The Labour manifesto was launched yesterday and it contained a short statement of intent on the future of independent schools. I am probably alone in thinking that the 41 words dedicated to this issue is a work of staggering genius because it has managed to bring all sides of the debate together and unite them in an overwhelming sense of irritated disappointment. This is what was written in full:
"We will close the tax loophole enjoyed by elite private schools and use that money to improve the lives of all children, and we will ask the Social Justice Commission to advise on integrating private schools and creating a comprehensive system."
Written on a wet Wednesday evening
This is almost Hemingwayesque in its concision, but of course lacks all the beauty, lived experience, insight, understanding and integrity that meaningful prose traditionally aspires to. This is language designed by a sub-committee and written on a wet Wednesday evening in a windowless office filled with body odour but empty of biscuits. It is a succession of statements hammered out with one eye on the clock and with the other eye on the clock.
What it does do, with a breezy insouciance that would be genuinely impressive if it wasn’t so potentially consequential, is raise a number of questions that suggest – difficult though this might be to comprehend - they haven’t thought this through. Here’s a few that sprang to mind in an idle moment:
- What are the tax loopholes referred to?
- How and when will they be closed?
- What are "elite" private schools?
- Are there non-elite private schools?
- How will all the money raised transfer seamlessly to improving the lives of "all" children?
- How have they measured this "improvement" of "all" these children’s lives?
- Are independent school children included in these children?
- If not, does that invalidate the whole statement (and policy)?
- What is the Social Justice Commission?
- Who chooses who sits on its board?
- Can I join it?
- What does "integrating" mean? (Hint: it begins with an A and ends in an N, and has "bolitio" in the middle)
- Will faith schools, academies, grammar schools, free schools and vegetarian schools also be "integrated"?
- If not, why not?
Those last two questions are important because if Labour are going to create a new, unfair system should it not be unfair for the many, not the few?
I have literally spent minutes on Twitter today (and, given that current noxious levels are threatening to reach dizzying new lows, that is not to be sniffed at, or rather is, if you see what I mean) and nobody is happy. Take Sol Gamsu, the anti-independent school campaigner, and a man so against selective institutions charging high fees for an education that, method-actor style, he decided to work at Durham University just to understand how it all works.
He tweeted that the statement "gives us scope to keep pushing", a phrase so lacking in energy it refuses to move on the page. Or dip into Posh Boys author Robert Verkaik's Twitter feed to see him reverting to exhausted imagery involving kicking things into the long grass (and I don’t think he was commentating on a recent match of the Eton wall game he might have enjoyed watching). And talking of Eton (come on, they need the occasional shout out) a similar sense of lassitude leaked from the usually Stakhanovite edicts of @abolisheton who tweeted that the announcement was "a crucial first step" on the road to dismantling independent schools, but they typed this latest Squealer-like utterance with all the enthusiasm of someone who’d been told they had to do the said dismantling themselves, brick by brick, quad by quad, on their own, with only a trowel and pointy stick to help them.
'So wrong, it's sad'
You won’t be surprised to learn that those of us in the independent sector were also less than delighted. Of course, nobody likes to hear they’re being integrated, but what this announcement showed was a predictable lack of understanding of the issues it attempted to address. Sam Freedman commented that "this policy...would definitely have a big impact...because a lot of private schools on the margins would close". Julie Robinson, Chief Executive of the Independent Schools Council, argued that imposing VAT on school fees would cost the government "at least £416m in its fifth year once pupil displacement and VAT recovery is taken into account".
Undoubtedly the state sector will have to absorb tens of thousands of new pupils. Outdated data, a lack of clarity about the legality of such an action, a disregard for its consequences, and a contempt for the jobs put at risk, such things suggest a party that has lost interest in serious thought. Bains Cutler, a consultancy firm which advises many schools in the sector, tweeted that Labour’s policy "is so wrong it’s sad".
And it is sadness that characterises this current election campaign. Sadness that we have come to this, brought to a precipice to find not two political giants fighting with principled disagreement over the future destiny of a great country, but a couple of imposters arguing over which lies contain the most truth. How can education be valued when learning and understanding are so regularly traduced by those who claim it means so much to them? As a teacher, watching current debates about schools is like a doctor watching two chain-smoking alcoholics arguing about how much they cherish a healthy lifestyle. It is bitterly absurd, but at its heart is something so tragic, and so self-defeating, that you want to call emergency services. The trouble is, the people responsible for this mess are the people who will answer the phone.
David James is deputy head (academic) of an independent school in the South of England. He tweets @drdavidajames