There is a long list of ‘isms’ that comprise part of our social and political vocabulary: communism, feminism, socialism, racism. Most of the ‘isms’ are short, snappy, convenient ways to refer to an ideology or movement. Christopher King, chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, which took place last week, has just added another to the list: ‘toffism’.
At the Conference, King spoke to representatives of Britain’s leading independent secondary schools, which cater for about 7% of the population. King accused the education sector of indulging in toffism, and discriminating against the privileged attendees of private schools – which seems ludicrous. What is being called discrimination is really just an attempt to level the playing field, namely by increasing the proportion of state school students admitted to top universities.
In coining ‘toffism’, King has given a title to the practise of the underprivileged ‘discriminating’ against the privileged. He attempts to reduce all valid criticism of the private schooling system to a prejudice against the wealthy. He does not actually address any of the issues with that system, such as inaccessibility and exclusivity. The fact that private schools exist creates an imbalance in the education system, as by giving their students an advantage, they necessarily disadvantage state school students.
There is nothing new about a more privileged party accusing prejudice in a less privileged party as soon as their advantage is called into question. White people claim to fall victim to racism. Men insist that feminism is nothing more that a personal attack against them. Homophobes get enraged when their homophobia is called out. In every case, the oppressive party plays the victim while ignoring the fact that they were oppressive in the first place.
That’s not to say that privileged people cannot be discriminated against, because they certainly can. The point is that these instances of discrimination are often trivial compared to those against the less privileged, such as in this case, where King equates pointing out flaws in the independent school system to discrimination.
This begs the question: is toffism actually discrimination if private school students benefit regardless? Surely it is not, as it has no tangible effect.
Calling Eton attendees ‘toffs’ will not stop them going on to join the male, pale and stale that currently dominate Britain’s political class. Pointing out that their secondary education simply cannot be worth £35,000 a year will not stop Harrow’s students from going on to enjoy the life of ‘leadership, service and personal achievement’ that their website guarantees.
King would accuse those guilty of toffism of attempting to make the weak stronger by making the strong weaker. What he does not take into account is that the strength of the wealthy largely stems from institutionalised biases towards them, and tearing these down is not only fair, but also necessary. That is precisely why there are systems in place to give less privileged students a helping hand, such as Cambridge University’s attempt to take in at least 60% of its student body from state schools, and similar attempts by other top universities.
While it is clear to most that private schools are archaic and ought to be scrapped completely, it is unrealistic to expect the very wealthy to give up their position readily. That being said, the criticism will continue until they do. We will reserve the right to be toffist as long as thirteen year olds wear toppers and tails to Geography class.
Image Credit: Herry Lawford