‘Private schools should not enjoy a monopoly on success. We need to break this stranglehold’
Kevin Brennan, shadow minister for schools, writes:
The Labour Party has always seen state education as one of the most important vehicles for social justice and equal opportunity. Our educational priority is always raising the achievement for the 93 per cent of children educated in that sector and we would never sell it short.
That is why the next Labour government will focus on what works best to realise this goal with a comprehensive reform package to improve the quality of teaching. We want every child to be taught by a dedicated, motivated and highly qualified teacher classroom teacher. Evidence suggests that more than anything else this is what makes the difference when it comes to school standards. Particularly for disadvantaged children who sometimes lack the social capital and parental input of their better-off peers.
As we face a century of increasing competition and social upheaval, we can no longer afford to ignore the consequences caused by a system that cuts off the majority from the educational privilege enjoyed by 7 per cent of children. There can be little argument that the division between state and private education damages our society, stifles opportunity and, through wasted talent, inflicts crippling damage upon our economy. Despite only educating 7 per cent of our children, these schools provide more than 50 per cent of this country’s CEOs, judges, barristers, QCs, doctors and journalists. Nearly two-thirds of their pupils win places at the top universities compared with just a quarter in the state sector. That has to be seen as an unfair reflection upon the talent of young people in state schools. Private schools do not enjoy a monopoly on success or high achievement. We need to do something that breaks this stranglehold of the privileged few.
Private schools currently enjoy generous state subsidies, including business-rates relief worth around £700m over the course of a Parliament. To earn this, they need to step up and make a far bigger contribution to improving education for all children.
Some private schools have formed meaningful partnerships with local state schools, but far more have not. Just 3 per cent of private schools sponsor an academy, a further 5 per cent loan teaching staff to state schools, and a mere third share their facilities. Opening up their gardens, displaying art in their galleries, complying with employment legislation – some schools seem to think this is all they need to do to demonstrate their social responsibility to state-educated children. Not for nothing has the Chief Inspector of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, called current levels of partnership “crumbs off the table”.
It is time to stop asking politely. So as a condition for continued business-rate relief, Labour will require all private schools to form a meaningful partnership with a state school, or a consortium of state schools. We will set out tough criteria needed to meet this new "Schools Partnership Standard" in amended education legislation. For example, they could share the knowledge they have to help state-school students get into top universities, open up access to their alumni networks, collaborate to run shared extra-curricular programmes or share specialist qualified teaching resources. It would be beneficial in both directions, because drawing on the tremendous experience of the state sector also will lead to a broader educational and social experience for all.
At the same time we will amend the 1988 Local Government Act to make business-rates relief conditional on meeting this new standard and task the Independent Schools Inspectorate – the accredited schools inspectorate for the private sector – with assessing private schools’ ability to meet it. If they do not, then they will lose their eligibility for business-rates relief.
This is not about attitudes towards private schools. It is about our ambition for state education. To properly break down the barriers holding Britain back, we need a schools system that challenges all institutions to work together and spread excellence. David Cameron tries to make a virtue of pointing out the corrosive divide between state and private schools, yet behind the windy rhetoric, his government has done nothing to challenge an education system that unfairly benefits the privileged few. In contrast, Labour’s new Schools Partnership Standard will breach it, improving education for all in the process.