Phasers set to stun?

Thursday 13 June 2019

On June 12, the House of Commons hosted the inaugural meeting for a campaign aimed at “phasing out private schools”. It was organised by the Fabian Society and the Socialist Educational Association (SEA). Leading up to the event, the organisers said that the aim was to form an all-party parliamentary group, but there was no talk of this on the evening.

There were around 100 people present, including some from the independent sector: Julie Robinson, ISC; Neil Roskilly, ISA; and Mike Buchanan and Sue Bishop, HMC. While there were a handful of Labour MPs present, I wasn’t aware of MPs from other parties present (though I may be wrong). Other attendees included academics, members of the Fabian Society, a few journalists and state school teachers.

Hosted by the Labour MP Kate Green, the themes that the speakers returned to were social justice and the importance of a single educational system to give the same opportunity for all children. And at the heart of this is the ending of the private sector.

So, should the private sector be concerned? In the short term, I would argue no. The gathering was relatively small and most of the speakers are familiar names in this debate from the past few years.

However, it would be a mistake to dismiss this out of hand as an incoming Labour government could be minded to give its backing to it. Angela Rayner MP, the Labour education spokesperson, had been invited but was unable to attend (there were two significant debates going on in the House at the time), but she may not wish to be associated too closely with such a potentially radical movement while the party is in opposition.

The key arguments were familiar: add VAT to fees and abolish charitable status (and therefore business rates relief). However, one speaker noted that adding VAT to fees would make the sector far more exclusive and two others confessed that they didn’t have a clue whether abolishing charitable status was even possible or how it should be approached. But the key takeaway is that there is some consensus among the speakers for the state and private sectors to be integrated over a period of 20 to 30 years, with both state and private sectors in dialogue about this transition. At the conclusion of the transition period, the private sector would be phased out.

At the end of the meeting, attendees were offered the chance to provide their contact details for updates on developments, with approximately half choosing to do so.

For more details on the speakers’ arguments, here follows a summary.


Steven Longden

The first speaker, Steven Longden, who is a state school teacher and executive member of the SEA, talked about the “private school problem” where the “wealthy prioritise their kids’ rights”, while millions of other children live in poverty. He questioned whether Jeremy Corbyn has not pushed for the abolition of the private sector since he himself went to a prep school. However, Longden believes that abolishing the private sector would be a vote winner as “there has been an increase in anti-elitism [along with] the ongoing effects of Tory austerity”.

He also described the sector as “an elitist fast-track conveyor belt to a network of people in high places” and quoted some of the figures from the Sutton Trust report in 2016, which included the representation of the privately educated in:

Parliament: 32%

Cabinet: 50%

Barristers: 71%

Judges: 74%

Despite his misgivings over Corbyn’s apparent lukewarm interest in abolishing the sector, Longden says he was “elated” that in the last Labour manifesto there was the inclusion of adding VAT to school fees as a policy.

As a model of how the education system should be run in this country, he cited the Finnish model, which took around 20 years for the country to phase out its own private sector. Longden concluded that “we will be better off economically and morally.”


Melissa Benn

The next speaker was Melissa Benn, the writer and campaigner for a national education service. She argued that there is inequality in both the state and private sectors, the former because parents game the system and the latter because it is elitist. In the same way that many British people are very proud of the NHS, she believes that a single national education service should produce the same level of pride. However, she thinks that, if the process of merging state and private began now, it wouldn’t be fully realised until 2045 or 2050.

Her key point about social justice is that she believes we’ve created citizens who have different networks of contacts and ways of speaking. While it may not be that those from a private school background have a superior view of others, it is more that those from a state sector background are made to feel “less than”.

She also cited Finland as a model and included Canada too, where both countries have reduced the attainment gap.

She argues that the phasing out process should include removing business rates relief, adding VAT on fees, removing charitable status and banning selection. She criticised Labour for not having addressed the issue for more than 40 years. The notion too that state schools should aspire to the “fancy blazers and house systems” of the private sector is not enough.


Robert Verkaik

Then, up stepped Robert Verkaik, the journalist and author of “Posh Boys, how the English public schools ruin Britain”. He began his talk by observing that Britain was on the verge of another Etonian Prime Minister. He then ran through a brief history of private schools once set up for the “poor and in need of education”, which were engines of social mobility, and which were subverted by wealthy merchants who rewrote the charters of those schools for the benefit of their own children.

The last concerted attempt to reform private schools was taken up under the Harold Wilson government which, Verkaik says, led to Eton considering relocating to Ireland. Ultimately, this attempt ended in failure, not least because both Wilson and Jim Callaghan sent their own children to private schools.

His view on phasing out, noting again his original reference to Boris Johnson, was that abolition of the private sector must be something kept on the table, just as Johnson insists that a no deal Brexit should. He then ended his talk by saying that charitable status for private schools should be abolished and then see what it involved, as he didn’t know.


Jess Staufenberg

The privately educated journalist, Jess Staufenberg, talked about the lack of independent data available on the private sector, noting that the Sutton Trust report was now three years old. Also, for instance, there is no data on how many local authorities have lost state teachers to the private sector nor how much revenue from school fees originates from “dodgy sources”. More needs to be done, she concluded, but felt that there is enough data to argue that the private sector must change radically.

Although she valued the education she had in the private sector, she believes that everyone should be entitled to the same: small class sizes, students working diligently without distractions, and lots of clubs and societies to enhance their experience. She mentioned an incident where one of her former classmates waved a £10 note at a group of passing state school pupils as an example of her perception of the divide between the sectors. She is setting up the Private School Reform Group website.


Francis Green

Prof Francis Green, from the Institute of Education and author of “Engines of Privilege: Britain’s Private School Problem”, reviewed options for reforming the private school sector. He began by noting that, over the last few decades, private schools are now unrecognisable by the “massive inflow of funds” and are “morally indefensible”.

A lasting solution, he believes, will only be found through a national conversation. But those solutions, he suggests, should include the following:

  •         VAT on fees to raise £2 billion for state schools, but this would make private schools "more exclusive".
  •         Increasing the use of contextual admissions.
  •         Removing charitable status. He admits that there would be complications “which I don’t understand myself”, and that there are proprietorial schools that don’t have charitable status anyway.
  •         Integration of the state and private sectors, where there would be a “fair access scheme” for state pupils to make up a third of pupils in private schools. He believes that an effective “nationalisation” might be too brutal as it could eradicate the educational and social benefits currently flourishing in the private sector.

He also believes that bursaries at private schools have not been successful and that the ISC offer of 10,000 places is too small.


Laura Smith MP

The evening ended with a talk by the Labour MP, Laura Smith. She is a former primary school teacher who entered Parliament in 2017. She spoke very eloquently and could be one to watch in the future, certainly as a potential junior minister in the DfE.

She believes that phasing out private schools is a vital component in reducing inequality. Much talk in recent years has been on how to increase social mobility, but she believes that Labour is right to abandon that aim for social justice. She believes that the existing education system is a barrier that limits the life chances for state pupils. She does not criticise parents for choosing private schools since “people make choices based on how things are, not as they should be”. So, while private education might be a “shrewd investment” for parents, it runs counter to social justice.

She also cited the Finnish model as a blueprint for the future and agreed that VAT should be added to school fees.