Last year, at the Labour Party conference in Liverpool, academies were in the firing line. This year in Brighton, it’s the turn of private schools – the easiest, surely, of easy targets. A guaranteed knockabout political crowd-pleaser.
Remember that I’m writing this as the former head of a proudly comprehensive school, having worked for 32 years as an English teacher in state schools. I believe in state education passionately. Also bear in mind that my union, the Association of School and College Leaders, represents members in both the state and independent sectors.
So I’m declaring an interest. But I’m also declaring my belief that dismantling a sector that serves 570,000 students is ethically dubious and logistically problematic. Labour needs to be very careful what it’s wishing for.
Turning up the heat
What we know so far is that shadow chancellor John McDonnell has backed a campaign calling for the next Labour Party general election manifesto to include a commitment to “integrate all private schools into the state sector”. This would include “withdrawal of charitable status and all other public subsidies and tax privileges, including business rate exemption” and redistributing “endowments, investments and properties held by private schools…democratically and fairly across the country’s educational institutions.”
It is difficult to know exactly what to make of these proposals. The use of tax measures to turn up the heat on private schools falls short of outright abolition. But the idea of redistributing their endowments, investments and properties implies an intention to close them all.
As an aside, there are technical questions surrounding this – such as who actually owns the “endowments, investments and properties” of private schools, and whether the state can in practice redistribute them? But let’s leave the detail for now and look at the concept. Because it comes laden with problems.
First, closing independent schools, whether as the result of taxation changes to make some of them unsustainable or directly through abolition, has consequences – for children, for parents, and for the state sector that the proposal is supposedly designed to benefit.
Many independent schools are small: half have fewer than 300 pupils. The measures being put to Labour’s conference would make many of them financially unsustainable, and they would close. What then happens to the displaced pupils in those schools? Presumably they would have to be provided with places in state schools. What if these are in affluent areas, where many schools are already over-subscribed? What happens about increasing facilities and avoiding burgeoning class sizes?
The state would now have to fund the education of these pupils. This would put more pressure on government finances. If all the private schools closed, state spending would have to be increased by billions of pounds every year.
Next, if the closure of private schools happened in a chaotic manner, it would be disruptive to the young people who were displaced, and to the staff who found themselves without jobs.
This is why it is ethically dubious. The pupils who go to private schools may often be from well-off backgrounds – though we should beware lazy caricatures – but they are still children, and the government has a duty of care to all its citizens.
An end to privilege?
And what exactly would be achieved by closing private schools? Will educational outcomes be improved? Will the plight of our most disadvantaged young people and communities be improved?
Yes, the proposal could prevent parents from paying for what is perceived as an educational advantage. But it’s naive to think that this means an end to privilege. Well-off families would continue to be well-off, providing their children with sports and cultural opportunities, mixing in high-status circles, and supporting them financially at university and through the first steps in their careers.
So it’s hard to see how this will represent a resounding victory for equality. Instead, it might be better to look at how we improve social justice in its entirety, rather than picking off private schools as a convenient scapegoat.
Indeed, the Sutton Trust earlier this year published a report entitled Elitist Britain 2019, which put forward 10 recommendations on how to achieve that objective.
These include the suggestion that employers should adopt contextual recruitment practices that factor in disadvantage, improving the provision of high-quality careers advice, and tackling financial barriers to entry to leading industries and professions, including unpaid internships.
Universities, and in particular highly selective universities, should contextualise admissions (which they are getting better at doing).
And high-performing comprehensives, grammar schools and independent schools should all do more to increase the number of pupils from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
If Labour, or any other political party for that matter, is looking for an agenda to deliver social justice, these recommendations seem like a decent starting-point.
Because, while the motion at Labour’s conference is likely to get some tub-thumping applause in a Brighton conference hall, it’s hard to see how it serves a far more ambitious aim.
The real question should be how we deliver genuine social justice in a fractured society, and ensure that every child from every background benefits from a first-rate education.
Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets as @RealGeoffBarton