The Problem with Privilege

Private schools sell status and scandals are bad for business

This past fall was a season of scandal for Toronto private schools. In November, six students at St. Michael’s College School, which educates boys from grade 7 to 12, were charged with sexual assault. The charges were laid after videos emerged that allegedly showed students at the Catholic school being violently hazed. The month before, Bishop Strachan School (BSS), an Anglican school for girls from kindergarten to grade 12, made headlines for a production of The Merchant of Venice that emphasized the play’s anti-Semitic sentiment. The play, performed for grade 11 and 12 students, was intended to satirize anti-Jewish prejudice but parents objected that BSS did not adequately prepare students beforehand. According to CTV, parents were alarmed that their children “were expected to yell ‘Hallelujah’ in response to the actor onstage shouting anti-Semitic statements such as ‘Burn their synagogues’…to mimic how Hitler brainwashed youth before the Holocaust.” Both schools went into crisis mode and saw their senior administrators resign or be fired.

St. Mike’s and BSS have something else in common besides the timing of their scandals. St. Mike’s annual tuition and fees are more than $20,000. At BSS, tuition for day students is $32,000 per year, while Canadian girls who board pay $58,000. Further fees apply to uniforms, field trips, and school supplies. Although St. Mike’s and BSS both offer financial assistance, only a minority of students receive it, and St. Mike’s notes that its bursaries rarely cover everything, “as there is an expectation that families applying will bear some financial responsibility toward their son’s education.” In short, an obvious function of St. Mike’s and BSS is to offer an educational advantage to the affluent. Why isn’t that a scandal?

Like many private schools, St. Mike’s and BSS publicize the fact that they were founded in the nineteenth century. The intended effect is no doubt to burnish their prestige by invoking what the historian Eric Hobsbawm called “the sanction of perpetuity.” It is nonetheless revealing that private schools predate the welfare state. When they were established, economic inequality was considered part of the natural order. Parents who send their children to private schools today pay taxes that support the public school system, but even so, private schools still function as a means by which wealthy families are able to pass their advantages down through the generations.

Liam Shields, an academic at the University of Manchester in Britain, proposes a novel way of fixing this. Shields notes in a 2016 article in the Journal of Applied Philosophy that many of the benefits of education are so-called positional benefits: they are benefits insofar as they put their recipient in a better position than someone else. “For instance, if Andy received a superior opportunity for education than did Breana, then Andy is more likely to be more qualified than Breana and therefore more likely to secure the job or college place they both desire.” Part of the benefit of a superior education in other words is that it puts the recipient in line to reap greater benefits than someone who did not have the same educational opportunity (sorry, Breana). Expensive schools allow wealth to play an unfair role in distributing the positional benefits of a high school education.

One solution might be to abolish private schools. But some parents view education as valuable in itself. They seek the intrinsic rather than the positional benefits of a good education for their children, religious or otherwise, which is hardly objectionable. There may also be value to society in having more than one school system. It used to be said that the French minister of education could determine what every child in France was learning at any given moment simply by glancing at his watch—a grimly bureaucratic image. Different private schools specialize in different subjects, from performing arts to science and athletics and the private system as a whole can potentially foster innovations that can be transferred to the public system.

Shields’s goal is to eliminate the positional advantage of private schools without destroying their quality or diversity. His proposed means of doing so is to impose a cap on the number of private school graduates who can attend elite universities. In the U.K. between 2007 and 2009, he notes, private school students made up seven percent of all British school students, while graduates of such schools occupied 48 percent of places at the U.K.’s top 30 universities. Private school students were seven times more likely to be admitted to Cambridge or Oxford universities than their public school counterparts. Shields’s plan would cap the number of private school graduates who could attend Oxford and the like at seven percent, rising or falling to match the percentage of high school students that attend private schools in a given year. This would force private school graduates to compete for admission to elite universities on a level playing field with peers who had enjoyed similar educational opportunities.

Shields’s scheme would neutralize the positional advantage students would otherwise receive from attending an expensive high school, while giving parents who shell out to ensure a good education no reason to stop doing so. It would oblige more private school graduates to attend non-elite universities, and this influx of well-off students might even see those universities improve. The main goal, however, would be to significantly reduce the positional advantage that some families can purchase for their children at the starting gate of life, an advantage that is hard to justify from any point of view that takes equality of opportunity seriously.

As in the U.K., private school students make up around seven percent of students in Canada, according to a Statistics Canada survey of grade 10 students. It determined that Canadian private school students outperform their public school counterparts by eight to nine percentage points on standardized tests. By the time they are 23 years old, 35 percent of private school students have graduated from university, compared to only 22 percent of public school students. Some of these differences are due to family background, as private schools attract more students with characteristics associated with academic success (such as having two university-educated parents). But, of course, the schools themselves also make a difference, including offering environments in which students’ peers have a positive effect on their academic success, precisely because they come from academically inclined families. I could not find figures on what percentage of students at elite universities were private school graduates, but as private schools advertise the rate of entry of their students into those universities, it seems obvious that Canadian private schools are selling positional advantage.

Which Canadian universities count as elite? Answering this question requires ranking schools, which is always controversial, but that hardly seems a reason not to try, perhaps by taking into account not only reputation but which schools currently attract the most private school graduates.

When the St. Mike’s scandal broke, parents lashed out at the press for publicizing the events. This is unsurprising given how much these scandals threaten such schools’ prestige, which is arguably a big part of what the parents are paying for.

A major benefit of that prestige is the social network that private schools provide. Consider that of the last ten permanent and interim leaders of the Liberal Party of Canada, only Paul Martin, John Turner and Lester B. Pearson graduated from public high schools (in Martin and Turner’s cases, publicly funded Catholic schools). Justin Trudeau, Bob Rae, Michael Ignatieff, Stéphane Dion, Bill Graham, Jean Chrétien, and Pierre Trudeau were all old boys. In fairness, Chrétien’s family was working class and Rae attended a U.S. public school before graduating from the International School of Geneva. That’s still a remarkable showing for graduates of a system that educates such a small percentage of high school students. It is hard not to view the leadership history of Canada’s natural governing party as the history of the old boys network itself. Right now, the role money plays in securing boys and girls alike a place in that network is also considered natural. Someday our descendants may wonder how our education system could enter the twenty-first century so long after we did.