The Cambridge Union Society was formed in 1815 and is an influential debating society based on membership of the University. Nearly 500 students packed the Union debate last week at which CP general secretary Robert Griffiths and Brett Wigdortz  CEO of Teach First, an independent educational charity who won the 2010 Council for the Advancement and Support of Education European Leadership Award successfully moved the  motion " This House would Abolish all Private Schools".

The Cambridge CP meets first Friday of every month. Read on for Griffiths speech.

 

 

MOTION: THIS HOUSE WOULD ABOLISH ALL PRIVATE SCHOOLS

 

I want to begin by pointing out that Britain is one of the most unequal societies in the developed world. 

 

In terms of income inequality, Britain ranks 20th of the 27 member states of the European Union.

 

Only Rumania, Bulgaria, Portugal, Greece and the Baltic States have bigger gaps between the rich and the poor than we have here.

 

Today, the wealthiest one-fifth of households in Britain own more than half of all the personal wealth in Britain, 130 times more than the poorest one-fifth. 

 

The poorer half of the population own just 14 per cent of Britain's personal wealth between them. 

 

If we take purely financial wealth as distinct from property and pension entitlements, the inequality is starker still:

the wealthiest one-fifth own exactly three-quarters of it - while the poorer half share just 5 per cent.

 

Of course, these figures take no account of the fortunes secretly stashed away in tax havens under British jurisdiction.

 

Such levels of gross inequality do not remotely reflect people's contributions to our society and its well-being. How could they, when 10,000 City brokers and directors will receive more in bonuses this Christmas, £7 billion, than a quarter of a million hospital porters, primary school teachers, construction workers and bus drivers will receive in wages all year?   

 

And, of course, gross inequalities in income and wealth also mean inequalities in housing, diet, clothing, health, access to childcare and leisure, access to medical treatment, comfort in old age, and life expectancy. It often means longer working hours, a longer working life, job insecurity, debt, unsafe neighbourhoods, stress and over-dependance on medication.

 

Why are these problems - in the world's sixth wealthiest economy - not the topic of much more sustained, intelligent and concerned analysis and discussion in our mass media, in our schools and colleges, in our political system?

 

Why don't we harness even a small proportion of the enormous wealth generated in Britain to alleviating - if not eliminating - the blight on our society of poverty, neglect, idleness, despair and anti-social behaviour?

 

Part of the answer lies in the fact that the interests of a small but wealthy and powerful minority prevail, a minority who have little or no understanding of the deep-rooted, chronic problems that afflict so many millions of people, a minority who have no intention of surrendering any of their wealth and power in the course of tackling those problems.

 

Too many in that economic and political elite share an outlook; a view of society; an ignorance of how the majority live and work; a distaste, a disdain, even a fear of that majority when it makes its own demands and takes its own collective action; an outlook with a deep-rooted antagonism to changing society for the better in the interests of the majority.

 

It's an outlook that pursues benefit cheats with a vengeance, while wealthy tax cheats deprive the Exchequer of 100 times as much; an outlook that bails out the financial system to the tune of £1.3 trillion, while slashing vital public services, jobs and welfare provision in order to close a financial deficit one-tenth of that size.

 

It's an outlook which vilifies London Underground workers who strike for higher health and safety standards - yet dutifully dances to the tune of bailed-out bond market dealers, who threaten their own forms of industrial action if public services are not chopped or privatised.

 

(Incidentally, a 1 per cent wealth tax on the richest one-fifth of Britain's population would eliminate our entire public finance deficit in two years). 

 

It's an outlook that is developed, reinforced and perpetuated by the private education system in Britain and, in particular, by the top public schools.

 

It's an outlook to be found: 

 

In big business circles, where more than half of FTSE 100 Chief Executives and 70 per cent of finance directors are privately-educated (the idea that most captains of industry have worked themselves up from the shopfloor or making the tea is ludicrous, a myth).

 

In the national mass media, where more than half of all news editors, senior reporters and presenters went to public school - and that's as true of the Sun as it is in the Guardian.

 

It's an outlook to be found:

 

In the so-called 'criminal justice' system, where 70 per cent of judges and barristers were privately educated.

 

In academia, where nearly half of top academics and a quarter of all university vice-chancellors are products of the private education system.

 

In the Westminster Parliament, where more than a third of MPs and nearly two-thirds of Lords and Cabinet Ministers attended public school.

 

And in the civil service, where almost half of all senior posts are occupied by ex-public school pupils. 

 

Of course, I am not arguing that the curricula of private and public schools feature such subjects as 'How to be a callous, greedy ruling class bastard'.

 

Many students survive the private education system with their humanity - including their social conscience - intact and even enhanced.

 

But the private schools do provide a privileged education for a small minority of primary and secondary pupils, 7 per cent, most of them drawn from the wealthier layers of society. 

 

They reap the benefit of our publicly funded and administered teacher-training system, with many private schools able to offer better wages and conditions to some of our most able teachers. 

 

Not surprisingly, on the basis of pupil selection and better provision, private sector schools tend to achieve higher levels of academic attainment than many state sector schools - and even where they do not, pupils from public school receive preferential admission to some courses at some universities.

 

As one the world's wealthiest and most developed societies, Britain's academic attainment at secondary level is comparatively high. 

 

Yet we also fail a higher proportion of our population than, for example, Germany, Austria, the Nordic countries and the former socialist states, where the private sector is much smaller. 

 

Britain urgently needs to tackle deep-rooted economic and social problems as part of the drive to reduce inequality.

 

The privilege and elitism embodied, epitomised and perpetuated by our private schools prevents this from happening, or even from being widely acknowledged and discussed. 

 

Even worse, handing over many more schools and universities to subsidised business corporations, religious groups and right-wing zealots will return educational inequality and elitism to the levels of the Victorian Age, before the 1870  Education Act.

 

Instead, we need people and parents at every level in our society to participate in a common effort to lift all of our schools, and all of their pupils, to the highest possible levels - not to opt out of that effort on the basis of wealth and privilege.

 

Bringing the private system into a universal public and comprehensive sector, transforming some public schools into centres of excellence open to all on the basis of merit and not wealth, turning some private schools into remedial and special needs facilities, and investing a far higher proportion of Britain's wealth in all aspects of education - that is the basis on which we can enable all our children to develop their potential and contribute to a fairer, more educated and civilised society.