Time to integrate: Labour’s new private school policy.

By Thomas Wilson

Labour will now pursue the integration of private schools into the state sector, through the abolition of their charitable status, a 7% cap on university admissions and the ‘redistribution’ of assets, or so it voted at this weekend’s party conference in Brighton.

While the reaction to this announcement has been predictably hysterical, littered with accusations of ‘hypocrisy’ and ‘vandalism’, this will inevitably become a key emotive issue in any forthcoming general election and it should widen the scope for debate about the future of education in this country.

Ultimately, the policy seems well-intentioned; but its desired effect on inequality could be achieved by subtler and less draconian policies such as the development of low-cost private schools and deeper institutional reform.

In order for this policy to truly gain credibility the first step Labour needs to take is to be less hostile to those who either have attended private schools or have sent their children there. No child chooses to be sent to a private school and overt criticism of parents ignores something deeply embedded in all of us, the urge to do what’s best for our children. Everyone has to live in and make choices in the world as it is, not how they wish it to be; the personal venom of much of the #abolisheton campaign is not only unfair to parents but also to students. 

Eight elite schools send more students to Oxbridge than 3,000 state schools put together

Labour must also not overlook the wider benefits that the private school system provides to society. From relieving the taxpayer of the £3.6 billion a year it would cost to educate 600,000 additional students, to developing the nations great athletes/performers and attracting elite international talent. It is clear that the private school, as a distinctly British institution, is not the monster it is often made out to be. 

However, the fact remains that something feels deeply perverse about a system in which eight elite schools send more students to Oxbridge than 3,000 state schools put together’. Private schools undeniably create a system of entrenched privilege, which does much to undermine the belief in the U.K as a functioning meritocracy. Not even in the United States, a nation whose education system allows the wealthy to buy their way into elite universities through sizeable donations does the private sector reign so unchecked. It is little wonder this country has seen a rise in political discontent and frustration towards so-called “elites” when over 61% of our doctors and 65% of our senior judges were educated at fee-paying institutions.

In some ways, the rise of populism can be seen as a direct response to feelings of career hopelessness and educational exclusion experienced by much of the population. Public schools were initially created by missionaries to educate the poor, yet today only 1% of private school students are on full scholarships. It is clear that our current system is a mutation of the initial public school programme and that the U.K has a deeply embedded educational problem. However, Labour’s proposals are not the preferred solution. 

Students from Clarendon schools are ninety-four times more likely to join the elite of British society

The policies presented at the party conference could be described as a cocktail of confusion and contradiction. How can you impose taxes on a sector you wish to be abolished? Why would you need quotas limiting the amount of private school university places when you are planning to terminate these institutions anyway? Moreover, the entire premise of quotas is not only backward but so obviously discriminatory that it would undermine the academic integrity of our leading universities. If Labour is going to go ahead with heavy handed “redistribution” and abolition it should only target the extremes of the wider independent school sector. There is an argument to be made for the complete removal of the so-called Clarendon schools, where pupils are ninety-four times more likely to join the elite of British society than ‘students from elsewhere’; but to act in this way towards the new generation of low cost private schools would be an act of grievous self-harm.

Not all of Labour’s proposals are quite so ridiculous, the withdrawal of £200m of government subsidies alongside the removal of charitable status would go a long way to ensuring independent schools pay their fair share.

Any overarching reform of the private sector would also require reform of the state sector and the removal of grammar schools. We should follow the example of Finland, which routinely tops the world educational rankings, and eliminate setting thus inspiring weaker students and closing the gap between peers.

In order to obviate the need for quotas we could follow the example of Holland and split the education system into three tiers known as vocational (VMBO), professional (HAVO) and university (VWO) pathways. This would go a long way to easing tensions between private and state sectors since university places would no longer be seen as the only way to a successful future and the admissions process would cease to become zero sum

To address educational inequality, Labour and the government need to embrace wider institutional change

Finally, in order to provide an alternative for parents the government must encourage the development and expansion of low-cost private schools such as Durham’s very own ‘Independent Grammar School’ (£52 per week). If the abolition of the elite Clarendon schools were to take place, low cost private schools could fill the gaping hole in the market for alternative independent schooling. This would overcome the problem of oversubscription to elite state schools that Labour’s ideas would likely create and would provide necessary competition to ‘weed out’ certain failing comprehensives that educational equality demands.

It is clear that the private school debate is not as cut and dry as Labour suggests. There are no simple solutions to educational inequality in this country and if Labour or the government is serious about tackling this issue it also needs to embrace wider institutional change. 

Image by Huangcjz via Wikimedia Commons

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