Home Opinion The Long Read: Private schools and the press

The Long Read: Private schools and the press

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Melissa Benn

2019 was, by any standards, a remarkable one for anyone interested in the private school problem. 

For the first time in decades, following the publication of several hard-hitting books and the formation of two very different campaigns, the question was debated widely. At its autumn conference, the Labour Party passed a radical motion calling for outright abolition of the sector, although within hours of the vote being taken the party’s leadership had rowed back from such an unequivocal stance.

But 2019 is notable also for what it teaches us about the quality and nature of public debate around this enduringly controversial issue.

As the problem of private education climbed up the political and national news agenda, it generated frequent and voluble press coverage. Part of this was made up of pieces by reformers, their contributions largely packaged as opinion pieces; some of these reformers are founder members of Private Education Policy Forum (PEPF).

The vast majority of the coverage was packaged as straight reportage. As private schools became of more interest, greater attention was paid to previously less publicised aspects of the modern independent sector (such as the rapid growth of overseas schools or the current state of private/state school partnerships).

A stronger beam was now directed at discrepancies in fairness between private and state provision – for example, in relation to the perceived difference in the iGCSE and the new ‘harder’ GCSE, or the greater resources available to independent schools for remarking of exams and so on. 

And while general reporting of the private school issue is supposedly neutral, it was striking how often headlines, or language used within a news report were, and remain, clearly sympathetic towards this ‘threatened’ sector (threaten was a word that appeared often.)

One of the very few exceptions was The Guardian’s editorial on private schools, which stated it “cannot be right that the freedom to spend one’s money to buy a head start in life at the expense of everyone else prevails when the widespread antisocial effects of such practices are so obvious”.

Added to this otherwise largely uncritical mix was a significant clutch of hostile pieces from private sector leaders about reform proposals of various different kinds. Of course, there is likely a difference between the public and private face of private schools; internally, some private school leaders definitely see the need for change, and understand that the system is unfair.

Yet the public face of these schools has been solid, particularly over the last 18 months:  defensive and offensive forces aligned, all pulling together at a time of what some clearly saw as an existential crisis. 

The Tes, in general a private-school friendly magazine, gave a regular platform to opponents of reform proposals but less so to supporters.

From the vantage point of 2020, with a majority Tory government safely re-elected, it is now possible to see 2019 as a concentrated example of Reaction in Action.

Sensing a loss in public support, and deeply fearing a reforming Labour government, the private sector fought back, speedily and strategically, determined to discredit any criticism, or indeed objective representation, of the sector.

For the benefit of future reform campaigns, it is therefore useful to look more closely at press coverage of this key period,  to see what we can learn from this reaction and over reaction, and how it influenced public and political opinion. For this piece, we will focus mainly on English private schools, as the policy situation in Scotland is significantly different.

A series of powerful myths: late 2018-2019

The volume of coverage of private education in 2019 was impressive; it also grew exponentially over the year. Our review does not claim to be exhaustive but draws on a news log run by PEPF. From this we can see that while there was a scattering of reportage in May, the PEPF site logged 50 articles in September 2019, 20 in October and 47 in November.

Reading through these hundred and twenty plus pieces it is clear that, whatever the type of article or the particular angle being pursued, a number of motifs regularly recurred:  a series of powerful myths about contemporary private education deliberately nurtured by private school leaders and enthusiastically taken up by the ‘small c’ conservative press. 

These include the idea that: 

  • contemporary private schools are far more socially diverse than generally portrayed

  • most parents are ‘sacrificing’ a great deal to send their children there

  • that there would be a major and destructive financial and human cost to reform

  • that social inequalities within the state sector are as bad, if not worse, than private school inequalities

  • that state school students somehow enjoy an unfair advantage over their private school peers in terms of university access

  • and, finally, that private-state school partnerships are significantly transforming and reducing inequalities.

Add to this, a more general accusation frequently and indiscriminately flung at all reformers (not just those who have advocated outright abolition and ‘seizure of assets’): 

  • that those who seek change are practicing the politics of envy and that they deliberately pursue destructive, irresponsible or unrealistic strategies

‘Toxic’ is a term frequently used by the independent sector in relation to its critics. It was often suggested, during 2019, that those proposing ‘integration’ were merely using ‘weasel words’ to hide their actual wish to destroy private education.

