Home Opinion The Long Read: Reform ideas just have to find their moment

The Long Read: Reform ideas just have to find their moment

Malcolm Gaskill

Labour and private schools

On 22 September 2019 the Labour Party conference voted to include the abolition of private education in its next manifesto. ‘We did it!’, tweeted Labour Against Private Schools, the pressure group behind the motion. A Labour government’s first budget, promised shadow education secretary Angela Rayner, would end a system where a child’s life chances are determined by parental wealth, part of Corbyn’s ‘most ambitious and radical campaign for real change our country has ever seen’. Yet shadow chancellor John McDonnell quickly rowed back. There would be no ‘draconian measures’ such as asset seizure, rather a phased integration of private schools, beginning with widening public access to services and facilities, and the removal of the tax breaks linked to charitable status.

McDonnell’s intervention rang alarm bells. The vote was widely described as ‘historic’, meaning ‘unprecedented’ but could mean ‘we’ve been here before’. A previous Labour manifesto decried private schools as ‘a major obstacle to equality of opportunity’, pledging ‘to end, as soon as possible, fee-paying in such schools’. That was in 1979. Labour lost the election, but might not have kept its promise even if they’d won. Six years earlier Roy Hattersley, as shadow education secretary, had declared the party’s ‘serious intention initially to reduce and eventually to abolish private education in this country’. But Harold Wilson wasn’t keen, and on becoming prime minister in March 1974 found a more complaisant minister. Then came Neil Kinnock, who at the 1980 Labour conference vowed to spend a decade dismantling the private education sector. Accordingly, the 1983 manifesto – Michael Foot’s ‘longest suicide note in history’ – resolved to scrap public schools’ charitable status and tax privileges, impose VAT on fees, and merge the sectors.  

Had Labour failed to deliver on the radical agenda of the 1960s? ‘All who desire equality of opportunity and social justice’, read a policy statement of 1958, ‘will agree that the existence of this privileged sector of education is undesirable’. The aspiration was to raise state standards to private levels, but three years later opinion had shifted to abolition, reflected the 1964 manifesto. Accusing private schools of frustrating ‘any ideal of social cohesion or democracy’, Anthony Crosland recommended their assimilation ‘to create a more genuine equality of opportunity by limiting the power of the rich to buy social privilege through buying a privileged education’. Yet in 1965, when Crosland became education minister, he told his wife: ‘If truth be known, I’m not frightfully interested in the public schools at this moment’. Libertarianism got the better of his radicalism: parents should be free to pay for education. One such parent was Douglas Jay, Labour’s president of the board of trade, who sent his sons to his school, Winchester, remarking at an old boys’ dinner: ‘Don’t worry. We may say a lot, but we’ll never do anything’.

            Earlier in Labour’s annals we find Attlee, indifferent and devoted to his alma mater, Haileybury, and later New Labour, led by another public schoolboy at pains ‘to wean the party off its old prejudices’. Before 1997, David Blunkett opposed private schools being charities, but in office had to pursue Blair’s ‘constructive collaboration’ between sectors. In 2005 Alan Milburn, chair of a parliamentary committee for education, reprised Blunkett’s idea, adding that private schools should earn their tax breaks by demonstrating wider ‘public benefit’. The subsequent Charities Act, however, spurned Milburn’s recommendation, which for 13 years kept things sweet between government and private schools. Blair’s memoirs applaud free enterprise in education, echoing Thatcher’s exhortation at Bloxham School in 1971: ‘Please never apologise for independence. It is worth stimulating and nurturing for its own sake . . . It is for those who wish to finish it who have to justify their case’. Well into this century Labour Party barely demurred. In 2014 shadow minister Tristram Hunt planned to revoke business rate relief for private schools, but the thought faded and Labour lost the next election anyway. In September 2015 Corbyn became party leader, raising hopes the problem might at last be solved.

