HomeOpinion"Less interference in state schools would encourage private schools with strong values...

“Less interference in state schools would encourage private schools with strong values to convert”

Priscilla Alderson

Did you know that the Quaker values in education are integrity, equality, simplicity, community, stewardship of the Earth, and peace?

Earlier this year, a Quaker group discussed how to promote life-long Quaker and socialist values in state schools and in Quaker private schools.

Members of QVine (Quaker values in education) listened to Francis Green, professor of work and education economics at the Institute of Education UCL, speak about his book, coauthored with David Kynaston, Engines of Privilege: Britain’s Private School Problem. 

Francis discussed the democratic deficit: private schools educate seven per cent of children in Britain, but they account for over 16 per cent of the money spent in British schools, and have 14 per cent of Britian’s teachers. 

The schools’ ample resources, libraries, labs, drama theatres and sports facilities, help these students to become the well-paid leaders in all areas of public life. 

They benefit from networks of influential and wealthy contacts, friends and marriage partners. The graph below shows the percentage of privately educated members of some professions:

Francis, who was educated at a leading private school, works on reforms to address these injustices. He collects evidence on the schools’ impact on society, promotes fresh thinking and debate, and he shows how private schools could be reduced such as through higher taxes and through integrating them more with the state system. He ended by asking if there could be Quaker free state schools.

As a bit of context, almost all British Quaker schools are private schools with fees of around £33,000 to £43,000 a year for senior boarders. There was hope in the 1950s that state schools would improve so much there would be no need for private schools. However, that hasn’t happened.

Now the Quaker Socialist Society is concerned that over the past decades, differences in spending, resources and outcomes between the two sectors have continually increased.

Finland, often described as having the best education system in the world, has no private schools, and private schools in most European countries are much more like state schools than in the UK.

But in Britain, private schools exert control over society through their lifelong impact on their former pupils who become the ‘ruling class’.

This issue came up in our meeting, where there was general concern about sending children away from their families to school, especially at younger ages, with the lack of daily loving family contact and local friends. 

Some great people have attended boarding school, but many others suffer from ‘boarding school syndrome’. This is shown in extreme forms by Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, but also in the out-of-touch attitudes displayed by Rishi Sunak and David Cameron, Michael Gove (cutting arts and sports in state schools), and even in the former head of Ofsted Amanda Spielman, and many others. 

Yet the British public repeatedly vote for politicians educated in private values, who keep privatising national services. Meanwhile privately educated billionaires own most of the media, and through them powerfully influence public opinion and elections.   

 Here are some of the debating points – and dilemmas – raised at the meeting:

  1. “Quaker private schools have the freedom to promote Quaker values in ways state schools cannot.” 

One contributor pointed out Quaker schools are peaceful and allow students to be individuals, learning ‘to get along with each other and having the space and the respect for each other’ with none of the bullying seen in large class sizes. 

Quakers promote peace education, ever more crucial with the growth of armed conflicts, talk of planning for future wars, and promotion of the military in some British schools. Quakers work with restorative justice to help children to build fairer communities and tackle inequalities, to act against bullying and take responsibility for their relationships. 

By contrast, an early years specialist thought the government’s policy of ‘young children being told things and being instructed’ just doesn’t work. She had helped to set up Sure Start, the multi-professional initiative to support parents established under Labour, which has now been dismantled by the Conservative Party. It shows just how much education can be damaged by the ministers running the state.

The contributor was also ‘absolutely horrified’ at Ofsted’s destructive assessments of schools. ‘People used to come from around the world to look at our primary education a generation ago. It was so enlightened, so learner-centred. I won’t call it child-centred because the teachers were learning as well, and it was an adventure, we led the world. I have been all around the world telling people about our primary and early years education. It is tragic that we’ve lost all of that. We just need a political change.’ 

Similarly, another contributor who has taught in state and private schools said he found more interest in talking about the purpose of education in a Quaker school than when he had worked in a range of state schools from urban to rural settings. Quaker schools were more interested in ideas such as: a) Preparing students to take part in future local and global communities; b) learning about the environment crisis; c) Education about diversity and inclusion. 

Meanwhile one headteacher of a Quaker school said how private tutoring, and catchment areas (where state schools increasingly reflect their privileged or disadvantaged local housing and communities) undermine real equality between state schools anyway.

