Head’s Blog: Abolishing private schools isn’t the answer – it’s time to rethink the question

It’s been an interesting month since the Labour conference and its headline-grabbing attack of independent schools. Labour’s threats have certainly stirred up a lot of media interest and got a lot of people talking about the rights and alleged wrongs of private school education. With all the talk of abolition, seizure of assets and redistribution of funds, there have been times when I’ve wondered whether we’ve been transported back to late 18th France. I must admit to going slightly pale when I recently saw a picture of a guillotine in one of my son’s history textbooks.

Attacks and threats against private education are nothing new in the UK, of course. In the 1970s the Labour government of the time came close to pulling off a ‘Finland’ (nationalisation of all independent schools) and we’ve become well accustomed to the occasional swipe ever since. There is the annual discussion around the perceived inequity of Oxbridge entry and it wasn’t long ago that the Charity Commission tried to put some schools in the north-east to the sword with its public benefit test. More about the latter later.

It looks like Labour’s abolition plans have already foundered on the rocks of good sense and moderation. Senior figures in the party allegedly harboured significant doubts about the policy all along and one could argue it’s done more harm than good to the party’s reputation; only 22% of the public agreed with it in a recent poll.

The financial threats around charitable status, however, remain real. These mainly relate to VAT being placed on school fees and the loss of business rates relief. The former has been spoken about a fair amount in recent times and could well end up as a key policy in Labour’s next election manifesto. The main implementation problem with VAT on fees, however, is that it would end up costing the government and tax payer far more than the additional income generated due to the estimated number of school pupils who would move across to the state sector. It may be ideologically sound to some but it would, in reality, be an additional financial burden for the nation.

In order to stave off such threats, I do think independent schools should have to justify their charitable status by demonstrating healthy levels of public benefit. Most private schools were originally founded for those who didn’t have much – King’s for ‘24 poor and friendless boys of Chester’ back in 1541 – and I have always felt strongly that the private sector is duty bound to support local communities in meaningful and genuinely effective ways. Gone are the days when this might have included the occasional lending out of the odd sports pitch; today it means having a decent proportion of students on means-tested bursaries and active, mutually beneficial partnerships with local state schools. King’s, I am glad to say, has both, though this can’t be said for all independent schools.

Going out of your way to help and support those who need it most is something we should all do, of course, and is one of the main things I want to inculcate in all King’s students. Ironically, of course, if the financial threats do come to fruition it will mean we will be less able to provide such help and support and independent schools will become more exclusive. It is also inevitable that the best state schools would become bastions of privilege, with only those able to afford the consequentially expensive houses situated in their catchment areas.

I have a couple of other gripes against Labour’s extreme fraternity. Firstly, it really is tiresome that whenever independent schools are rallied against publicly and/or in the media, the likes of Eton and Harrow are nearly always referenced, replete with photographs of young chaps in top hats and tailcoats. Comparing Eton to most independent schools is like saying that all cars are Lamborghinis (although in fairness Eton has a huge public benefit programme and rightly so). It is manipulative and misleading.

My other grumble is the notion that going to an independent school gives you a massive foot-up in terms of getting to the best universities and securing the best jobs simply through having the name of the school on your CV. For a start, many universities now give ‘contextual’ offers to students from different schools depending on postcodes and results which doesn’t make it any easier for students from private schools. Many companies are now recruiting ‘education blind’ too, meaning that the old tie network has become irrelevant (and rightly so in my opinion).

The main reason, of course, that students from schools like King’s get to the best universities and get top jobs is because they are excellent, well-rounded and highly capable young people who want to make the most of themselves and have been supported in doing so by their schools. It is also hugely patronising to suggest that the many outstanding state schools and students can’t do the same.

I have always believed that everyone should have equal opportunity in life with the same chances to make the very most of themselves. Such things will not be improved by abolishing and/or penalising the places that are best at this. They will be improved by making all schools as good as they can be, with excellent schools in both the state and independent sectors actively supporting the others. Labour’s left would be wise to put this at the heart of their educational policy rather than cutting the head off the best.