Reform Options for Britain’s Private Schools

With Old Etonian Boris Johnson newly in post as Prime Minister, policy wonks from both sides of the political spectrum have re-focused their attention on the role of fee-paying schools in the educational system. 

Non-party affiliated think tank Private School Policy Reform (PSPR) is holding an event later today (19 September) in Manchester, ‘Phasing Out Private Schools: An Evening of Debate’, where it will formally launch its report, "Reform Options for Britain’s Private Schools".

Private School Policy Reform (PSPR) is a new organisation dedicated to finding legal, practical and evidence-based policy recommendations for ensuring private (independent) schools become significantly more accessible to all children.

PSPR is openly pro-reform of independent schools, but does not claim to know the best route to reform. This report is the first to come from the organisation and will be followed by more.

The six founders of the organisation are:

  • Francis Green, UCL education economics professor;
  • Robert Verkaik, author and journalist;
  • Melissa Benn, author and teacher;
  • David Kynaston, political historian;
  • Jess Staufenberg, education journalist; and
  • Mike Trace, former government advisor on social exclusion and drugs.

There is increasing concern that the enormous school resources gap – upwards of three to one – between pupils in private schools and those in state schools represents a skewed and inefficient use of our educational resources.

Critics have pointed to a democratic deficit as many political, business and civil leaders continue to be exclusively privately educated, despite only 7 per cent of pupils being privately educated.

There is a sense beneficiaries of a private education may have only limited understanding of state education and the majority of Britons who attend them.

There is also evidence a majority of the public think the private school advantage in Britain is unfair. Yet politicians of all parties have not addressed this problem for decades. Now is the time for change.

This report, for the benefit of today’s policy-makers, presents six feasible options for resolving Britain’s private school question. These options vary in their potential to bring about substantial reform.

PSPR also outline the practical issues surrounding each, together with the approximate financial implications for the government’s schools budget. Some combinations of options are also possible.

The first five all involve an imposed change:

  1. Taxation of school fees
  2. Removing private schools’ charitable status
  3. Contextual admissions to universities and job recruitment
  4. Partial integration with the state school system, and
  5. Nationalisation. The sixth option is the possibility of
  6. Reform from within.

angela rayner thumbnailAngela Rayner MP, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Education, said:

“I warmly welcome this paper, which makes a vital and timely contribution to the ongoing debate about the future of education. Many of these proposals match our own plans and ambitions for radical reform of the school system, with a National Education Service at the heart of a fairer society.


“We will carefully consider the work of this new group in developing our own detailed plans, and I look forward to debating this issue at our party conference this weekend.”

Councillor Stephen Lambert is Director of Education4Democracy CIC and a former senior college lecturer in the North East gives his views:

For Francis Green and David Kynaston in their book, “Engines of Privilege” 2018 the nation’s private schools have become an “ignorable problem”. Their consequences are both “malign and divisive”.

Private schools, known as Independent schools, are fee paying educational institutions outside the state sector. 2000 independent schools exist throughout the UK including 200 ‘Public Schools’ such as Eton, Winchester, Harrow and Westminster. Most are single sex, but the trend is toward co-educational.

There’s been a sharp increase in the number of youngsters going to a private school. 7% nationally with over a third attending an independent school of one form or another in London. In terms of post-16 education a staggering 16% of young people go to a private school sixth form or sixth form college. Even in Newcastle over 12% are privately educated. In Bristol over a fifth are privately educated. Most are upper or professional middle class - partly down to tradition and fees.

In England there’s been a long tradition of private education with the establishment of Public Schools. For some writers the name Public School refers to the existence of ‘Gentleman’s Factories’ designed to prepare the wealthy for top roles in Public Service.

Yet Robert Verkaik in his book, ‘Posh Boys’, points out this isn’t correct. He writes: “The public schools were founded to educate the poor and ended up serving the interests of the rich”.

