At their party conference last month, Labour made one of their most radical moves yet. It voted to abolish private schools. They said that they will ‘integrate’ private schools by scrapping tax breaks, taking away their charity status, seizing their assets and redistributing them.In theory, this should provide a better education for everyone. In principle, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
Firstly, abolishing private schools won’t automatically make all children ‘equal’. It is the extracurricular activities just as much as the academic tuition that gives privately-educated children extra clout in the real world. Abolishing them won’t stop this. Ultimately, parents who can afford to pay for extra clubs and extra academic tuition will continue to do so. You can force all children into the state system but you can’t micromanage what they’re doing outside of school. Parents will always find a way to provide ‘the best’ for their children and it’s hard to take that choice away.
‘Integrating’ private schools into the state system is also problematic. House prices within the catchment areas of the best state schools have skyrocketed. It was reported that in London, parents were willing to pay an average of 15 per cent more to live in the vicinity of their first choice school. Inevitably, the ‘integrated’ private schools will be highly desirable. Competition for places will be extreme and only the wealthiest parents will be able to afford to live in the areas which house the best schools.
Under a Labour government, universities would also only be able to admit seven per cent of pupils from private schools. This seems like slightly bizarre policy-making considering the party wants to abolish private schools outright anyway. But it might actually be the only attainable aspect of their proposed education overhaul as abolishing private schools could potentially breach human rights legislation and private schools could legally challenge a government for taking away their possessions. It’s a complex and potentially futile process.
However, it is important to recognise that many state schools are currently underperforming. In 2017, 12 percent of secondary schools fell below the government’s determined target for GCSE grades. The system certainly needs reform. But abolishing private schools isn’t a guaranteed effective solution. Instead, increasing taxes on the wealthy and enforcing rules and regulations around university admissions would work more effectively.
The exclusivity of our private schools can feel unfair and many have questionable and problematic characteristics. But they are also British institutions embedded in history. Labour’s hunger to tear them down with vengeance puts high-minded idealism before robust public policy. Frankly, it leaves me wondering what comes next.
Image: Robert Cutts