In my school days, the use of articles in front of nouns like “school”, “church”, “hospital” etc in the English language was among the issues that constantly tested the nerves of English teachers. You say “school” without an article, they explained time and again, when you refer to the institution, and “the school” when you refer to the building. “School” is a place of institutionalised learning, “the school” is a particular structure of bricks and mortar.
Maybe it would comfort them a bit to see that even a teacher can get this distinction wrong, albeit not in the grammatical sense. In his Times article “Why private schools should be banned“, Kevin Rooney of the Institute of Ideas Education Forum does precisely that.
In the recently released school league tables for A-level and GCSE results, private schools easily outstrip public ones again once again. There are 47 private schools in the Top 50. So if private education has such a convincing record (which even its critics do not deny; otherwise they would not be so concerned about it), an obvious conclusion would be to open up the opportunities it offers to everybody, especially to bright, poor students.
This is what Kevin Rooney wants to do – but not in the way one would expect. Effectively, he believes that a nationalisation of private schools would give us ‘Etons for all’:
“Let’s storm the private schools like the French once stormed the Bastille and make those wonderful private schools the property of us all, where every child gets to enjoy such fantastic facilities and resources.”
The analogy hits the mark, in one particular sense. After having stormed the Bastille, the French rebels were puzzled to find out that there was nothing very special in it. And that is true for private schools as well. There is nothing in their bricks and mortar that makes them inherently superior to public schools. They might, on average, be better equipped. But without the right incentives in place, a modern computer room or a well-stocked library do not educate anybody. Private schools serve their clients because it is in their self-interest to do so, and they possess the autonomy to act accordingly.
After all, an invasion of South Korea by North Korea would not spread the South’s prosperity northwards, but the North’s misery southwards.