Pay-to-win: the great injustice of private education

Pay-to-win: the great injustice of private education

It’s time for an overhaul — Labour is right about abolishing private schools. Upholding tiered education because it benefits your child is not wanting the ‘best’ for them – it is wanting worse for others.

So you want to be a gamer, only you’re crap at video games. Your mind lags several seconds behind your clumsy fingers, and kids half your age keep humiliating you in whatever virtual arena you’re trying to prove yourself. 

Thankfully, there’s a solution for that. Microtransactions can grant instant access to abilities, weapons and other advantageous items that other players have to gradually earn as rewards through gameplay, or else, simply never get access to without also forking out themselves. There is a crucial distinction between the former; in which you are buying the advantages that your otherwise more talented and dedicated opponents have unlocked through skill, and the latter; where you are buying what cannot be unlocked through skill, only money. You are buying your non-paying opponents’ disadvantage. Sometimes this disadvantage is so great that it’s all but impossible to lose if it falls in your favour. In these instances, the game ceases to be a contest of virtual ability, but one of real-world purchasing power. The satisfaction in victory – if there can be any – comes in knowing you have outbought the field. 

For the most part, everyone recognises that this is complete bullshit. Developers are near-universally pilloried by audiences for building ‘pay to win’ mechanics into their games, and the backlash has been so severe that a growing number of countries have even moved to make them completely illegal.

The ‘gaming community’ aren’t especially known for being united in their political persuasions, so it’s probably fair to say that their widespread disgust at ‘pay-to-win’ schemes isn’t due to some collective class analysis nor progressive stance, but simply an ability to recognise an evident fact: they are unfair.

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Earlier this month, a motion was passed at Labour’s annual conference to integrate private schools into the state sector. In some quarters, this has been described as ‘abolition.’ Good. Private schools, to my mind, should be abolished, for equally evident reasons. As Alan Bennett once succinctly put it during a Cambridge University sermon: “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. And if their education ends without it dawning on them then that education has been wasted.”

In something of a hubristic move, I tweeted something to the effect that this would be welcome among the electorate, because – as the author Nathalie Olah further points out here and in her forthcoming book Steal As Much As You Can – while the privately educated disproportionately dominate many areas of public life, including the media (where 43 per cent of journalists are privately educated), politics (29 per cent in the House of Commons, 57 per cent in the House of Lords, 64 per cent in Boris Johnson’s cabinet), the civil service (59 per cent of permanent secretaries, 52 per cent of diplomats), law (65 per cent of senior judges), the creative industries (38 per cent in TV, film and music), and business (34 per cent of entrepreneurs and 28 per cent of the Sunday Times ‘Rich List’) only seven per cent of British schoolchildren are privately educated. I had felt – either naively or myopically – that a move to address this unfairness would be widely well received. 

Apparently not. According to a YouGov poll, only 22 per cent of those surveyed were in favour of ‘banning’ private schools (as opposed to 50 per cent against) and a similar ComRes poll had only one in 10 in favour. It’s deflating, and certainly not indicative of the unanimity I’d hoped for and predicted. Why? 

It’s tempting to pull up statistics, such as the above on the overrepresentation of private schools’ alumni in elite positions and public life – or else, the studies by the Social Market Foundation which found that those with a state school education will earn £200,000 less by their middle age and up to 38 per cent less per year than their private schooled contemporaries – and attempt to appeal to people’s sense of unfairness through rational examination of evidence. But perhaps people are, in fact, generally aware of this, and maybe therein lies something of an explanation. 

Kids inspire something of a selfless selfishness. A person knows that life is full of suffering, pain, stress and hardship, and they are willing to sacrifice a great deal in order to mitigate these as much as possible for their own children. The desire to do the ‘best’ by your children is a highly emotive and powerful influencer of a person’s politics – and our system provides a way in which it’s feasibly possible to do so, provided you can afford the private tuition fees. Understood in these terms, it becomes more explicable why many are generally sympathetic towards parents pursuing private education, even if they are unable to do the same for their own children. They’d do the same, if they could. 

Conservative Lord William Hague thinks getting rid of private education is a terrible idea. “The striking thing about Britain is how meritocratic it is,”’ he wrote in The Telegraph. He believes that doing away with private education would engender a “psychology of failure”, and goes on to state, in spite of the overwhelming political, sociological and anthropological study and research produced to the contrary: “If you believe, falsely, that you are living in a society of class-ridden prejudice against you, then you are less likely to try for the top.” 

Hague’s absurd disavowal of the effects of structural inequality on a person’s life is important to note here, because this garbled and illogical invoking of meritocracy is central to so many defences of private education. It hardly needs pointing out that a child contributes nothing towards their parents’ hard work or finances from within an ovary or a ballbag. If we lived in a meritocratic society, it wouldn’t be possible to be born into a family who can afford to buy you schooling that will tremendously improve your prospects in life. But where meritocracy is invoked here, people are rarely referring to the children in receipt of the education, but the parents (except for William Hague, who seems to argue, ludicrously, that private schools galvanise kids from less advantaged backgrounds by showing them the heights they can achieve.)