This attitude found its apogee with the claim made in May 2019 that ‘private pupils [are] being discriminated against like Jews in Nazi Germany’, a claim made by Anthony Wallerstein, the head of Stowe public school.

However, a less obvious but equally significant aspect of 2019 press coverage was the almost complete absence of voices from the state sector.

While numerous heads of private schools or private sector leaders were frequently and generously quoted on a wide range of issues, either defending their particular school or sector or denouncing reformers, very few single state school leaders make an appearance in the press: either they were not invited for comment or, in the current climate, state school leaders find it safer not to put themselves or their views forward.

‘Private schools are socially diverse’

One of the regularly recurring tropes of 2019 was that of a contemporary private sector that is ‘socially diverse’ or, as TES opinion piece by private school teacher David James suggested, ‘less privileged than you think’ (3 September 2019).

Another TES piece claimed that ‘Private schools need to bust the “myth” that their pupils consist of “white, wealthy boys wearing a top hat” (25 November 2019).

According to ISC chief executive Julie Robinson the sector is up against a stereotype of independent school pupils. ‘Our experience is that there is a kind of a tokenism around at the moment, partly, possibly around the new prime minister…possibly that has made things worse for us. But the reality of our sector is it’s very inclusive, it’s very diverse.’’’

 A Daily Telegraph opinion piece, later in that same month, criticising Labour’s reform proposals, expressed this argument in terms of the supposedly generous bursary schemes within the private sector: ‘Currently, over a third of all pupils in private schools registered under the Independent Schools Council (ISC) receive help with their fees, the vast majority provided by the schools themselves, to the tune of £860 million annually’ (14 September 2019).

Eton’s headmaster later claimed that: ‘Eton in 2019 is a much more inclusive and diverse population than it was previously’ (23 September 2019).

Far from being a block on social mobility, much press coverage suggested that private schools are in fact in the vanguard when it comes to educating some of our poorest children.  In a priceless contribution in late 2018, HMC executive director Mike Buchanan hailed bursaries as ‘socialism in action’

Disproportionate attention is paid to highly unusual schools like Christ’s Hospital or Bolton School for Girls (Bolton’s head, Sue Hincks, took part in PEPF’s launch debate) which have far more generous bursary arrangements than the majority of independent schools. There was also substantive coverage of a tiny percentage of boarding schools that have taken in children previously living in care.

None of these claims stand up to objective scrutiny. Yes, not all private schools are Eton with their forty thousand plus annual fees but, on average, parents are spending £18,000 a year on private school fees, about half the median household income.

In terms of bursaries, private schools, on average, only four percent of funds are spent on bursaries (F. Green and D. Kynaston Engines of Privilege, p.186), and just one percent of children are privately educated for free.

Moreover, relative to their fees bursaries are not becoming any more generous than they were a decade ago. The schools do know these general truths, but of course it would not have helped their defensive arguments to publicise them.

However, the myth-spreading journalists ought to know them and ensure they give opportunity for them to be challenged in news pieces.

‘Parental sacrifice’

The myth of social diversity is fed by the related myth of parental sacrifice and/or hardship. Here, we find another example of significant absence in this febrile debate. Reviewing 2019 coverage, we could not find a single piece authored by a parent with a high annual income and/or drawing on their own, or wider family, assets to pay school fees. 

Such families form the large majority of private school parents but, as a distinct cohort, offering their opinion or relating their experience of private education, they are completely silent in contemporary public debate.

In contrast, one regularly comes across reference to parents struggling mightily to pay private school fees, often in order avoid an inadequate state sector.  ‘Many of the parents who choose to send their children to an independent school do so at considerable personal sacrifice: foregoing expensive holidays or new cars’, writes Murdo Fraser in the Scotsman (14 August 2019).