The problem

The problem, if it needs restating, is that the 6 per cent of British children at private schools enjoy three times the resources of state-educated peers, and so have a better start in life. Deprivation and disruptive homes also impede early development; but this is more an argument against educational inequality than one in its defence: education should be a lifeline. Fee-paying parents and the schools they fund game the system on behalf of their pupils, especially when it comes to securing elite university places: a school’s pursuit of unfair advantages is part of its appeal. Most comprehensives send no pupils to Oxbridge, whereas just twelve private schools send five hundred a year. The privately educated flood the professions, in the judiciary at a level ten times what would be proportionate. And like the gift that keeps on giving, private education opens doors into the professional and personal networks that hoard privilege: there’s even a dating site, Toffee, exclusive to public school alumni. It can’t be quite right. But when it comes to doing the best for one’s children, liberal parents switch off their consciences to allow ends to justify means, and the rest shrug that life itself is unfair. Some think they deserve tax breaks for saving the state money – as, presumably, do childless couples for not using NHS maternity services, and car drivers for freeing up public transport. A common cry is that the problem is poor state funding not good private schools. Simon Henderson, headmaster of Eton, dismisses Labour’s proposals as ‘abolishing excellence’. But, of course, what matters to disadvantaged children is not a blame-game, but the gap in opportunity they must face, one that could be narrowed by movement on both sides.

The obstacles to reform are no less obvious, and daunting even to a determined government. Anthony Sampson warned that ‘the complicated grafting of public schools on to [Oxbridge] colleges, of prep schools on to public schools, has produced over the decades a tangled thicket of roots, branches and trunks’. Who would dare swing the axe? Baroness Mary Warnock added that these schools command ‘a kind of loyalty which is largely irrational’, sustaining a power about which ‘nothing much can be done’. Resistance stirs in institutions from the armed forces to the Church of England, their leadership class-bound and instinctively self-replicating. Even mild criticism provokes fast, furious rebuttals. The Independent Schools Council, representing 1,300 institutions, issues a statement every time a politician, campaigner or journalist speaks out. The chair of Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, Fiona Boulton, believes Labour’s latest proposal, ‘based on ignorance and desire to damage’ and inimical to ‘independence and choice’, will lose the party votes. This was Crosland’s fear, one shared by Tony Benn who, says his daughter Melissa, opposed abolition ‘on the grounds that you can’t take away the legal right of people to spend their money as they wish’. And now the European Convention on Human Rights may even protect this liberty. The law has other pitfalls. The 2006 Charities Act, which required schools to prove public benefit, was hit by a 2011 ruling blurring the definition of that benefit. Finally, although many schools have drifted from their founders’ philanthropic intentions, they have evolved around their endowments, such that restoration of ancient charters would tie the courts up for years.

Another impediment is that left-wing politics and media swarm with privately educated people who send their children to private schools, inviting accusations of hypocrisy. Having criticised Harriet Harman for choosing selective schooling, Diane Abbott got into a mess by going private herself. To put her son before her principles was, she admitted, ‘inconsistent, to put it mildly, for someone who believes in a fairer and more egalitarian society’. Fiona Millar, an astute critic, has suggested such Labour politicians should be isolated from the party’s education work. This dissonance wasn’t a problem for Labour prime ministers Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, neither privately educated yet privately educating. By 1997, however, it had become a tight spot for Blair, who, like Harman, sent his children to the London Oratory, an elite state school. Even arch-Etonian David Cameron squirmed until safely out of office and able to revert to class convention.

A shift in public mood

This discomfort may indicate a shift in the wider mood. Polls favourable to public schools suggest most people defend the right to choose, yet a comparable majority thinks private schools are unfair and should pay their way. The question of charitable status and proving public benefit refuses to slip beneath the radar of discourse as it used to after every election. It’s increasingly hard to avoid the numbers: annual savings for private schools of £2.5 billion through exemption from VAT on fees, corporation tax, and business rates – enough to build 100 comprehensives. In 2020 Scotland’s schools will be liable for business rates, the first British reform in a generation. The legislation to bring private schools under the state aegis is not impossible: after all, the law stopped grammar schools charging fees and forbids the building of new ones. Furthermore, the European Convention on Human Rights is not sovereign: parliament is, and soon the UK won’t be bound by it anyway. Reasonable voices advocate radical solutions, no longer the preserve of Trotskyites dreaming of a leveller paradise. The status quo is under review.

