“The private schools racket is falling apart”.
This was the title of a comment piece in The Times by Max Hastings last Thursday – distinguished historian, former editor of the Daily Telegraph, leading member of the commentariat, and undoubtedly a man of the right.
But although it promised much, it did not quite deliver.
Although justifiably insisting that that “only silly people deny that the system perpetuates class divisions”, his main thrust was that in the context of ever-higher fees – in real terms, a threefold increase since the early 1980s – the sector (and boarding schools above all) has not only priced itself out of reach of the professional middle class, but is now in danger of doing so in relation to the rich foreigners on whose appetite for an elite British education it has become increasingly geared.
Yet even so, albeit largely disguised by grumbles about “the arms race for facilities” and “an almost deranged competition to build theatres, arts centres, technology blocks”, there did seem to be a sense in Hastings’ article that although “it would be a denial of freedom to prevent people [i.e. parents] from choosing to spend their money in this way”, nevertheless we would be a healthier and more cohesive society if we had a much-reduced fee-paying sector.
Which, coming from someone like Hastings and appearing in a paper like The Times (normally staunch supporters of private education), does amount to “a moment” in the ever-fitful, stop-start debate on the private school issue; and, in my case, cue for some personal thoughts on where we should be going.
Two often-touted routes to change remain, in my view, non-starters.
The first is the time-honoured prescription (going back to at least the Attlee government after the war) as now advocated by Hastings: “There must come a moment [that seductive word again] in British politics when some government has the courage and commitment to launch a crusade to raise state school standards. This is the assured way to cause most of their private counterparts to die a natural death.”
Who could possibly argue against state school standards being raised to as high a level as possible?
Or against major infusions of money into a cash-strapped sector in order to make that possible? Certainly not me.
But the awkward, unavoidable fact remains that the financial resources gap between the two sectors is so grotesquely huge (at least 3:1 per pupil, perhaps approaching 4:1) that realistically, even in the medium term, it is most unlikely in any transformative sense to be closed, however much one might wish otherwise.
The other non-starter is outright abolition.
For myself – because I believe it is so fundamentally unfair that children who already have considerable advantages then have those advantages significantly entrenched by being sent to a fee-paying school – I don’t, when it comes to it, have a libertarian problem with the concept of, to coin a phrase, abolishing Eton (not in a physical sense, but in the sense of nationalising it).
However, in the course of many discussions with Francis Green as we wrote our book Engines of Privilege (February 2019), it became impossible to avoid the conclusion that such would be the overwhelming forces of resistance to even a whiff of outright abolition that almost certainly the end-result would be the achievement of nothing; and unfortunately, the political events of last year confirmed that analysis.
The abolitionist route is only feasible if we very deliberately adopt the Finnish model, involving decades of patient consensus-building before eventual decisive action.
Given this country’s politically skewed media landscape, and the prevailing discourse’s impatience with long-term solutions, I’m seriously doubtful whether such an admirable strategy is realistic here.
Which, going ahead, effectively leaves only two approaches: changing the social composition at the private schools themselves; and/or making private education less attractive.
In my view, neither approach is adequate on its own, but instead we need to pursue them jointly – in a consistent, pragmatic, purposeful way – if we are ever going to come near to resolving this whole horrible, morale-sapping issue.
“Changing the social composition” means in practice, through a mixture of means-tested bursaries and state-funded/state-chosen places (what Francis and I in Engines call a Fair Access Scheme, with places funded at the same financial level as state school places), making the fee-paying principle less dominant.
Open to discussion is what proportion of places should be state-funded; open to discussion too are the criteria for allocating those places (personally I favour a range of criteria, weighted in individual cases to the nature of the school itself); but ultimately these are second-order questions.
Sooner rather than later, I suspect, a government of the right – at last taking equality of opportunity seriously – will start implementing this approach, hopefully a much more state-controlled (and less game-able by the middle class) version of the muddled Assisted Places Scheme of the Thatcher/Major era.
But will the left ever accept this approach? Given that the sector is not (to put it mildly) going to do the decent thing and voluntarily fade away, given also that in the here and now it is surely better if these schools (highly resourced and usually good) educate a broad range rather than mainly the over-entitled, I believe it should overcome its natural instinctive reservations and do so.
Such an acceptance would, as part of a broad-based strategy, be entirely consistent with making private education less attractive, mainly through three means:
imposing VAT on school fees (with the proceeds to go direct to state schools);
ending charitable status (important symbolically more than fiscally); and
insisting that leading universities exercise increasingly vigorous positive discrimination about their intakes, so that fee-paying parents may still have the intrinsic satisfaction of knowing that they have purchased a good education for their offspring, but no longer an automatic winning ticket for life’s glittering prizes.
In short, reducing demand – while at the same time soberly recognising that, despite some collateral damage, the walls of Jericho are unlikely to tumble through these policies alone.
None of this, I know full well after some twelve years of following the issue and writing about it, is easy, uncomplicated stuff.
Because it involves children, because it involves class, perhaps above all because it challenges comfortable, self-reinforcing notions of a somehow painless and righteous meritocracy, the private school issue remains an incredibly hard one to stand back from and examine with disinterested rigour.
We all, present writer included, have our prejudices and personal myths – which makes it all the more important that PEPF not only continues as a rational, non-doctrinaire, open-minded forum for information, analysis and debate, but actively flourishes.
In these Covid times, as the zeitgeist palpably becomes more egalitarian, the prize of a more equitable educational system, and in turn a more equitable society, may be more within our grasp than we perhaps yet realise.
David Kynaston is a professional historian. He is best known for his trilogy of books (Austerity Britain, Family Britain and Modernity Britain) about post-war Britain. His most recent book is Shots in the Dark: A Diary of Saturday Dreams and Strange Times. He is a co-founder of PSPR.