Writing in the Independent, Kate Townsend begins her piece (an article generally in favour of private school reform) with the usual caveats:  ‘I was once a privately educated school girl. It was a day school in industrial Coventry, not Eton… I was on a part scholarship so my parents were hardly wiring in the money from some sort of tax-haven located mansion… It doesn’t matter that my parents came from working class backgrounds, or that they sacrificed a great deal to send me to a fee-paying school’ (23 September 2019). 

In one letter to the Independent, a private school parent writes of how ‘horrified and scared’ she is of Corbyn’s manifesto, in part because ‘my husband and I work very hard to send our children to a private faith school’. 

 But what is the real evidence from government surveys? Data derived from ONS Living Costs and Food Surveys from 2004–2015 reveals that, on average, families with children at private school spend more, not less, on luxuries like holidays. How can this be? Because on average they have more wealth to spend on both private school fees and holidays.

 ‘Alternative inequalities’

One of the most common accusations flung against reformers is their failure to face up to ‘alternative inequalities’ within the state sector. In a September speech to prep school heads and governors, Christopher King, the chief executive of the Independent Association of Prep Schools (IAPS) ‘accused critics of the sector of being hypocrites for allowing “selection by postcode and house price”, when parents buy expensive houses close to leading state schools.’

Picking up on King’s claim, The Times ran a piece with the headline: ‘Buying homes near good schools is ‘worse than going private’ (21 September 2019).

Six days later, it followed up with ‘Private school fees: is it cheaper to move to a good state catchment area?’

Writing in the Forge magazine for the university of St Andrews, Lucy Moses, arguing against Labour’s ‘hunger’ to tear down private schools, claimed that ‘House prices within the catchment areas of the best state schools have skyrocketed. It was reported that in London, parents were willing to pay an average of 15 per cent more to live in the vicinity of their first choice school… only the wealthiest parents will be able to afford to live in the areas which house the best schools’ (10 October 2019)

 Again, these inequalities are exaggerated and are dwarfed by the three to one resource gap between the spending on private and state school pupils.

Lessons to be learned

Taken as a whole, press coverage during this period created an overall impression of an embattled and socially just private sector, nurturing the creativity and ‘wellness’ of a diverse range of pupils, constantly under threat from political meddling and consistently ignored and misrepresented by politics and trade unions.

Indeed, a new myth set afloat last year was that the teacher trade unions are failing in their duty to protect their members who work in private schools from the destructive impact of reforms (16 September 2019).

As we have shown, these myths are often based on exaggerations, false generalisations from particular ideal examples, even wishful thinking.

Occasionally, however, there were some truly startling mistakes – as for example when The Times was required to correct a gross error to its lead front page story which had claimed that private schools saved the Exchequer 20 billion pounds a year.

Many readers, however, would not have seen the correction, but simply absorbed the flamboyant headline and treated it as accurate.

Looking back over 2019, there are many lessons to be learned.

Labour’s political error was perhaps to ignore the issue for 40 years and then, as if out of nowhere (or so it seemed to the public), to propose total abolition, including ‘seizure of assets’, alarming language that fired up the independent sector to hysterical counter-attacks. 

There remain many, however, even some who work inside the private school sector, who would wish to see radical reforms that would reduce the exclusivity and diminish the wealth gap between the private and the state sector.

The majority of the public think that the current system is unfair. A more grown-up debate needs to ensue.

The lesson to be learned by reformers is that fresh voices, fresh themes, and rigorously accurate facts need to be carefully injected into the public debate. We need a counter weight to the more familiar themes and powerful voices represented by the private sector. 

Chief among these fresh voices must be those of state school teachers and leaders, including those with measured criticism of enduring educational inequality. It is these, after all, who are responsible for educating the 93 per cent. Their voices should, and must, carry equal, if not greater, weight than the representatives of the seven per cent.

[With contribution from Professor Francis Green, UCL IoE]

Melissa Benn is a writer and campaigner and has authored three education books, including Life Lessons: The Case for a National Education Service (2018). In 2012 Melissa won the Fred and Anne Jarvis award in recognition of her outstanding contribution to creating a fairer education system. She is a founder member of the Local Schools Network, and was chair of the cross-party campaign group Comprehensive Future until late 2018. Benn is a co-founder of PEPF.

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