Before the coronavirus lockdown, I spoke at a panel debate run by Private School Policy Reform and proposed a way that private schools could do more to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
With the future of these students more uncertain than ever, as coronavirus widens existing inequalities, the time is ripe to make this proposal once more.
I suggested that private schools could follow the lead of the council I work in, Southwark.
At Southwark council one of our key commitments is for every child to have the best start in life. Nine out of 10 of our state schools are rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted and we are driving up the standards so that every school exceeds London averages at every stage.
I see daily the impact of austerity on our communities and the adverse effect this has had on many of our children living in poverty. For many, the option to continue their studies through university is just not possible with the worry of student debt and the day-to-day costs associated with completing a degree.
So in 2010 we made a manifesto promise to pay the university fees for 12 students a year who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. We called this our “Southwark Scholars” scheme, and they have all come from lower income backgrounds, where the household income is less than £25,000.
They have all been chosen for their academic achievement and their record of serving in the community. We see our Southwark Scholars as ambassadors for our borough.
Since the scheme was established in 2011, 99 young people have had their university fees paid. A local charity funds one of the places each year and the council funds the rest.
The scheme has had support from local schools with the majority recommending students to apply. However due to cuts to local authority funding we can now only commit to fund 10 places a year. Because of coronavirus, some councils are now even facing bankruptcy.
Following the UK’s exit from the EU there is uncertainty around the future of the Erasmus scheme. We want our young people to be inspired to look outwards and embrace those opportunities that are not just on our doorstep.
We are therefore reserving two of the scholarships for students studying modern European languages, studying a course with a year abroad at an EU institution or studying their entire course at an EU institution.
Private schools could get involved in this.
The schools which have charitable status could set aside some of the business rate relief that they receive (which state schools have to pay in full). This money could be used to pay the university fees for students from local state schools.
It would be a way for private schools to really help support their local communities and to enhance the life chances of students who are living in poverty, most of whom will be unable to attend those schools.
We know that students who go to private school stand a greater chance of attending top universities compared with disadvantaged state school pupils, even if they have similar academic outcomes. This could be one way for private schools to help close that gap.
Every child deserves the best start in life regardless of their background and we all need to play our part in making that a reality.
If private schools stepped up and replicated the Southwark Scholars scheme in other areas, just imagine how many young people would be able to fulfil their full potential.
Stephanie Cryan is a Labour councillor in Rotherhithe and cabinet member for jobs, business and innovation in Southwark. Stephanie attended a private school in south London and grew up on a council estate in Kennington. You can watch her speech at the PSPR: London 2020 event here.