A discussion of Labour’s proposal to #AbolishEton.

First published in October 2019.

What is the issue?

A grassroots group (Labour against private schools) brought a motion to the Labour Party Conference, which passed on 22 September 2019, with the support of the Shadow Chancellor and Education Secretary. The motion suggests that the endowments (or recurrent income from past benefactors) of wealthy private schools could be ‘nationalised’. The money could then be used to help subsidise the integration of private schools into the state-funded system.

Creating one system of schools for all would have many potential benefits. It might mean that more high attaining pupils, currently in private schools, would be role models for a wider range of fellow pupils. It might improve social cohesion and foster understanding by creating a better mix of young citizens who will have to work together in the future. The better-off parents currently using private schools could add their support to the operation and improvement of their local state schools. And a large number of issues could be standardised up, including perhaps teacher qualifications, provision of extra-curricular activities, access to sporting facilities, and safeguarding.

This motion was widely publicised, and discussed in advance in the media, social media (#abolisheton), and in side-meetings. It clearly has support. But some commentators have said the idea is rooted in envy, and will damage something valuable and traditional in education. Some have said it is not feasible – the costs will be too great, or “stealing” the endowments would be illegal. Some have pointed out that private schools offer free and assisted places to a small number of disadvantaged pupils, or open their facilities for use by nearby state schools. Other commentators have suggested less extreme changes such as ending the charitable status and tax exemption of many of the richer schools.

Are private schools better schools?

Even more than state schools, private schools are very varied in nature. Many private schools in the UK are small, with few facilities, often in converted residential accommodation. Quite a few have a minority religious basis. Some of these schools buy in their own curriculum and teaching materials, often from the US.

Some are quite cheap, perhaps having emerged from a successful home-schooling venture, but large enough that the Department for Education (DfE) defines them as schools. In general, these schools often do not take very privileged children, and do not produce notably high attainment results. Quite a large number are independent special schools, or even hospitals, taking in some of the young people with the severest learning and/or physical challenges, and of course with some of the lowest levels of raw-score attainment.

However, the majority of privately-funded pupils attend larger, more established and popularly successful schools, although few of these are like Eton (a so-called ‘public’ school). Most are co-educational, non-selective (or at least not very), day schools, with somewhat smaller class sizes than in the state sector, but otherwise not very remarkable. Some of the private schools have among the highest pupil attainment results at age 16 and 18, and the average results at these Key Stages are higher than they are for the state sector (with its special schools, and Pupil Referral Units). But there is no evidence that private schools produce better results than state schools for equivalent pupils.

It is clear from 20 years of study that the raw-score results of any school-type are largely determined by the nature of their pupil intake. Grammar schools do not produce better results; they simply select the most talented pupils at age 11. Schools in the North of England are not worse than those in the South; they simply have more long-term disadvantaged pupils. Whether we consider faith-based schools, academies, free, specialist or foundation schools, the picture is the same. Any sustained systematic difference in annual results can be explained by the prior attainment and challenges of their pupil intakes. And although the data is less complete for private schools, there is no reason to expect anything different here.

The subset of private schools envisaged by #abolisheton take in mostly privileged and already high-performing pupils who then do well, on average, in later tests. Many parents are not really choosing schools for the exam results anyway, but want the other pupils attending (what is sometimes referred to as their ‘bus-stop’ behaviour). High exam results are a proxy measure for a school where some parents might believe their child will be safe, happy and engaged.

So what should we do?

If private schools are no better for equivalent pupils, perhaps abolishing them would make little difference either way. It would not create a crisis of attainment, but neither would it enhance equity of outcomes particularly. The same privileged pupils who attend the most expensive schools will still have high attainment at state schools, probably in desirable catchment areas, and will still tend to dominate any subsequent opportunities based on having high attainment. Some richer parents might react to no access to private schools by opting for home education, and paying for tuition, while banding together to fund extra-curricular activities outside. The result would be the same as now, but in smaller packets. The schools themselves may not really be the issue.

Those who currently pay for schooling would lose the right to spend their money on an attempt (however misguided) to improve the life chances of someone they care about. It would be an odd society that retained the notion of money, and said we could spend it on drink or cigarettes, cars or holidays, but not on helping educate another person.

Perhaps it would be better to address the sharp inequalities in school access in the state system, moving towards a position where there was no incentive to spend money on private education. First, a government should equalise the laws and procedures for all schools. Private schools could be made more transparent, to complete the schools census fully to provide data for the national Pupil Database, and use qualified teachers. The VAT issue could certainly be investigated and linked much more strongly to charitable acts. Meantime, faith-based, grammar and all other ‘diverse’ kinds of schools should be phased out in the state sector, and only one format decided on – in terms of age-range and leadership. The allocation of places at schools can be used to create the most and socially cohesive intakes for the benefit of all. Funding needs to be restored. Pupil Premium funding needs to be more focused on schools with the most disadvantaged intakes.

Above all, successive administrations and Secretaries of Education need to stop creating or expanding new types of state schools for only some of the public, and use instead the clear evidence that our tax-payer funded, SAT-tested, Ofsted-inspected, QTS-taught schools are all about as good as each other. And that paying for a private school simply to get an advantage in terms of exam results is a waste of money.🔷

The Conversation

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[This is an original piece published in PoliticsMeansPolitics.com on 4 October 2019. It is the longer version of a piece first published by the author in The Conversation. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

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