            Private School Policy Reform (PSPR) is a think tank and discussion forum, which includes Francis Green, an economist, David Kynaston, a historian, Robert Verkaik, a journalist, and the campaigner Melissa Benn. All have written books addressing the inequity of resourcing and positional advantage blighting education. Skipping much of the history related by Kynaston and Verkaik, Benn imagines a National Education Service, a world-class cradle-to-grave provision involving state-private integration, for which, she believes, the moral argument is unprecedentedly compelling. Verkaik steers his argument towards ‘slow euthanasia’ – a kind of abolition, although ‘integration’ is really a less inflammatory term. These writers all advocate patient, candid, inclusive debate, free of accusations of hypocrisy or ‘the politics of envy’. Radicals may scorn the civil tone, but it can work. In the 1970s, after a decade of calm, consensus-nurturing public discussion, Finland effectively abolished private education. This might explain Neil Kinnock’s ten-year forecast for change, although the Finns never prophesied ‘Armageddon’, as Kinnock did.

All reforming initiatives are flawed

            Green and Kynaston respect private schools’ efforts to broaden admissions and build state partnerships. Not enough gets done, yet some have tight economic margins. The Common Entrance exam, instrument of selection to public schools, is in decline, undermining the raison d’être of preparatory schools. Many private secondary schools, moreover, are not very good and already struggling. In the marketplace, their brand isn’t strong enough to embrace diversity, which dilutes the exclusivity parents pay for. How many will go bust, time will tell. But with demands to abolish private education comes the private sector’s plea for state support – an established practice, subsidised bursaries being the traditional means to access private resources. Thatcher’s ‘Assisted Places Scheme’ (APS) helped 75,000 pupils, but in 1997 was abolished as clumsy and expensive. More recently, the Sutton Trust, which promotes social mobility, has developed an ‘Open Access Scheme’ (OAS), where all places at participating schools are offered needs-blind. Green and Kynaston take this forward with a ‘Fair Access Scheme’, replacing the voluntary principle with legal compulsion. All private schools would allot a ‘significant proportion’ – the authors suggest a third, which could increase over time – of places to children from modest backgrounds, covered from the public purse at a flat rate, means-tested as with APS yet decided by the state. As with the OAS, schools would make up the odds by increasing fees and scaling back on the lavish extras that glitter in prospectuses. The most cash-strapped schools would take the smallest hit; for some it might even mean salvation. To level the playing field further, Green and Kynaston advocate ‘contextual admissions’: a universal, transparent process of weighting applied to the exam grade offers and tariff points that determine university entry. In 2016 Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, began offering a free foundation year for disadvantaged applicants, the main criterion that they had never attended a private school.

            Private schools will fight to survive. The sector is booming – no developed country spends more than the UK: £9 billion on fees alone – but there’s no room for complacency, especially if VAT is imposed. This would be a bitterer pill than losing charitable status, which has mainly symbolic value; new schools forego it to avoid having to justify themselves. So change is stirring within and without the sector. By 2014 ninety independent schools had joined the OAS, which with sufficient state funding – as yet unforthcoming – would transfer 42,000 pupils to the private sector. These ninety are exceptions to prove a more obstinate rule, yet the direction of travel encourages reformers. Anthony Seldon, former headmaster of Wellington, suggests a quarter of private school places should go to deprived children, for which the government would give one-and-a-half times the cost of a state education and allow schools to control admissions. Neither proviso would be permitted under Green and Kynaston’s scheme, yet Seldon’s plan would, they concede, lead to ‘a notable diminution in the social exclusivity of the top private day schools’. Some schools are rediscovering the original terms of their endowments. St George’s School in Harpenden used to be private, but is a now an endowed state academy. By exam results alone it is the third best state school in England; it also produced three members of England’s rugby squad in the 2019 World Cup. The state-educated Joe Spence, head of Dulwich College, is keen to return to the school’s first principles.