This concept, known more accurately as ‘parentocracy’, argues that a child’s life should be strongly dictated according to their parents’ net worth, as the parents ‘worked hard’ enough to earn this reward. Children become commodities, their futures something to evidence their parents’ success, to be flaunted as though they were property portfolios or expensive cars. Wealth begets wealth. The privately educated are – through the advantages provided to them through said education – more likely to be able to privately educate their own next of kin, and so on.  

If Hague’s Conservative Party really wanted to counter Labour’s proposals in meritocratic terms, they could institute a number of measures, including full inheritance tax and invest in every state school to the extent that any advantage derived from private education would be negated. But this is the precise opposite of what the Tories stand for. If every child had the same advantage in education, then what exactly would the parents of the privately educated be paying for?

The economist Fred Hirsch coined the term ‘positional good’, referring to goods and services whose value is governed according to how they are distributed among society, not by any innate value. For instance, a video game might have a set RRP, but the items you can pay for within the game might be ascribed a certain value according to their exclusivity. Hirsch and others (notably Ruth Jonathan, Nick Adnett and Peter Davis, and most recently, Jack Schneider) have applied this concept to education. 

Education, where private schools and other forms of marketisation exist, becomes a positional good. It’s not possible for state schools to ‘catch up’ with private schools, because the very thing parents are paying for is the relative advantage of their children – or, to put it another way, they’re paying for the disadvantage experienced by children other than their own. The product is inequality.

This is remarkably easy when a Tory government is enacting swingeing cuts to state schools. Analysis by the IFS estimates that spending has fallen by 8 per cent per pupil since 2009, the largest reduction in education spending for near enough 40 years. There are hundreds of reports of state schools having to crowdfund for basic equipment, stationery and textbooks; of school hours being reduced due to lack of funds; of class sizes having to be increased considerably to meet cuts to teaching, and the needs of those requiring special education being sacrificed due to cuts to support staff; of pastoral care and mental health services being cut altogether; of teachers having to perform extra roles resulting from cuts to cleaning and supervisory staff, greatly reducing the time they can dedicate to their own role; of schools delaying turning their heating on until as late as possible. 

Private schools don’t need to worry about these issues. Their students – through contact time, class sizes, facilities and resources – are afforded the opportunity to cultivate other interests and skills that aren’t purely ‘academic.’ Of course, the reason they’re doing this is because these skills – which lead to confidence, self-belief, public speaking, creative expression, social status and so on – are also credentials which make someone more employable. Even if a state school consistently manages to provide an education which means its student body achieves the best possible exam results, it cannot hope to compete in (and neither is tasked with) giving their pupils these credentials.

The callous logic of the market dictates that the worse position state schools are in, the better value it is to send your child private. This creates a perverse incentive for the richest to perennially disadvantage state schools, to consolidate their class interests. And if a state education becomes seen as something to be ‘escaped’, people might have more sympathy – on an individual level – with the decision to go private. One argument in favour of private school abolition, then, would be that it might require the wealthy to be personally invested in the fortunes of state schools, and so less begrudging of taxation.

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We need to radically alter not just our school system, but what we value as a life worth living. The two are inextricably linked. Knowledge shouldn’t be pursued like guarded secrets that help the worthiest up the career ladder, but because it benefits the collective. No child should be made to feel like they have been consigned to indelible failure because academic attainment isn’t their strong suit, and because they attend a school struggling according to league tables – but instead afforded the opportunity learn and discover what is enriching, worthwhile and beautiful about life, beyond amassing vasts amounts of money. The more generations grow up under the long shadow of marketisation and neoliberalism, the more these things are lost. 

At the individual level, though, it must be conceded that it seems easier for a parent to tip societal imbalances in favour of their child, than all children. But we must resist pernicious ideas of social mobility and meritocracy that dictate attitudes of permissive acceptability here. We need to recognise – as even the video game community did – that this is complete pay-to-win bullshit. Upholding tiered education because it benefits your child is not wanting the ‘best’ for them, it is (however indirectly) wanting worse for others. The apparent promise of social mobility can appear alluring, but it doesn’t dismantle the ladder so much as keep it rigidly intact, only to be scaled by those deemed worthy by the market, with those on the higher rungs offered considerably more help upwards. It ensures the suppression of those clambered over and pushed down, and is barely removed from feudalism. 

A poor family cannot simply choose to move to the catchment of an outstanding school. A child doesn’t choose to be born, let alone the circumstances it’s born into. If there are lives we deem worth escaping from, then we should address collective living circumstances, instead of offering those with sufficient GCSE results a life raft. 

We can collectively take our right to choose to reject hierarchy and the need for social mobility, and to raise living standards so that no child’s material existence require escaping. This doesn’t start with any one policy – but by a radical structural overhaul that encompasses education housing, transport, welfare, healthcare, childcare and worker’s rights. This might seem hopelessly ambitious, and near implausible to conceive – precisely because we’ve all been through an education system which evaluates us according to market metrics it’s almost impossible not to internalise – but consider that the alternative is hoping that ruthlessly effective systems of structural oppression contort in your favour. If we can liberate education from the constraints of attempting to maximise pupils’ advantage at the expense of the majority, we liberate all of our children’s potential to live happy, fulfilled lives from the forces of a market which can never understand human worth. 

Follow Tristan Cross on Twitter.

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