Are Private Schools Morally Permissible?

I believe that the existence of private schools does violate equality of opportunity, at least in one of its forms. However, I do not believe that the corollary of this should be their proscription. As this essay will attempt to show, I believe that private schools are not just morally permissible but moral requisites. In doing this, I shall present the strongest arguments against private education and illustrate the weaknesses in each one. In particular, I consider the ideas of John Rawls and Adam Swift.

John Rawls

To understand Rawls’ stance, one must revert back to his two principles of justice. Rawls’ second principle, the more relevant principle regarding the discussion at hand, is divided into two parts. Firstly, Rawls believed that any distributive inequality must be “to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged” (2003, p.266) – this is known as ‘The Difference Principle’. Secondly, Rawls argued that competition for positions that carry with them social advantages constituting distributive inequalities (particularly positions of public office) must be within a framework of ‘fair equality of opportunity’ (2003, p.266). By this, Rawls means that any two people of equal native endowments and equal motivation to cultivate those endowments should be afforded equal opportunity in achieving some position, for example becoming the prime minister (2003, p.63).

I begin with discussion of the second part of Rawls’ second principle of justice, known as ‘The Equal Opportunity Principle’. A distinction made by Rawls between formal equality of opportunity and fair equality of opportunity (which Rawls promotes) leads me to the conclusion that private education violates Rawls’ second principle of justice, thereby leading the Rawlsian proponent to the conclusion that private schools are morally impermissible. The aforementioned distinction is as follows. Formal equality of opportunity says that two people of equal talents and motivations ought to be afforded the same chances of being accepted into a position (, 2017). Fair equality of opportunity, however, is designed to illegitimate social contingencies effecting our natural endowments and motivations; i.e. it’s not just that a position must be open formally, but also that “the expectations of those with the same abilities and aspirations should not be affected by their social class” (Rawls, 2003, p.63).

Here is an example of how Rawls might view private education. Imagine two eleven-year-old girls are heading off to secondary school. The first girl will go to the local state school because her parents can’t afford the expensive private school. The second girl will go to the expensive private school because her parents can afford it. At private school (in general), the second girl will be more exposed to ‘peer group effects’ which will have a substantial, beneficial impact on the second girl’s grades, such that she will most likely receive far better grades than the first girl at the end of their time spent in secondary education (Swift, 2003, pp.22-23). There is a direct causal link between a student’s grades and their expectations for future education and employment because firms and universities have a minimum grades requirement. Therefore, because private education (available in general only to those who can afford it, i.e. a certain social class) does affect two equally endowed people’s future expectations, it violates Rawls’ Principle of Equal Opportunity, and private education, for Rawls, would be unjust. However, while private education violates Rawls’ fair equality of opportunity, it doesn’t violate formal equality of opportunity; people from private school getting better opportunities is legitimate because their education has better equipped them to function in the positions up for grabs.

Here, I wish to criticise Rawls’ understanding of his ‘Principle of Equal Opportunity’. Why is it that we believe parental income at birth is an inappropriate determinant of future success, whereas natural endowments at birth are appropriate? Even Rawls would agree, and he stresses this point, that we are not morally deserving of our native endowments any more than we are morally deserving of our initial place in society – he calls this a “moral truism” (2003, p.74). I believe that this distinction is, morally speaking at least, entirely arbitrary, and therefore irreparably undermines the very concept of fair equality of opportunity. “One’s ‘native endowments’… are not something for which the person can ‘claim any credit’, and hence, would not, in themselves, appear to justify any special rewards” (Rumbold, 2017). Having refuted this criticism from ‘The Equal Opportunity Principle’, the moral legitimacy of private schools is preserved.

Having considered why Rawls might argue against the provision of private education, I think that it’s important to consider the benefits of private education that are enjoyed by the least advantaged in society. The other half of Rawls’ second principle, the Difference Principle, is given less significance than his Equal Opportunity Principle such that it’s being fulfilled at the expense of the Equal Opportunity principle is untenable for Rawls. However, such benefits are still significant to the conclusion of this essay. Private schools reduce the burden on the state-run education system. In 2001, the government spent, on average, £3,300 per child, per year (Swift, 2003, p.22), to provide state education. This money, provided via taxation, is still being offered by parents of children in private education. Therefore, the state system has more money per child. More money per child equates to a better quality of education per child. Furthermore, fewer children for the state to teach would mean smaller classroom sizes and more time per student for the teachers in state schools, meaning state school children would perform worse if private schools were prohibited. Finally, in my experience, I have seen many non-monetary benefits provided to state schools by private schools. For example, private schools often provided free networking events, careers advice, university application workshops and access to far superior sporting facilities to the children of local state schools near where I grew up. However, probably the most crucial provision that private schools make to people of different social classes (i.e. to the people who are unable to attend for financial reasons) is that of scholarships and bursaries. Private schools can and do offer large amounts of money to people who can’t afford to send their child to private school. For those who are sufficiently naturally endowed to ‘deserve’ a good education, but cannot afford it, there are pathways open into private education.