All reforming initiatives are flawed. Needs-blind admissions policies, for which the top US universities are exemplars, require huge endowments. Most schools would need £100-200 million; Eton £1 billion. Harvard has £27 billion. State-private partnerships, though much trumpeted by the donors, are often half-hearted. Former Ofsted chief Michael Wilshaw has argued that private schools must sponsor state schools – witness Anthony Seldon’s creation of the ‘outstanding’ Wellington Academy in 2009. But capitalism has a catch. ‘From a free-market perspective’, writes Verkaik, ‘it makes little sense for public schools to invest resources into making competitor state schools better so that parents will no longer need to educate their children privately’. Then there is the admissions bugbear – independence means autonomy, incompatible with universal protocols – as well as objections to diverting public money to the private sector. Even gestures, however, reflect and promote recognition that inequality exists and demands attention.

            The root of inequality is selection by ability as well as by wealth. Twenty years ago, the educational philosopher Harry Brighouse insisted that abolishing public schools was not just impossible (owing to the Human Rights Act), but obscured a more valuable objective: preventing private schools creaming off the most able pupils. The education journalist Laura McInerney argues that abolition would simply send the middle classes to live near the best state schools, imposing their own de facto selective admissions procedure. If Eton became a comprehensive, what would happen to house prices in the catchment area? India forestalls postcode lotteries with a real one: randomly distributing 25 per cent of private school places to ‘economically weak’ students. It seems mad, but perhaps that’s what it takes to beat the hard logic of marketisation. Barely two per cent of Finnish children are privately educated, but it’s illegal to select them by how clever they are.

The Conservatives and private school

Nor are misgivings about selection by wealth or ability unique to the left. In a speech of 1940 Churchill predicted that after the war it would be necessary ‘to establish a state of society where the advantages and privileges which hitherto have been enjoyed by only the few shall be far more widely shared by the many’. This Corbyn-esque formulation is striking, especially given the venue: Churchill’s school, Harrow. Churchill delivered the 1944 Education Act, which provided free secondary education up to fifteen, and told Rab Butler, whose act it was, that he wanted public schools filled with bursary boys – the same wish Orwell made in ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ in 1941. Butler stalled, but the sentiment was neither socialist nor eccentric: some years earlier Cyril Norwood, headmaster of Harrow, argued for state control of public schools, lamenting how segregation made boys regard each other like ‘strange dogs’. The young state-educated Ted Heath wrote about ‘abolishing inequality of education’ (though later defended fee-paying parents’ rights). Another non-public-school prime minister, John Major, found the preponderance of Etonians in government ‘truly shocking’, outrage shared by Michael Gove, the most outspoken Tory frontbencher of recent times, who called it ‘preposterous’. In June 2016 Theresa May deplored the professions’ state-private imbalance in her ‘vision of a country that works not for the privileged few but for everyone’. Three months later, as prime minister, she accused public schools of being ‘more and more divorced from normal life’, demanding they do more to qualify as charities. Johnson’s pledge to close the ‘opportunity gap between rich and poor’ may prove pre-election window dressing, but a commitment to the OAS could appear in the Tory manifesto.

For May, like Thatcher before her, grammar schools were flagships of a ‘great meritocracy’, which through the eleven-plus exam, introduced in 1944, rewarded raw ability and hard work. This created, in Benn’s words, ‘one of the most romantic cultural narratives of post-war Britain’, a self-help myth about escape from the doldrums. But not all Tories like grammar schools, which, like private schools, isolate the best from the rest, forcing a divide in self-worth as devastating as Calvinist theology: the elect separated from the reprobate. As former Tory education spokesman David Willetts observed, ‘academic selection entrenches advantage, it does not spread it’. England’s 163 grammar schools, mostly situated in Kent and Lincolnshire, have flourished under the Tories. But the most compelling story of the past twenty years belongs to state academies, the brainchild of New Labour expanded by Conservative administrations. They emulate the ambition of public schools, cherish independence, and engage the free market. What’s for a Tory not to like? Three-quarters of state secondary schools are now academies, and though some outperform others they admit everyone, with straplines like ‘a grammar school education for all’. England’s grammars may yet become non-selective, at which point the eleven-plus will vanish. After a long, measured campaign, in 2016 Guernsey finally unified its grammar school and three secondary moderns.

