Private affluence and public envy.

People who campaign for greater social equality sometimes get accused of ‘the politics of envy’. The idea being that anyone who keeps tediously pointing out the gap between rich and poor in our society is simply jealous, choosing to go on about the super-rich simply because they aren’t as well-off themselves.

This seems to me a weak argument. It drags an important national debate down to the personal and emotional level and deflects attention from the issue itself. If we can’t argue against excessive wealth inequalities without being seen as spiteful then we might as well give up on any project for social change.

I’ve never bought the line that being rich makes people bad or that being poor makes people good, I just happen to want a more equal society because I think it would benefit everyone. Highlighting the suffering at the bottom and the excesses at the top has always been part of making that case.

In my professional role, when I look at the resources which are available to some private fee-charging schools to do essentially the same job as we are doing in publicly funded schools and colleges I have to admit to just the slightest tinge of envy.

Public funding for full time sixth formers in England is now pitched at around £4,600 per student per year, with a few variations for regional weightings and programme costs. The average private school fees are around £13,000 per student per year with some of the most expensive schools charging far more: £30,000 (Wellington) £26,400 (Westminster), £22,600 (St.Paul’s).

If our students were funded at the average private school fee rate of £13,000 this would represent nearly £20 million additional income per year for our college. This kind of budget boost would allow us to pay for our new £9 million library, theatre and reception building without any need to use reserves or take out a loan. In fact we could invest in superb new buildings and facilities every year without incurring any debt. We could also spend £5 million to increase teaching time by at least 50% to give our students a genuinely full-time learning experience and we could use the remaining £6 million on enrichment and academic enhancement activities, trips abroad and partnership work with schools, employers and universities. We could give every student a tablet and free meals and offer really outstanding volunteering, mentoring and networking opportunities to all current students and alumni.

And that’s just based on the average private school fees. Think what we could do with Wellington levels of funding…

But this is not a time for dreams. We need to get real. Faced with the prospect of a difficult public spending review, our budgets are set to move in the opposite direction. Even the possibility of parity between public funding for 16-18 year olds and 11-16 year olds seems like a distant hope. Even this modest aspiration would add around £2.5 million to our annual budget.

So while we may not be contemplating ‘public squalor’ quite yet in publicly funded sixth form education, there are certainly plenty of examples of ‘private affluence’ to compare us to.

This is not an attack on private schools. But next time we are told by one of their heads how much more they do to develop students’ character and social skills it might be worth remembering the funding gap between the fees they charge and the sums which the state is currently prepared to invest in educating sixth formers.

And maybe allow us a little moment of envy.

See also:

Existing state-funded colleges offer better value for money (March 2014)

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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