On Labour’s private school dissolution policy

Eton College, Berkshire

This evening, the Labour party’s national conference passed a motion to make the party committed to the dissolution of Britain’s private schools. The three-clause motion commits the party to include in its next general election manifesto a commitment to “integrate all private schools into the state sector”, which includes removing their charitable status, requiring that universities admit no more private school pupils than their proportion in the general population, and to redistribute “endowments, investments and properties held by private schools … democratically and fairly across the country’s educational institutions”. It is this third clause which is likely to provoke the most controversy.

When some Labour front-benchers (e.g. Clare Short) broached the idea of abolishing private schools’ charitable status in the 90s when Tony Blair was party leader, the idea provoked outrage from the Tory press and was quickly slapped down by Blair. This goes a lot further, and it reflects the emboldening of the anti-private school lobby that has resulted from two charming but incompetent Old Etonian prime ministers and years of scandals involving abuse at British boarding schools, including some very prestigious ones (though not Eton). The notion that boarding school, particularly at primary school age, robs people of the ability to empathise by separating them from parental love and family ties at an early age has grown more and more popular, as has the awareness that much of our media, in particular, has become saturated with private school products as has popular culture; while there have always been pop stars who attended private schools (the early members of Genesis, for example, were Charterhouse boys), the numbers seem to have increased in the last 20 years or so.

Removing the charitable status of schools which overwhelmingly educate the children of the rich for a hefty fee might strike many as a good thing; however, there must be some accounting for what services these schools provide. Many schools provide full or partial scholarships or bursaries, but even ‘full’ bursaries often only cover fees, not on-costs such as uniforms. Some of these schools require pupils to have equipment that families in poverty often cannot afford, such as computer tablets; some also remind the scholarship child of their status as a recipient of charity. The appalling story of the young girl who obtained a bursary to “The Grammar School At Leeds” a few years ago and left after just a year because she was “made to feel unwelcome”, with her mother having acquired debts to pay for the uniform and special bus pass, is a good example of the kind of ‘charity’ which gives the concept a bad name. Cold charity, delivered with a razor blade in the hand.

I have heard it suggested that the policy would contravene the European Convention on Human Rights, specifically protocol 1, article 2 which states: “The State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions”. The problem is that, while many private schools do provide for religious education not provided in the state system, many are based in churches such as the Anglican and Catholic churches already well-represented by state schools; they just provide an elitist education for children whose parents can afford it. Many religious private schools have accepted integration into the state school system, particularly through the grant-maintained system favoured by the Thatcher/Major Conservative governments (subsequently abolished), such as some Muslim and Greek Orthodox schools. Similarly, some private schools offer alternative modes of education such as Steiner schools, but many do not: many are simply grammar schools. The state already interferes in private religious school provision by trying to force them to provide sexual and relationship education which contravenes their religious teaching; abolishing private schools would mostly affect the education of the rich.

As for ‘redistributing’ the endowments of private schools, this is simply theft. Besides being simply immoral, it will send a clear message that any private asset belonging to an individual or organisation that the state finds disagreeable can simply be seized when they feel like it. It is clearly tempting to many people on the Left but it will not fly with the electorate. It is a very different proposition from nationalising a business that has received enormous amounts of state aid which has enriched its owners while delivering poor service, or which is on the verge of bankruptcy and this bankruptcy would cause widespread hardship or unrest. It is far better to legislate that assets such as land held by charities be used for charitable purposes, not merely to better the interests of wealthy fee-payers and their children — a good example being that sports facilities and the like be available for use by local schools a certain proportion of the time.

While reducing the influence of the privately-educated in British society is not a bad thing in itself, Labour in office should be dedicated to making sure state schools are funded properly, at ending the flight of teachers from the profession, at stabilising the curriculum and ending fragmentation, and at ending the undemocratic academy regime and recovering those schools which were converted against the wishes of the community (since these were public assets to begin with, not legitimate private ones such as bequests). The state should also assist home-educating families, especially where a child was unable to attend mainstream school because of disability. I support the idea of private schools having to justify their charitable status to retain it, and boarding before secondary age (and possibly even before about age 13 or 14) being banned. However, we cannot simply go down the route of seizing private assets where there was no criminality involved in obtaining them. It’s theft, it’s tyranny; it’s Henry VIII meets Stalin, and it will leave Labour in the wilderness.

Image source: Julian Osley, from Geograph. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 licence.

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