Can Labour tackle the private school problem now?

How state school funding has decreased relative to private fees since 2010. For more detail see this IFS report.

Yesterday I saw a tweet by the Labour MP Rachel Reeves saying that, “as Labour chancellor”, she would end the charitable status of private schools which costs the public £1.7billion per year, and move that money into the state education system where it is needed. She quoted another tweet by another Labour MP, Wes Streeting, which showed an IFS graphic (right) showing that while spending per pupil in private schools had risen steadily since around 2000, the figure for state schools rose roughly with private schools until 2010 and then dropped dramatically, and while it has risen for certain periods since, it has never come close to the 2010 figure. It would be interesting if Labour were to take the bull by the horns on this issue in a forthcoming general election, as it is something they have broached in the past, or their politicians have, and have run into a storm of media opposition and backed down.

I recall Clare Short raising the issue of private schools’ charitable status back in the mid-1990s when Labour were in opposition. When the Daily Mail and other right-wing newspapers made their opposition to it very clear, Blair disowned the policy and the institutions retained their charitable status throughout his time in office. He did abolish the assisted places scheme, by which a small number of children received state-assisted places at private schools, after complaints that it “creamed off” more motivated pupils from state schools and left the latter impoverished. He also abolished the grant-maintained school system which had allowed some state schools to opt out of local authority control, receiving a grant from central government, under which a small number of private schools entered the state school system. This policy was reversed later on during the Labour years with some schools becoming “city academies”, later just academies, also maintained by central government with a minority sponsorship from a private company. This status was to be imposed on schools deemed to be failing, even if the problems were temporary.

In the 90s, a common defence of private schools was that they freed up places in state schools: the wealthy paid for their own children’s education as well as paying through taxes for everyone else’s, which they did not use. The problem with this is that when anyone of means pays for private education, state schools become less diverse and typically only serve children of poor to lower middle class families. When members of parliament are typically people of means as a result of high MPs’ salaries as well as the extraneous jobs they may acquire because of their connections, state schools are no longer a priority for those who run our country: they are schools for other people’s children, not theirs. As well as class sizes going up and buildings falling into disrepair because of reduced finances, they become the focus of endless political interference with constant changes to the curriculum and to their governance and management, while private schools remain stable and fees continue to buy small class sizes.

Another common defence is that private schools offer a choice of school model: some offer religious education other than Catholic or Anglican, some are Steiner schools or follow some other educational philosophy. This is all well and good, but it seems most private schools that are not special schools simply offer an ‘improved’ traditional educational model; they tend to be grammar schools with the usual trappings of British institutional schooling such as uniforms and prefects. Very often the low-ranking private schools target wealthy families whose children failed the local 11-plus or failed to get into the ‘good’ comprehensives, or those who want a grammar school education in a borough or county where it is not available on the state. I have heard that some private schools have served some children with special needs who had been unable to cope in a large mainstream secondary school fairly well, sometimes offering reduced fees, though these arrangements have often become untenable since the pandemic hit. The question is, however, why should such choice not be available to everyone, including the choice of a small, friendly school?

Private schools that have charitable status often do little to justify that status. They provide bursaries, but often they are partial and even ‘full’ bursaries do not cover the costs of things like uniforms. In some schools pupils are required to bring tablets, which may still be beyond some parents’ reach but not beyond that of parents who can afford private school fees. They are often lax in protecting children from bullying, especially as those from poorer families are clearly identifiable as the “charity case” and stick out as different; private schools have featured heavily in recent exposures of sexual harassment and assaults as well as racism in prestigious schools. The selling point is the lack of diversity, the lack of tolerance for dissent, the “my way or the highway, fit in or get out” environment. And state schools often have to pick up the tab when private schools fail; when Winton School in Croydon closed suddenly in 1994 for financial and safety reasons, the borough had to find places for nearly 140 pupils at short notice (E. Blyth & J. Milner, 1996).

It seems that more of the public has woken up to the damage the private sector does; more and more of our political class, especially in the Tory party which has reverted to type after two state educated leaders in the 80s and 90s, and more of our media are dominated by its products and the damage that boarding schools do has become better understood, as evidenced by the sharp decline in the number of special boarding schools for disabled children. Yet simply removing the schools’ charitable status may well lead to some of them not even pretending to deliver a public good but just paying their taxes and teaching the children of the wealthy. In other European countries, private education has been banned or is much less powerful than it is here, only serving the extremely wealthy or expatriates (in their own language). Here, the private sector is vast and diverse and reforming it will be a very complicated process, and Labour must have a clear idea as to how they will do it. Our private schools take pupils from around the world, not just the British rich.

It’s not acceptable that most people only have access to large secondary schools which are often (and increasingly) rule-ridden, overly hierarchical, infested with bullies (pupils and staff), with uncomfortable uniforms rigidly enforced by image-obsessed “leadership teams”. People, including those in cities, should have access to a choice of educational models; this should not be the preserve of the wealthy. Schools which provide alternative models should be supported, as should home-educating parents, especially where their children have been frozen out of school as a result of disability. The private grammar schools, however, must be abolished if they will not come into the state school system. State schools must be for everyone’s children, not for other people’s.

Eric Blyth & Judith Milner, Unsaleable Goods and the Education Market; published in Reshaping Education In The 1990s: Perspectives On Secondary Schooling by R. Chawla-Duggan & C.J. Pole, Routledge, 1996. Image source: Institute for Fiscal Studies, via Wes Streeting MP on Twitter.

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