By Adam Peggs
Only a small portion of the United Kingdom’s population, around 7%, received a private education. Yet the ranks of the highest-paid professions are dominated, often to an astounding level, by those who attended fee-paying ‘top schools’. The same can be said of parliament, and the upper echelons of the civil service, raising questions about the unrepresentative nature of the British state.
Our education system is blighted by inequalities, with the scales bitterly tipped against working class kids. The gap between rich and poor in educational outcomes is among the highest in the rich world, our top universities remain bastions of privilege and Britain’s postcode lottery looks worse than ever. In this context, it was little surprise that Labour’s party conference came out unanimously against Britain’s socially exclusive system of education.
At this year’s conference the Labour frontbench pledged to hand this issue over to a Social Justice Commission, which would draw up recommendations on how to integrate the schools into the public sector. This was a welcome step forward and a serious advance in challenging educational inequalities – though there is certainly a case for the manifesto to pledge for immediate reforms.
A good deal of the international evidence shows that more comprehensive systems lead to better outcomes for the majority, rather than damaging ‘excellence’. And the UK’s private education system is particularly socially exclusive. As Francis Green and David Kynaston have noted it is only among the richest 5% of households that there is an ‘appreciable’ number attending such schools, with attendance from children growing up in the poorest 90% of households absolutely negligible. Defenders of the current setup sometimes speak as if the ‘excellence’ of an elite education may only benefit a small few, but not at the expense of others. But buying privilege for one, does give them privileges over others – be it a place at a prestigious university or a high-income job.
There appears to be an emerging consensus that now is the time for change. Some have argued that capping the number of university admissions for private school alumni and ending the tax privileges of private schools would be enough – and is politically feasible anyway. But this would fail to address the inherent unfairness of a system where some children from wealthy families have three times as much spent on their education and children are separated on the basis of class background. While these might have a serious effect on curbing the unfair advantage, they accept some level of unequal opportunities. Equal opportunities, let alone social justice, would still be little more than a pretence.
Nor would ending charitable status, the policy advocated by the Liberal Democrats, amount to a radical change. This would not raise much more than 5% of the current schools budget. It would most likely only have a subtle effect, as evidenced by Private School Policy Reform’s research into charging VAT on school fees. Their research found that only a small number of parents could be expected to switch to the public sector to avoid the cost of VAT. And while charitable status affords the schools other tax breaks, it is VAT that is the largest such break.
This same set of problems run through many of the reforms to private education floated in recent years. Proposals to widen access, such as awarding 25% of places to children for free, or doing similar with 33% of places accept wide inequality as the norm. After all, shaking up who attends elite schools assumes that an expensive education will still be reserved for a few. Boosting social mobility for a minority won’t be enough to remedy a divisive system.
Some have been arguing that Labour should avoid moving far beyond its 2017 manifesto, that relatively mild social democracy is the way forward. I do not find those arguments convincing. The left has to be bold and unafraid, calling for more than piecemeal change.
While promising to give the issue to the Social Justice Commission may sound attractive, there might be risks to the approach of entering government without a clear roadmap to reform. Not least that the issue finds itself kicked into the long grass as it was by the Royal Commission on private schools in the 1960s, or that its recommendations – as was the case with that same commission. A commitment like this in the next manifesto isn’t necessarily the best outcome.
Instead, fee-paying for a private education ought to be steadily phased out, recognising its place as an inegalitarian and socially exclusionary practice. This should start by seeking to bar the charging of fees for new admissions at the schools. In other words, any new intake at private schools would have to be free places, beginning a process of progressively removing the educational divide. In this scenario, the schools would ultimately be presented with a choice, join their counterparts in the comprehensive school system or retain their independence but without revenue from fees.
We might also take a more subtle approach, aiming to strip away the unfair advantages one by one. First addressing their tax breaks and the dominance of the privately educated in universities and the civil service, and then moving onto phasing out fees along the lines seen in Finland. Moving slowly though, could come with downsides, with a greater risk of reforms being stopped in their tracks.
Potential legal barriers to phasing out fee-paying, such as the right to set up a non-state school, could be overcome by avoiding outright ‘nationalisation’ and turning them into self-governed but well-regulated schools. Under this scenario, schools like Harrow and Charterhouse might end up resembling foundation schools or better-regulated academies, publicly funded and open to all. This would also help avoid any controversy around the right, in the European Convention on Human Rights, of parents to have their children educated according to their ‘religious and philosophical convictions’. School autonomy would be preserved, but the right to buy your child an advantage over others would not.
The idea that Britain would be more or less unique if we acted against the divide between private and state schools is an exaggeration. Historically, Norway and Sweden were both places where private schooling was strongly curtailed and rare – at least until the turn toward economic liberalisation in recent decades. Alberta, Canada boasts the lowest attainment gap in the OECD and a system where private schooling is relatively uncommon. Finland, too, (now infamously) amalgamated virtually all of its private schools into the state school system in the 1970s, bringing about an exceptional, egalitarian system.
Tackling the privilege of the fee-paying school sector is also about fulfilling the promise of a National Education Service – if education is to be inclusive, free and truly universal then the fee-paying schools are a clear obstacle. We should, ultimately, be against a system where the most resources and the best chances are reserved for the wealthy. Such a system cannot be reconciled to social justice. When the manifesto is agreed, at the ‘Clause V’ meeting, it would be encouraging to see a pledge to oppose fee-paying and to seek to integrate the private schools into a high-standard education system. So while it might take some nerve, Labour is absolutely right to stand against the gross class inequalities in our schools system – the private schools should not be an exception to that.