HomeResearchSubsidizing private schools for the Northern English middle classes

Subsidizing private schools for the Northern English middle classes


“From assisted places to free schools: subsidizing private schools for the Northern English middle classes”


S. Gamsu (2020 online): British Journal of Sociology of Education

What’s it about?

There is good evidence that family wealth and social class, as well as income, are the primary determinants of who attends private, i.e. fee-paying, schools in Britain.

It is also well known that private schools have for a long time been far more prevalent in London and the South East than in the North of England.

This study brings out interesting specifics of this regional dimension, both historically and in the 21st century.

It also looks at private schools which converted to join the state sector.


The research examined Department for Education data on schools and their regions, alongside local media reports and school websites.

Key findings

  • Between 2007 and 2017 private school participation declined slowly in all areas except inner London where it rose
  • The consequence of regional wealth variation is that private school participation is quite rare in some parts of Northern England. In some areas, such as Darlington, North Tyneside and Sunderland, private school closures have left the area virtually free of private schools.
  • Between 2007 and 2017, 32 private schools closed and converted to become state school academies or free schools. Only 3 of these were in London, and overall they were disproportionately from the north of England.
  • The study draws out historical parallels between the Direct Grant schools (which were partly funded by central government, partly by fees and closed in the 1970s), the Assistant Places Scheme (which provided state funding for some pupils in private schools during the Thatcher and Major years) and the state stepping in to save struggling schools since 2007 from closure through financial failure.
  • The study interprets the saving of private schools through conversion to academies as preserving a form of middle-class schooling – in effect, schools that are locally elite.

A potential consequence is that the near-absence of private schooling in some local areas means that other educational issues will be of greater concern for people living in those areas.

What are the limitations of this research?

The study labels the conversion of a private school to a state school as state sponsorship of a private school. Yet after conversion the school is part of the state sector and subject to local authority recruitment criteria. The study did not have access to data on the social composition of the pupils before or after conversion.

The proportion of private schools converting to academies or free schools is only about 1.3 per cent of all schools in the private sector, and these appear to be disproportionately small schools.

Explained by: Francis Green, Professor of Work and Education Economics at UCL Institute of Education.


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