Our recent parent blog in support of comprehensive education garnered a huge amount of engagement from our followers.
So we thought we would take the debate one step further, and report on growing calls for private schools to be phased out and how to do it. Only this week the Guardian reported that there’s a proposal to get its conference in September to discuss a motion to “nationalise” private schools.
This comes after a similar initiative launched just a couple of weeks ago. Westminster hosted the first public meeting in decades to consider how best to phase out private schools. The meeting was organised by the Socialist Education Association (SEA) and drew – appropriately enough – a comprehensive crowd made up of experts, politicians and parents.
At the meeting the SEA launched a drive to encourage the Labour Party to embrace a much more radical agenda to sideline private education. This would mean doing more than the party’s current pledge to remove business rate tax relief on independent schools, and use the money to fund free school meals in all primaries.
The most forthright speaker on the panel was Robert Verkaik, the author of the excellent book Posh Boys. He argued that politicians needed to do far more – to abolish private schools’ charitable status, to encourage Oxbridge to make far more contextual offers to state school students (meaning they would be offered lower grades at A level to take account of an education less geared to getting into elite universities) and – most strikingly – positive discrimination towards state school students in key professions.
Fellow panellist Melissa Benn recounted a story about the Conservatives making similar noises a few years ago about people not being allowed to name their school on job applications, only for the former minister and current Provost of Eton, Sir William Waldegrave, to march into Downing Street and demand that the policy was retracted. The anecdote triggered groans from the audience. It tells you everything you need to know about the often privately-educated establishment, and how it maintains its supremacy.
A contrasting policy approach was put forward by Francis Green, author with David Kynaston of Engines of Privilege. They argue that the way to break the ‘pipeline of privilege’ is to ensure that a third of all private school students are from less advantaged backgrounds. It’s not clear how these students would be chosen – but it would not be on the basis of academic ability – nor whether they would enjoy being in a school dominated by students from radically different families. The school fees for this minority group would be paid for by the state. Isn’t there every chance these schools would break down into class war, given entrenched attitudes on both sides? It would make a riveting documentary, but it’s not at all clear how it would solve the private school problem.
All the speakers agreed that there was now a grotesque gap in resources between private and state sectors. Two factors were at play: in the last 20 years independent schools have hiked up their fees – aided by tax cuts for top earners – to fund five star resources. State schools meanwhile have seen a big increase in costs since 2010 with insufficient government funding to match.
One member of the audience questioned whether Theresa May had deliberately starved state schools of funds to build the case for the abolition of private schools. This was a joke question, but the fact remains that lots of politicians of all parties are beginning to see the educational apartheid we reside under in England as a major obstacle to social equity.
So what will Labour actually do? The new MP for Crewe, Laura Smith, pledged “Labour will not shy away from this problem”. Let’s see. Given that they have shied away from a commitment to wind up grammar schools under a National Education Service, one can only hope.
Perhaps the most effective way of emasculating private schools is to make non-selective education irresistible. That means funding comprehensives properly, and celebrating their diversity through a creative curriculum that gives every child the chance to develop their capabiliites. Above all, it encourages empathetic learning – listening to the view points of those different from ourselves.
It was none other than Andreas Schleicher, the inventor of the PISA international tests, who told the Education Select Committee a few months ago that the most important skill for the future would be “understanding other people’s point of view”. He also suggested that we in England are far too preoccupied by the ”top” students, and that the quickest way to improve our education system would be to focus on those who achieve the least. If that is not the death knell for private education, what is?