'Our apartheid education system is a burning injustice'

Private schools know that defending their privilege is politically unfeasible, says Holly Rigby

Hand with fork tucks into larger piece of pie chart

This week, grassroots members at the Labour Party conference voted unanimously for one of the most radical motions on private schools in the party’s history. 

Splashed across the front pages of every national newspaper, the high-profile Labour Against Private Schools (Laps) campaign has begun a serious national debate about independent schools for the first time in a generation.

Even among critics of the campaign, there are very few who are willing to publicly defend the privileges a private school education so unjustly confers. It is very difficult to argue that we live in a socially just, cohesive society when we educate our children separately depending on how much their parents earn. 

Few would say that we are nurturing the talents and passions of all our young people, when the privately educated continue to dominate jobs in politics, media, sports, arts and the law. 

Anti-establishment fervour

Private schools, and the privately educated elite they have produced, know that defending their privilege is politically unfeasible in a country currently gripped by an anti-establishment fervour. As a result, much of the criticism of the Laps campaign has not sought to challenge the moral case for independent-school integration, but instead how this could be achieved, and whether it would really address the educational inequality the campaign seeks to overturn.

Some have questioned the campaign’s focus on private schools, arguing that we should seek to improve state schools instead. I have been teaching for seven years in state schools in some of the most deprived boroughs in London, and have seen the effect of pernicious funding cuts, privatisation, a punitive accountability regime and an increasingly narrow curriculum first hand. That the Labour Party must commit to a wider transformation of our state school system is certainly not in doubt. This is why Angela Rayner’s conference promise to abolish Ofsted, and the conference motion to bring academies under a “reformed, locally accountable” school system are so vitally important. 

Nevertheless, this still does not mean Britain’s private schools should be left untouched. The idea that if state schools improve, independent schools will simply wither on the vine has no basis in reality. History has shown that after almost 100 years of comprehensive education, private-school privilege is more entrenched than ever before. 

Apartheid education system

While we continue to have an apartheid education system, where the wealthy buy advantage for their children at the expense of everybody else, educational inequality will persist. 

Therefore the question now confronting grassroots activists and the Labour leadership is not whether private school integration is desirable, but rather how it can be achieved. It is worth noting that the 250-word limit on Labour Party conference motions does not lend itself to nuance, nor to detailed descriptions of policy implementation. 

There is now media hysteria around the “seizing” of private school assets, but the policy proposals laid out in the Laps conference motion seek a phased integration, implemented over longer than the course of one parliamentary term. Transitional policies, such as the removal of charitable tax status, charging VAT on school fees and contextual university admissions, for example, could be adopted in the first term of a Labour government, as popular intermediary demands. 

More controversial has been the Laps proposal to redistribute the historic endowments held by some private schools. Eton was founded for the education of poor scholars, using endowments pledged by wealthy benefactors. Eton’s portfolio of investments and properties is worth £438 million today, and there is clearly a moral case that these should be redistributed to their original beneficiaries, rather than being used for the education of a tiny elite.

Given the complex practical and legal challenges this would undeniably entail, this proposal is almost certainly a longer-term policy ambition. Nevertheless, Labour could begin by conducting an audit of the wealthiest private schools, who too often act as secretive fiefdoms. Publishing the value of these schools could serve to shape public opinion, perhaps paving the way for making full integration more practically possible.

Whether removing charitable tax status or redistributing endowments, any limitations placed upon private schools by a Labour government is likely to be met with considerable legal resistance from a well-funded independent-school lobby. 

Human rights

Private-school advocates have already been invoking the Human Rights Act, arguing that it is illegal to deny parents the right to choose a private education. But their claims are spurious at best: Finland phased out its private schools almost 30 years ago, and has one of the best education systems in the world. Few would claim that Finnish parents have had their human rights infringed in the process.

Teaching unions will rightly be wary of any proposals that impact the jobs of those currently working in the private-school sector. As a member of a trade union that represents both state and independent-school teachers, it is clear to me that Labour must work closely with the teaching unions to ensure jobs are protected. 

The fact that private-school teachers generally have better pay and conditions than state-school teachers should not be a deterrent. A Labour government must seek to improve the pay, conditions, status and autonomy of all our teachers as part of its wider state-sector transformation. 

The Laps campaign has highlighted the burning injustice of our apartheid education system, and sparked a national debate about the kind of schools and society we want our young people to grow up in. 

It’s clear that the public anger at the entrenched privilege of private schools – and the need for action – is fast becoming common sense. Now grassroots activists must work closely with the Labour leadership to turn its ambitious vision into practical policymaking for the next Labour manifesto. 

Whatever this looks like, it is clear that the debate about private schools is not going back in its box any time soon. 

Holly Rigby is a teacher, and researches the National Education Service at King’s College London

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