Don’t believe the myth that “hard work”

If I had a pound for every privately educated person who told me their parents weren’t rich, just very hardworking, well, I’d have enough money to send my little claw to any school wealthy 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 would address the “problem” of private school, as Truss had brought up his own (full) education in a previous discussion.

Seeming positively shocked that his background was in any way relevant (despite his parents’ “humble beginnings” – Robert Jenrick’s words, not mine – on every occasion), Sunak tremulously explained that his parents worked “day and night , saved and sacrificed” to send him and his two siblings to a private school, for which he is “nothing but grateful”.

Or it may be: 48% of MPs have had private training, as have 65% of senior judges, 51% of top journalists and 48% of FTSE 350 CEOs. In short, those trained in the private sector disproportionately dominate media, business and, yes, Westminster. But in a bizarre game of Top Trumps poverty, the Conservative candidates are desperate to prove that they’ve made it out of some sort of Dickensian slum on the strength of their courage. Such was the performative nature of the couple’s “humble childhood” recollection, it’s a wonder they didn’t burst into a chorus of “Pick a Pocket or Two” over the end credits of the debate.

The opportunities that a private education provides are many – the flip side being that those opportunities are out of reach for many people outside of the public school system, no matter how (deep breath) really, really hard their parents worked. Some of these opportunities arise from having wealthy parents. But, as many private school students are absolutely desperate to tell you, they aren’t that rich, just hard workers. Sure.

Let’s break this down a bit. The average cost of a private school in the UK is £14,940 per year (or £4,980 per term). The average 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 math, I’ll make it easy for you: private education is far from affordable for the average single person with one child, while the average couple with one child would lose 25% of their take-home pay. and presumably wouldn’t need to make rent or eat much in any given month. Sunak’s own education at Winchester College currently costs £45,936 a year for boarders and £33,990 for day pupils. (Better to buckle down, parents: if you can’t afford it, you’re probably not working hard enough — or so Sunak seems to think.)

Sunak seems to have forgotten that some of the hardest working people in the country – paramedics, carers, teachers, the people we all fall over ourselves to cheer on during Covid – earn well below the national average. No matter how hard they work; the domains they have chosen do not pay well. It is therefore highly unlikely that they will send their children to private school.

Truss is little better in the modest early stakes. Her description of a full school education suggests she barely made it out of the ruined building alive before climbing up Oxbridge, bidding farewell to a few chimney sweeps along the way.

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Both make hard working parents and the whole system itself is an injustice. Before I got into journalism – a very populated field of privately educated kids who are definitely, definitely not wealthy, just have parents who “saved a lot of money and then granny died and it was really hard in fact, then why are you suggesting that I have a lot of money and I was harassed in a private school because I am really very poor” – I was a learning support assistant in secondary schools in London, working primarily with children with autism and those with behavioral 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 gave him a real opportunity, and it killed me every day that the kids I worked with didn’t have those same opportunities.

But private education is not the remedy for this, it is part of the cause.

Separating children based on their wealth (or based on their really, really hard working parents) perpetuates social inequality; removing children from the state system makes that system worse for everyone. If the Conservatives really want to “step up to the next level,” they will stop at nothing to make comprehensive education first class so that everyone has the same golden opportunities that Sunak is so grateful to him to have. Of course, that would mean that future conservative politicians couldn’t use their education as leverage to prove their humble beginnings. But I think we’ll all be fine.

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