You would think that this subject had been settled long ago but it has hit the news again recently with Old Labour recycling some of their 1970s ideas. A motion to abolish private schools and redistribute their assets, backed by John McDonnell and having been agreed upon this conference, will be Labour policy from now on. Unlike some, I do not agree that Mr McDonnell demonstrates a hypocrisy in the argument considering he went to a private school. Indeed, McDonnell, himself, may be a good enough argument to support removing private schools.
There are well worn practical arguments - such as the cost and the impact abolishing private schools would have on the state sector. I believe these still stand and have not been sufficiently challenged. But, willing to put a few more nails in the coffin of an idea that intellectually speaking was killed years ago, I will put forward some more arguments (skip to the final two of the four points if short on time).
Firstly, there’s an underlying principle which underpins the whole argument against public schools: that they simply aren't fair. Now if there is anything worse than an over-emotional and under-defined argument, it is one that is only applied to certain areas. For if being able to buy a better education is bad then there are other areas where this same principle would need to be applied.
A 2016 article reported that more than a quarter of 11-16 year olds in the state system have been privately tutored at some point. Yet the reaction has not been to ban private tuition but to consider how to increase access. The chair of the Sutton Trust, Sir Peter Lampl said, "no-one wants to limit parents doing their best for their children, but we need to ensure that extra tuition is as widely available as possible. Otherwise, it will continue to widen the attainment gap." This is the discourse we should be having when it comes to private schools rather than a blanket ban campaign.
Secondly, the fact that many privately educated children going to Oxbridge or Russell Group universities not inherently a bad thing. In fact, there is actually a sort of market mechanism operating beneath it. Private schools are motivated to maintain or improve their brand through sport, notable alumni, appearing charitable and, importantly, sending their students off to the best universities. In order to do this, they try to attract the best students and will be prepared to sacrifice lost fees in order to satisfy their goals in the long run. Scholarships are offered to the best applicants and generous bursaries are offered to ensure that the school can get the best and brightest who will achieve and reflect well on the school. These students' fees are paid for out of endowments, donations by alumni and current fees. Those paying full fees because they are not as high achievers but want to gain access to the brand are thereby subsidising the fees of their disadvantaged but more gifted peers. As a result, a hidden market operates where there is an indirect transfer from the wealthy to the less-wealthy that benefits both parties.
Thirdly, there are many inequalities within the state sector. In the amusing, if not always properly thought through, documentary “How the middle class ruined Britain”, the presenter-comedian Geoff Norcott talks about how parents seek to play the system to get the best for their children. However, we cannot really blame these parents (who come from across the income spectrum) for trying to get the best for their children. It is clear that a market-based system would be a better way to allocate these resources rather than a socialist-style strategy of who can best exploit the bureaucratic frameworks.
Finally and most importantly though, there is a better alternative to both the current system of schooling and also to the Labour plan - school vouchers. In a previous blog post, “A Third Way for Education” a school voucher system is proposed as a far superior alternative to both our current divided system and forced attendance at state schools. It is time that the government realises that it should not have a role in the production of education but only in ensuring its provision.
It is clear that banning private schools is the wrong reform to this issue and is a massive step in the wrong direction. The state should not be wasting its time in the day to day running of schools. It seems it knows this too, as it has already begun to increase the number of schools run on contract by private companies. However, we urge a better alternative to allow choice and competition to improve standards and reduce division. Abolishing private schools will in reality do little to reduce either of those goals.