of entering our exceptionally selective university sector near the top. So the two issues must surely sometimes be considered together.

In the end, if we are to judge elite schools and elite universities differently and to attack the former when its primary objective is to be a feeder to the latter, then we need a clear rationale as to why. This long book, which does so much so well, does not provide one.


  1. Seth Sanders says:

    Yes, the solution is to shake up both the private school system and the higher education system. Here’s how:

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