Maria Pulman reflects on Labour’s controversial plan to integrate private schools into the public sector.
Last month at the Labour party national conference, a motion calling for the abolition of private schools was passed, and the party have since committed themselves to the promise of integrating private schools into the public sector. It’s a radical move (especially considering that they’ve also pledged to get rid of Ofsted), which despite being naturally very controversial could go a long way towards solidifying party support.
Over the last few months of Brexit debacle, Labour, and more specifically Corbyn, have come under fire for being weak, slow to respond, and lacking a strong oppositional stance. However, these plans present a party that stands in unity with the people, and also one unafraid of having big aspirations. Their 2017 manifesto laid out a plan to introduce a ‘national education service’ akin to the NHS, in order to create ‘central institutions of fairness’. This new development re-establishes their commitment to this plan, and at the same time takes things one step further. After a long, unhappy period of Conservative austerity and cuts, their promise to reinvest in society feels quite invigorating.
These plans have been criticised from both angles – from some, as being unrealistic and reductionist. From others, as being still too weak. Ultimately, there’s no denying that the private school debate is a nuanced issue. But equally, we cannot deny that it is an issue. Levels of educational attainment for privately-educated children continue to be disproportionately higher than that of state educated children, with less able private school students still doing better than their more able state-educated peers. Research has also shown that a private education can be equal to having two extra years of state schooling. And despite only 7% of children in the UK attending private schools, these former pupils represent 44% of people who appear on the Sunday Times rich list, 74% of senior judges, and 64% of Boris Johnsons’ own cabinet. This tells the story of bought educational privilege also buying privilege later on in life. We cannot ignore the dire picture of disproportion and inequality this paints. With all things considered, the idea of not attempting to equalize the playing field seems bizarre at best. And so the question becomes not why should we consider taking on private schools, but instead, how can we not?
Labour proposes to do this by removing the charity status that private schools have long benefitted from, which has allowed them to acquire over £500m in tax rebates between 2017-22. Although private schools do ‘charitably’ give out some places for free to disadvantaged pupils, in actual terms this amounts to 1% of their total cohort. When we consider that the definition of a charity is ‘an institution that provides benefit to the public’, against the reinforcement of social inequalities caused by private schools, we can hardly say that they fit this description.
Labour also plan to redistribute endowments, investments and properties to the state sector. Magnus Bashaarat, headmaster of prestigious Bedales school whose fees are set at £29,235 a year for day pupils, disappointingly implied that he would rather shut down altogether than integrate with the state school system. Bashaarat spoke of his disregard for the state school system, stating that “We in the UK have an awfully long way to go before schools such as mine might operate in mainstream education without sacrificing everything good that we do.” Considering Bedales receive over three times more funding than state schools do per child, these comments come across as totally enriched in privilege, and ignore the underlying reasoning of Labour’s policy – if private school funding and resources were to be redistributed equally across the state sector, then the quality of these schools would be driven up to a level on which they could compete with current private provision. I’m sure many would agree that the ‘good’ that Bashaarat refers to is completely dwarfed by the bigger impacts of private education on society as a whole. We need to remain focused on the larger scale in this instance.
Furthermore, shouldn’t we be striving to provide all of our children with the best quality of education as possible? Resoundingly yes, of course we should. And we should provide all children with equal access to it, regardless of their background. Whilst a small percentage of our society is still able to buy access to superior education, and therefore access to more privilege and more elite positions, we will never have equality. And that’s why Labour’s plans are commendable – they are directly challenging the inequality that currently does exist, with a plan that puts all people before the interests of an elite few.
Artwork by Alice Chancellor.