Skip to content

16 August 2022

Private schools and inequality

Education achievement, as Farquharson, McNally and Tahir (2022) have ably shown in their chapter for the IFS Deaton Review of Inequalities, is one of the key foundations for the inequalities in the United Kingdom. A good part of the inequality in people’s educational achievements stems from their socio-economic background. There remains, however, very significant inequality in the institutions of education, and in particular within the school system. I take this to be the substantive issue for schools policy, when addressing the UK’s economic and social inequality. The overriding question is: to what extent do schools provide children with equal opportunities to flourish and thrive? The subsidiary question is: does the schooling system afford potential mitigating measures that compensate for the educational inequalities arising from social background or, conversely, does it reinforce the advantages of growing up in a wealthy family?

The greatest schooling inequality by a very long distance lies in the resources gap between the private (fee-paying) and state sectors. With access limited by ability to pay, there exists a stark socio-economic segmentation of pupils between the sectors, yielding in effect a two-tier system. How does this fact colour the answers we should give to these questions?

In this commentary I expand upon the evidence described in Farquharson et al. (2022). The private schools in total are quite small, if measured by the proportion of the pupil population (6.4% in England in 2021, some 4% in Scotland, 2% in Wales and less than 1% in Northern Ireland).[1] Yet they deploy some 15% of the resources devoted to schools. As many as 18% of England’s school pupils aged 16–19 are in the private sector, and the privately educated have a disproportionate presence at Cambridge, Oxford and other high-status universities. This formidable presence is magnified still further by the extensive reach of private school alumni in public life. These factors suggest that the UK’s private schools are no minor issue for the understanding of inequality and potential remedies. I set out the evidence that the UK’s private schooling makes a difference to educational, economic and social outcomes. I argue – on the basis of both common sense and substantive evidence from recent literature on educational production functions – that the prime factor behind their effects on educational performance is likely to be the huge resource gap between the sectors, though the effect of the segmentation of pupils’ peer groups is surely important too. Evidence also shows that access to the private school system remains highly concentrated among affluent families, and that the bursary grants made available for low-income households by the schools themselves are too small to make a notable difference.

A reform of private education should be seen as a complement to good policies for state education, rather than as an alternative policy competing for attention. Farquharson et al. have set out some guiding principles for general improvement in educational outcomes across all stages. I focus here on the inequality effects of the private–state divide in education, and in the final section I set out alternative approaches for policy reform in this area. I argue that some reform of the private school system will be necessary for achieving a substantial reduction in inequality.

[1]         See the Fact Finder tool on private education on the Private Education Policy Forum (PEPF), About 5% of England’s private school pupils are foreign nationals with parents living abroad.

Cite this as: 

Green, F. (2022), ‘Private schools and inequality’, IFS Deaton Review of Inequalities,