About one in fourteen young people are educated privately and, if the Labour Party is able to enforce its promise, those students will soon be swapping their prep, beaks and Fives for homework, teachers and football.
Because, after years where the private sector has largely been left alone, it is now Labour policy to eradicate it.
Do We Really Want the Independent Sector to Go?
Two questions, though, need to be considered: Firstly, is ending independent education desirable? Secondly, is it feasible?
The number of overseas students whose parents select a boarding school for their offspring tells us that worldwide, the independent system is well regarded. Whether that is due to the quality of education offered or the portal public schools provide into the worlds of industry and finance is uncertain, however.
There is no reliable method to compare the quality of teaching and learning between the sectors. Yes, fee paying schools tend to achieve good exam results (mostly… the lower regions of league tables raise a few eyebrows) though their selection by economics probably accounts for this. Wealthy, middle class kids do well wherever they are educated. Inspection regimes differ; most independent schools are inspected by peers – fellow heads and deputies in particular – which is clearly not the case with maintained schools.
Independent schools claim to offer a broader curriculum. Possibly, but certainly less so than used to be the case.
So educationally, money probably doesn’t buy success, implying there is no moral reason for closing independent schools. The suspicion that social envy is behind the current drive is hard to deny, with schools an easier target than other symbols of inequality.
Yet although parents’ £15000 pa – minimum – is not buying better teaching, it is going to lead to smaller classes (usually), stronger contacts (often) and better resources (sometimes). Plus, of course, more impressive buildings, which no doubt persuade the average 11-year-old towards their future education.
While some schools take advantage of alumni contacts when it comes to their students’ career prospects, the notion that the richest people will not continue to use these simply because their child is educated along with the rest of the population is, frankly, ludicrous. And social mobility is not significantly better or worse in Britain than in most other rich nations, where private schooling is less prominent.
And while smaller classes are usually considered advantageous, losing the independent option is simply going to increase class sizes in general. That is hardly going to improve standards for anybody. Parents who pay school fees still pay their taxes like everybody else; they are still funding maintained school places, just not taking them up. The system, already groaning under the weight of poor infrastructure, teacher shortages and underfunding, will simply become worse.
Closing Private Schools Could Be Illegal
Labour’s answer is to seize the assets of independent schools. While the legality and desirability of this is highly questionable, the concept is also deeply flawed. Often, teachers in independent schools have been through the system themselves. They choose to teach in that environment and the idea that all will happily move to their local maintained school is cloud cuckoo land. Then there is salary. While many independent schoolteachers earn less than their state school counterparts, many earn more, and are unlikely to be prepared to take a pay cut. Many others will simply choose to work in another career, or not at all. Just look at the staff car park of the average independent school, compared to the local comp, and it is immediately obvious that many posh-school teachers are quite ‘posh’ themselves, and have no real need to work. The result will be a worsening of the chronic understaffing in maintained schools.
An Economically Unfeasible Policy
Then there are buildings. Most are highly unsuitable as schools. Old manor houses cost a lot more to maintain than a purpose-built building and will soon fall into disrepair without expensive maintenance. Outside of the capital, and a few other major cities, most independent schools occupy rural, or semi-rural settings where there is simply no demand for more schools, and while the land in beautiful countryside might find a small market for housing estates, does anybody really want to attack education in order to put profit into the hands of developers?
Labour also state that they plan to seize endowments. Firstly, it is highly suspect that they will be able to pass laws enabling them to do so. What next, seize the assets of businesses? Or inheritances? Very quickly, the plan moves away from improving educational equality to an openly Marxist philosophy, and there is little national desire for that.
Secondly, surprisingly little money is held in endowments. Yes, headline grabbers like Eton and Harrow might be very wealthy, but the number of school closures that happen every year tell that most independent schools live a hand to mouth existence, their futures fragile and subject to the whims of economy and local reputation. The actual money gained by seizing endowments would be extremely small, more likely to raise a tabloid headline than educational standards. And let’s be honest, the sector, including parents, will not take such a move lightly. They have both the money and the contacts to oppose that which they do not like.
Schools About Students
But there is something more important than all the economic and philosophical arguments. Children. The Guardian recently published a long, densely presented argument from two educationalists, Francis Green and David Kynaston, making a powerful case for the end of private education. During its six lengthy columns, children hardly merit a mention. No thought is given to children forced to move schools, suddenly, perhaps in an exam year; or service children for whom a partly funded boarding school education provides stability while their parents commit themselves to defending the country. One is left with the overwhelming sense that Labour’s policy is based on dogma, not people.
Yet there is something that can be done. Independent schools (but not privately-owned ones) are still granted charitable status, a huge tax advantage. But why? While these schools are not permitted to make a profit (or if they do, it must be reinvested) the provision they offer really is overwhelmingly limited to their own wealthy students.
Yes, some offer bursaries (usually, very small ones) – which arrogantly implies the education they offer is better than that available elsewhere. Yes, some share their facilities. But only when it is convenient to do so. The support given to state schools in general is patrician in nature; little more than an educationally patronising tap on the head.
Removing charitable status would allow a reasonable increase in funding to the state sector. It would avoid flooding school rolls with displaced students (most schools would cope with the change) and it retains the notion of choice in education, a concept which surely most would fight to both retain and expand.