The UK spends more on private education than any other society in the developed world. £9b comes through fees, over £1b from endowment and donations, and a further £200m from central government through indirect tax subsidies.

There are now more kids being schooled privately than at any time since records began. 5m people in England alone have attended an independent school. In the last decade the private sector has become a key player in the international educational market place.

70,000 youngsters are now educated in private boarding schools. Wealthy families from the Far East, Russia, Germany and Saudi are sending their boys and girls in huge numbers to these establishments to boost family status and to enable them to meet the right people.

For many New Right Conservative educationalists the system offers parental choice and status in a free society. They emphasise smaller class sizes and better facilities than those found in state comprehensive schools. This means children have a better chance of getting into the top Russell group universities like Oxbridge, Bristol, York, the LSE and Newcastle or Durham. And getting a top job at the end of it.

They argue parents should have the right to spend their hard -earned cash as they wish. Improving their child’s “life-chances” through a free choice of schools is a rational way of doing so.

Yet Britain has an “apartheid education system” that perpetuates class inequality. Private schools are elitist and socially divisive. They undermine the principles of equality of opportunity and meritocracy.

For critics, most people don’t have the resources to buy a private education for their children. It’s unethical that the off-spring of the rich and influential should be afforded more advantages in education than the dispossessed. Despite the private sector catering for the upper and upper middle classes, they are treated as charities by national government with tax exemptions.

To justify their charitable status, worth up to £2.5b per year, independent schools are legally obliged to do a modest amount of community- based outreach work for “the public benefit”. Few do so. More-so the prestigious Public Schools like Eton have assets estimated at £162m!

With some state schools struggling to provide books and learning materials, independent schools spend about three times as much per pupil as the state does! This disparity in funding creates unequal opportunities.

The educational journalist Melissa Benn questions whether the quality of teaching is any better than state run comprehensive schools or academies. There’s little tangible difference in exam passes between middle class comprehensive pupils and those in the independent sector. When it comes to graduation state students along with 10,000 adult returners on Access to Higher Education Diploma programmes achieve more first-class degrees than their privately educated peers.

Despite this those educated privately still get the top jobs in society. An “Old Boys and School Tie” network still exists in the second decade of (21st century Britain. A private school education remains the key passport to the “elite jobs” – that tiny number of positions in society that carry prestige, power and privilege.

Many of the top jobs in the senior civil service, national politics, law, medicine, national media and business are held by the privately educated. According to a joint study by the Sutton Trust/Social Mobility Commission, ‘Elitist Britain’ 2019, 68% of top barristers, 65% of senior judges, 71% of senior officers in the armed forces, 50% of members of the House of Lords and 54% of lead company directors were educated privately. Over 20 PMs in the last 150 years hail from Public Schools.

Even well qualified candidates from state schools stand little chance of gaining a foothold in these lucrative careers when competing with privately educated pupils. The route map into the elite jobs is primarily through a public school and Oxbridge.

Sociologists Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison point out that the tiny number of people who come from working-class backgrounds who do manage to gain entry to the top jobs in the media earn considerably less than their peers who attended a private school. For the authors they earn £7k less. “If you’re a black British woman with working-class origins, the “class pay gap” for those working in top jobs is an astonishing £20k”, the authors note.

What is to be done if we’re serious in creating a more socially open, democratic and just educational system and society. For some like Verkaik the solutions are bold and radical – “a slow and painless euthanasia whereby the privileges of the private sector are slowly whittled away” with even former Conservative Education Minister Michael Gove calling for private schools to be abolished “by stealth”.

No Government, even a left-leaning one like Labour led by Jeremy Corbyn, is likely to countenance outright abolition.

Corbyn’s 2017 modest general election manifesto pledge went no further than proposing to abolish the VAT exemption on school fees. The status quo can’t continue.

The time has come to remove charitable status from private schools altogether in an attempt to facilitate an integrated National Education Service based on the Finnish model – one of the most successful educational systems in the western world.

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