2. “Children may also enjoy boarding school”

One person recalled asking her parents to send her to boarding school, which she enjoyed. The youngest of three sisters, she did not want to follow her sisters through their school, and she was pleased that her chosen school helped her and others each to develop their own individual life. 

3. “Devote more money to the state sector.”

Others thought that ‘for a very wealthy country we don’t devote enough of our resource to education’. The wealthy should pay higher taxes, and state schools should be less ‘run as tick boxes’ with an over-prescriptive curriculum, and should be more freely creative.

We need a ‘national debate about what education is for and who it is for’.  Another contribitor said that if more parents stayed with the state sector and helped to improve it with positive parental support, far more money and resources would flow into state schools.   

Others thought that more private schools could become state schools – but another contributor believed the state sector would struggle to take on ancient, Grade 1- listed buildings that are so costly to maintain. 

4. “However, state schools have values very similar to Quaker values, though they might not call them that.”

But many state schools are very like Quaker schools, another contributor pointed out. They respect the individual’s space for children to be themselves. They listen to children, respect them and work with them.

They try to work creatively within the constraints of the curriculum, with a strong sense of community. Some schools with a ‘massive cross section of backgrounds’, often in quite deprived areas, have extremely good practice and ‘many primary schools do amazing work’.

We should heed the Children’s Manifesto written by thousands of children who sent their beautiful ideas about what kinds of schools they would like.  

Another teacher, who was sent to boarding school at an early age, later taught in a state comprehensive, quite a ‘rough sink school’.

He thought it produced ‘far more rounded, kind, tolerant characters’ than most people he knows who went to private schools.

He mentioned books such as Sad Little Men, about how private boarding schools ‘churn out very damaged people’, who feel a lack of love. Apart from abuse in the schools, he believes it is abusive to send a child away to boarding school. 

5. “We should close private schools.”

One socialist doubted that state schools’ finances could be boosted to private school levels, and he favoured dismantling the private sector. 

Another Quaker socialist spoke personally. ‘I’ll be really radical. We should simply get rid of private schools. I’ve always believed that socialist equality is the most important Quaker value.

‘But I’m told “that’s simply not possible, not feasible, don’t be ridiculous and idealistic, get into the real world”. That’s where I am this evening. I haven’t heard any views as radical as mine.’

Some other people showed their agreement. 

In a closing commentary, Francis noted that one possibility is to make it much easier for private schools in trouble to transfer into the state sector.

Some Quaker schools might act as a kind of a model or leading light for this, and there was interest in setting up a Quaker free school.

Two final thoughts

I clerked the meeting so did not give my views there, but here I will add two personal comments. 

First, a main theme was the relationship between individuals and the systems we live within. To socialists, the overriding system is social class. Equality therefore means inclusion across all classes and (dis)abilities as well as across gender, ethnicity and international backgrounds.

Equality flourishes in inclusive local schools when all kinds of children learn and work together, supported by the mixed local community and the elected local authority. 

This state system began to be broken up with semi-privatised academies, growing informal selection by schools, and competition between them – all policies promoted by former boarding schoolboys Tony Blair, David Blunkett and Andrew Adonis. 

Second, a thought inspired by German social theorist Jurgen Habermas. He contrasted the System (State and Market) with the Lifeworld (personal life, free associations). 

Under capitalism, the System colonises the Lifeworld, such as by trying to price everything. 

Many people believe that children need a daily balance between school (formal System of public life, rules and conformity) and home (private Lifeworld of family, friends, free play and community) to nurture the values of integrity, equality, simplicity, community, stewardship of the Earth, and peace.  

But both state and private schools, which involve children’s private lives and friendships, increasingly colonise, control and manage children’s lives and thoughts to produce future workers, in ways we need to question.

Reducing government interference in state schools, ensuring adequate funding, and returning more choice, control and flexibility to teachers – all these measures could encourage Quaker private schools to consider moving into the state system. 

Priscilla Alderson is a professor emerita at the Institute of Education, University College London and a Quaker Socialist Society member.


  1. Perhaps model schools in some respects. However Quakers (I am one) might do more to protect young children from early attachment trauma in their own boarding schools and those that ‘feed’ them.
    A minimum age for boarding would be a start. Unbelievable that IICSA overlooked any such recommendation.

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