Call for reform of 'problem' private school system

Report calls on politicians to reform the sector – but private school leaders say it is 'biased and flawed analysis'

Catherine Lough

Private schools are increasingly offering alternative qualifications to A levels, new data shows

Policymakers should reform private schools because the resources gap between pupils in private and state schools represents a “skewed and inefficient use” of educational resources, according to a new report.

The report, "Reform Options for Britain’s Private Schools", published today by new education thinktank Private School Policy Forum, outlines six options for “addressing Britain’s private school problem”, which it says has been stalled by “a long and undistinguished history of political inaction".

News: McDonnell backs campaign to abolish private schools

Related: Labour's private school tax plan is 'dangerous'

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The report outlines the possible benefits and disadvantages of different methods of reform. It does not recommended a particular route to reform, but says politicians should use the report as a “DIY guide” to develop policies that will make current fee-paying schools more accessible and the education system more equitable.

The six measures proposed include: taxation on school fees; removing private schools’ charitable status; contextual university admissions and job recruitment; a fair access scheme involving partial integration of the state sector; nationalisation; and reform from within through the introduction of mass bursaries and sponsorships.

Will private schools be reformed?

The report points out that if private schools were nationalised, the government would have to compensate private owners – schools which are not registered charities – and until an audit of the sector is completed, the cost of this is unknown.

The report also notes that abolishing private schools would require primary legislation, and that there could be an argument this would be incompatible with the Human Rights Act, although it says that the “European Convention on Human Rights is not sovereign”.

However, the report says the benefits of nationalisation would include using educational resources more efficiently, while good schools would be opened up for the benefit of the public.

Today, the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, said he backed a campaign for the abolition of private schools.

While five of the options outlined in the report involve imposed change, the sixth is through internal reform and the expansion of means-tested bursary places.

But the report says that while some progressive private school leaders would come behind a voluntarist strategy, this would still leave “an enormous resource gap between the private and public sector” unchanged.

It also says most schools could not afford to expand their endowments in this way, pointing out that only the wealthiest public schools, such as Eton College or Christ’s Hospital, are able to provide a substantial amount of assisted placed and still meet their running costs.

And it says private schools could potentially use this model to “skim-cream” talent from local state schools by selecting pupils for bursaries on the basis of ability.

Moreover, the report argues that some parents choose independent schools to ensure that their children are educated alongside a “socially exclusive peer group”, and progressive headteachers would avoid carrying out plans that risked the loss of many fee-paying parents.

It also calls for a “full financial audit” of the independent school sector.

“Until a full analysis of assets, land, endowments and donations and more is undertaken, any financial calculations will be at best working on partial data, thereby hindering good policymaking,” the report says.

Professor Francis Green, research lead at PSPR and professor of work and education economics at UCL Institute of Education, said: "This is the first-ever report to outline the options for reform of our private schools. Any of these reforms would diminish the current inequalities and unfairness in our education system, and make many good schools a lot more accessible to many more children.

“We call on policymakers to consider all these options, and to decide how best to bring about real change."

Jess Staufenberg, commissioning editor at PSPR, said: "At the moment, it seems contradictory for a society apparently committed to social mobility to not talk more seriously about this unfairness – the fact that those whose parents can afford to pay high fees give their children a significant set of advantages over children whose parents can't.

“While our report doesn't recommend any one particular route to reform over others, we are committed to the need for reform, to supporting a public conversation about this, and to presenting evidence-based possibilities.”

However, the report was condemned by independent schools.

Barnaby Lenon, chair of the Independent Schools Council, said: “Our focus should be on improving educational outcomes for all children, not taking away choice from parents by tearing down good schools. We therefore welcome any debate about how independent schools can be part of the solution, such as through schemes to widen access.

“What is concerning about this report is the way in which it prioritises ideology over what is best for children.

“It talks about abolishing independent schools but concedes that doing so could breach human rights legislation."

'This won't enhance state education'

Mike Buchanan, executive director of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC), said: “We welcome any positive, well-informed discussion about how independent schools can be part of the answer to promoting social mobility. 

“However, this report is based on the false assumption that the education of the nation’s children can be significantly improved by penalising or obliterating a tiny part of the system. 

“The measures in this report will not enhance state education; it is a biased and flawed analysis that makes over-optimistic claims for speculative reforms whilst ignoring the positive impact that independent schools already have on children across both the state and independent sectors. 

“For example, it fails to acknowledge that our schools support high-flying state academies, teach, coach and advise tens of thousands of state school pupils and spend over a million pounds every day on free and discounted places, including for disadvantaged youngsters.

"Because of their independence, HMC schools have been able to rescue dying academic subjects and pioneer and share best practice across the sectors. All this would be lost. "         


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author bio

Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @CathImogenLough

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