Benn attributes this centre-ground consensus not to mounting disquiet about privilege, but to the success of comprehensive education since the 1970s. As former chair of the campaign group ‘Comprehensive Future’, she considers the 1944 Education Act to have reinforced the ‘great social divide’ symbolized by public schools. ‘So much of the history and practice of early comprehensive education’, she writes, ‘has been forgotten or woefully misrepresented in the media and political mainstream and too lazily conflated with sloppy standards, poor discipline and working-class failure’. Comprehensive education actually opened up new opportunities, not least the possibility of going to university, for children who otherwise would have failed the eleven-plus and been consigned to demoralizingly limited secondary moderns. Non-selective state schools see the best in every child, not just those who pass an exam at a tender age or whose parents are well off. This generation-long silent revolution has, Benn believes, ‘changed our deepest attitudes for the better’.

            These three books ask questions about the society we are and want to become. Defence of educational choice concentrates on parental rights rather than those of children – the right to a fair start in life. Green and Kynaston cite Isaiah Berlin’s ‘two concepts of liberty’, distinguishing between natural freedom and freedom limited by the rights of others. Locke was also clear that liberty in a civil society must be reciprocal or risk absolutism or anarchy. If we have reached a propitious moment for reform, it coincides with the greatest urgency to unite as a nation since the Second World War. Twentieth-century catastrophes exposed the weakness of aristocratic leadership and galvanized public determination to rebuild. Churchill’s Harrow speech was not a warning of revolution; it was a clarion call to improve national efficiency. Nick Duffell, a therapist who treats ‘boarding school survivors’, believes a country that chooses its leaders overwhelmingly from public schools is a feeble one. The entitlement, the swagger, the bullshit are the trappings of unrepresentative leaders who make bad, self-interested decisions. Boris is so insanely confident, notes Duffell, he ‘needs neither surname nor adult haircut’.

The circle of mutual interests

Education underpins democracy, now assailed locally – witness corporate management of academies – and in parliament, strangely cast as ‘the enemy of the people’. Hierarchies are unavoidable, but the gaps between demarcations, widened by deprivation – four million citizens live in persistent poverty, including 1-in-5 of all children – are dangerously unbridged by relationships built on respect, empathy, or any kind of human understanding. Instead we have what Raymond Williams called ‘the larger selfishness’, when we need a nexus of communication and fellow feeling called ‘community’. It’s a force for good when parents across the classes have a stake in local schools, and can exert pressure for better funding and standards – a case of David Goodhart’s ‘circle of mutual interests’. Fee-paying parents remove themselves from the circle, and help their schools foster divisive networks not unifying communities. Equally, it’s healthy for children as proto-citizens to engage with a social mix at school. Academic segregation is, too often, segregation by class, etching lines of difference inscribed ever more deeply, and for the majority painfully, as children grow up. ‘Democracy doesn’t require perfect equality’, Michael J. Sandel, professor of political philosophy at Harvard, told the Labour Party conference in 2012, ‘but it does require that citizens share a common life’.

            In Britain, as Verkaik observes, ‘private education is a hard habit to kick’. But it’s not essential to our species, futile to resist. Melissa Benn suggests we stop behaving ‘as if private schools were not human creations but unchallengeable phenomena like the weather’. Other countries – France, Germany, Sweden, the US – draw their politicians, bureaucrats, lawyers, and business leaders from public education, and have only small private sectors catering for religious denominations and special needs. Nordic countries don’t underestimate their children, to advance social justice and exploit their talents. According to Diane Reay, professor of education at Cambridge, Finns ‘can’t understand why the most powerful people in society would want to segregate themselves from everybody else’. Any former desire for private education subsided when temptation was removed, and standards soared. According to the Programme for International Student Assessment, Finland, the eleventh largest economy, is one of three non-Asian countries in the top five in any subject; the UK, the fifth largest economy, is 27th in maths and 23nd in reading.

Change can happen and it can benefit everyone; ideas just have to find their moment. Perhaps it will happen soon.

Malcolm Gaskill is professor of early modern history at the University of East Anglia. A Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, he specialises in the social and cultural history of seventeenth-century England and America, and is the author of five books, including Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy (2005) and Between Two Worlds: How the English Became Americans (2014).

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