By Vik Chechi-Ribeiro (NEU activist and Science teacher)
This year’s Labour party conference saw several radical motions passed as its members were successful in leading policy commitments including a pledge to integrate private schools into the education sector from the ‘@AbolishEton’ campaign (Labour Against Private Schools). The motion passed aims to integrate private schools into the state sector and would also has a number of transitional demands. Some quite mainstream, remove their charitable status that private schools enjoy (between 2017-22, private schools will have received tax rebates totalling £522 million – money that could be spent on public services for the many) but also some more radical such as the redistribution of the historic endowments, investments and properties originally meant for the teaching of poor scholars into the hard hit and underfunded state sector.
Private education comprises only 7% of the student population and is used by the most privileged in society (families with incomes over £300,000 have six out of ten students in private schools) to rig the education system to achieve higher grades and a leg up in life. Students in private schools enjoy smaller class sizes, access to top facilities, access to networks, alumni and a route to Oxbridge (with 42% of Oxford and Cambridge students coming from private school) and top professional jobs. If this were not the case then parents would simply not pay for it.
It is a system for the wealthiest in society to reproduce and entrench its privilege. The average private school fee is £18,000 per year with Eton and Westminster costing over £40,000. This is clearly outside the reach of the vast majority of the population and well above the median wage. The idea that private school ‘offer choice’ is a myth. Private schools also have a large under-representation of key groups especially SEND pupils. It’s a self-selecting system for the elite.
What lessons do private schools teach our young people? To remove yourself from the common good? That a central pillar of our society that should allow all to flourish is not based on universal access but can be commodified.
It is therefore not surprising that products of the private education system have overseen large-scale cuts to public services they do not use. As a teacher in a state school with two-thirds of students eligible for pupil premium I have seen the brutal impact of austerity on our communities – a recent report from the British medical journal ‘linked nearly 120,000 excess deaths in England’ as result of cuts since 2010, as billions were spent on tax breaks for the richest in society.
I have also seen the impact of the recruitment and retention crisis in the state education sector – university teacher training places left unfilled and half of teachers leave the profession within the first five years of qualifying. Integrating private schools into the state sector would force politicians to want to build a society for all.
The mere existence of private schools disadvantages our pupils who are expected to sit the same exams and compete for the same university places and in the same labour market. This is despite the impact of the wider social forces faced by pupils in state schools. A study by the Education Policy Institute found that the gap between the wealthiest and poorest, which had been gradually closing since 2011, widened slightly last year, with the most disadvantaged pupils now almost two years behind their peers by the time they finish their GCSE’s.
So how would integration work? The proposal is for a social justice commission to lead on integrating private schools into the education sector. As a National Education Union activist, I would not want to see any job losses. And LAPS have repeatedly stated that there would not be. Private schools would simply have to open their admissions to students in the community they now serve. Furthermore by auditing the immense wealth in the private education sector would place it into the hands of the many, not the few. This would immediately enrich the life chances of thousands of students.
Would integration lower standards? The potential of our young people is not linked to their privilege. Students in state schools are no less able, creative or wanting to succeed as their counterparts in private schools. However the existence of private schools does hinder the potential of the many – who do not see ‘people like them’ at Oxbridge and the top professional jobs. Who are expected to compete despite the absence of a level playing field.
Would parents not move into wealthy catchment areas creating state schools with a privileged intake? Potentially but policies to make our education system more equitable should run concurrently alongside reforms to the housing market to prevent this from happening.
Ultimately I became a teacher to build a better society and world. The role of education is to equip our young people to deliver that transformational change. A system based on wealth that excludes large sections of society is a roadblock to progress. Abolishing private schools and integrating them into the wider education system would signal what sort of society we want to build. Is it one based on individualism and hereditary wealth, where life chances can be bought or collectively striving to fulfil the potential of millions? As the Scottish teacher and socialist John Maclean once said, ‘Rise with your class, not out of it’.