Private schools and freedom

Some Labour activists have called for the abolition of private schools. According to Chris Dillow:

The case for not doing so is simple – freedom. My instinct is that folk should be free to spend their money how they want.

I think this is correct, as far as it goes. But I don’t think the implications of abolishing private schools for freedom are, in fact, simple. Banning any activity is a restriction of freedom, but on most views, not all freedoms are equally valuable. Imagine a ban on green carrier bags – most people would be unaffected, and most of those who are affected wouldn’t care. It would be a trivial restriction of freedom. By contrast, a ban on attending church would be a severe restriction on freedom.

Determining how great a loss of freedom banning private schools would be is important if we are to trade this freedom off against the potential benefits of a society without private schools. For example, Dillow considers the possibility that reduced inequality and improved governance might be worth the loss of liberty.

To some extent, it might depend on how state and private schools differ. It seems to me more plausible that private schools are important for liberty if they provide a qualitatively different type of education to that available in state schools – something, in other words, that would not otherwise be available. So I think the freedom argument is stronger in the US, where all state schools are required to be secular, and private schooling is the only way to ensure your children get a religious education. The argument works in the same way if private schools have distinctive subject specialisms or educational philosophies. Conversely, to the extent that private schools provide much the same sort of service as state schools, only better, I think that weakens the argument from freedom.

The suggestion that the option of private school is valuable because it allows parents to determine what sort of education their children have raises thorny questions about how parental freedom interacts with children’s freedom. In general, restricting what a person can do to their body is seen as a major limit to their freedom, what they do to their property less so, but still substantial, and restricting what they do to other people not much of a diminishment of their freedom at all. Where does restricting what people can do to their children fit on this scale? At one extreme are those who consider children essentially their parents’ property. At the other, people who would say parents have no greater rights over their children than over their neighbours. The stronger you think parents’ rights over their children are, the more objectionable private school abolition appears.

Of course, in some cases children may decide for themselves that they want to go to private school, though they will almost certainly be reliant on their parents to pay for it. Do they lose freedom by being unable to go to private school? That depends on whether you think children are competent to make such decisions for themselves. That, in turn, might depend on their age – perhaps banning private secondary schools is more objectionable than banning private primaries.

Regardless of the consequences of banning private schools on children’s freedom when they are young, it could have significant ramifications for their freedom when they are older. Insofar as private schools secure better job opportunities, social networks,  open children up to different skills and experiences (for example, playing musical instruments) and help them develop better deliberative and reasoning skills, they create freer adults. At the same time, if abolishing private schools reduces educational inequality and improves the capabilities and opportunities of disadvantaged children, it increases their freedom. I suspect the balance of these two effects – the net impact of private schools on the futures of more and less privileged children – is what matters most.

Banning stuff rarely seems like a pro-freedom move. Yet the question of whether permitting private schools enhances freedom is complicated. It depends on how good private schools are for the children that get to attend them, and how bad they are for those that do not. It depends on how far we think parents have the right or children the capacity to make important decisions about schooling. And it depends on how fundamentally different private school education is to what is offered in state schools.

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