All of this is not to say that the concept of private education in the abstract is necessarily beneficial to the least advantaged in society. What I hope to draw out is that the concept of ‘private schools’ is exceptionally broad, and can cover schools who do not help the local community, do not offer scholarships and bursaries and fail to help children develop their native endowments. However, due to the large amount of possible, positive influences of private schools on society, I believe it is reasonable to posit the existence of some form of private education which is maximally beneficial to every social class in society. Therefore, in my opinion, to ban all private education would be morally impermissible, just as would implementing a form of private schooling not beneficial to the least advantaged people. While interpreting Rawls may lead to private education’s proscription, I believe the most beneficial society for all (including the worst off) includes a form of private education with extensive scholarship and bursary facilities in place to maximise the community’s social mobility.

Adam Swift

Having failed to undermine the conclusion of this essay from a Rawlsian perspective, I shall now attempt to undermine its conclusion from a Swiftian perspective. Adam Swift believed that private schools were unjust because they gave people an unfair advantage in the competition for jobs and university places. This criticism, which may be called the ‘skipping the queue argument’ (Swift, 2003, p.23), focuses on the zero-sum nature of queues; for someone to get a better place in the queue, someone necessarily gets a worse place in the queue. Furthermore, because one’s attending private school pushes other people back in the queue, it unfairly distorts the meritocratic process of providing the best education and jobs to those with the greatest native endowments and so the existence of private education leads to inefficient allocation of positions. This argument might be called the ‘inefficiency argument’ (Swift, 2003, p.25).

In a similar vein to Elizabeth Anderson, I believe that this understanding of meritocracy, which Swift ultimately believes in, is false (Anderson, 2004, p.101). I believe it is founded on the incorrect version of equality of opportunity, i.e. the principle of fair equality of opportunity rather than formal equality of opportunity. Using examples, I will show why.

Imagine two children of identical native endowments and motivations both attend a state school. On their first day of school one child is hit by a bus on the way home, putting him into a coma (just like having enough money to be able to afford private education, this child did not deserve to be hit by a bus). In this example, inappropriate exogenous influences have had a significant effect on the future expectations of these two children. However, in an efficient meritocratic social structure, it isn’t the case that a university should consider both boys’ applications with equal merit; one has good grades and knowledge whereas the other doesn’t. It is simply the case that one will make a better university student. This is the same as private education. Neither unlucky accidents nor private schools distort meritocratic processes. The boy who has just woken up from a coma simply doesn’t deserve a place at university to the same extent that the other boy does. Similarly, given the corollary example of two identically endowed boys (one of which attended a private school, causing him to get better grades), the private school boy hasn’t skipped the queue at all – he is just more deserving of a higher place in the queue. Alternatively, Elizabeth Anderson refers to Rawls’ original position (Rawls, 2003, p.11) to explain why Swift is wrong. Given that we can have no personal interests in the original position, we must be motivated by a social interest which “is simply to be as well-served as possible, which is to say served by those whose combination of ability and motivation make them the best performers in the given job” (Anderson, 2004, p.102). In the original position, there is no value placed on unrealised potential, just actual ability and motivation. Therefore, Swift’s objections to the existence of private schools are based on a fundamentally misguided understanding of the nature of meritocracy, and the conclusion of this essay stands.


In summary, I believe that the existence of at least some forms of private school is not only morally permissible but a prerequisite for any morally justifiable form of society. I think most arguments against private schools are founded on one of two misguided beliefs. Either people incorrectly argue that private schools should be banned on the basis that they distort some efficient meritocratic process, or that they are unjustifiable in disadvantaging the people who can’t afford to go. I believe that the meritocratic process is unaffected by the existence of private schools. Further, I believe that private schools benefit the least advantaged in society, regardless of their place in the queue. One thing that I must stress is that some private schools could exist as morally impermissible institutions. However, some empirical examination of the workings of private schools on a case-by-case basis would be required in order to determine this. I conclude that private schools do violate fair equality of opportunity, but they do not violate formal equality of opportunity (which is the equality of opportunity that I believe effective meritocracy is based on). I also conclude that their blanket proscription would not only be a mistake practically but also morally.

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