Into the Lion’s Den


It is not often a committed advocate of comprehensive education is invited to address one of the country’s leading independent schools. But after a robust exchange at a conference between myself and the head of Westminster school, Patrick Derham, I was asked to speak to his students. Derham is one of a handful of independent school heads who grasps that something needs to change, though not quite in the way I am about to suggest to his students.

My chosen title is: What’s the problem with private education? It feels like a good time to enter the lion’s den and offer a strongly contrary view to the received wisdoms of this deeply Tory age in which the power of wealth and with it, private education, is as resonant and divisive as ever.

It was not always so. In the run-up to the 1944 Education Act, political leaders of all parties seriously debated, but ultimately rejected, the enfolding of the old public schools into the new structure of free secondary education. In the progressive 60s and 70s, schools such as Eton were considered both something of a joke and emblems of an outdated oppression, as symbolised by Lindsay Anderson’s explosive allegorical 1968 film, If. In 1973, Labour’s Roy Hattersley told prep school heads of the party’s “serious intention” to reduce and eventually abolish independent schools. It seemed logical to assume that the Berlin Wall separating private and state education would soon be dismantled.

How wrong could you be? As the Oxford historian David Kynaston, one of the most acute current critics of private education, observes: “Endless reports point to the privately educated stranglehold and the sheer disparity in life chances, but I’ve yet to see an editorial in a serious broadsheet, including the Guardian, or more than the occasional speech by a politician, that squarely confronts the issue.” He adds: “It is a sad shortfall in what is supposed to be a mature democracy.”

We have recently heard the now familiar arguments on this question from the Sutton Trust, social mobility tsar Alan Milburn, academic John Goldthorpe and Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw, while the Labour MP Dan Jarvis spoke recently of how “the daughter of a cleaner in … Kingstone, Barnsley, [should] have the same life chances as the son of a barrister in Kingston upon Thames.” Rousing stuff, but how likely is this to be achieved as long as a pupil at an expensive independent school has as much spent on their education in one year as the average UK citizen earns in total and a student at a state school outside London is educated on roughly £4,000 a year – about half a term’s fees at Westminster?

While the 700 or so pupils seat themselves in the body of Westminster Abbey, no less, to hear me, I am locked in vigorous disagreement with Derham: he is determined to put me straight on the perception of private education. (Mine is well out of date, apparently.) Certainly, Westminster is far from the Hogwarts image of old. It is more ethnically diverse and is co-educational in the sixth form. For all that, the grand public schools still offer, as in my father’s day (he was a Westminster pupil long ago) a smooth route to the top with yearly fees between £24,000 to £33,000 and the highest rates of acceptance to Oxbridge of any school in the country.

A key part of the elite product on offer, even to boarders born in Beijing, is familiarisation with the architecture and atmospheres of the English establishment, including regular services in the stained-glass glow of the abbey and the chance, today, to hear school musicians play the heart-stoppingly beautiful first movement of Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, at which point I nearly lose my resolve.

I don’t want my speech to be just one more incantation of the injustices of our country’s shameful educational apartheid. I describe the interesting near misses of history, such as that pre-1944 possibility of reform, and more significant victories such as Finland’s astonishing decision in the 1970s to abolish all private and selective schools, thus creating one of the world’s finest and fairest education systems.

We have to find a new way through this old, old problem. Up to now, there have been two main paths to potential reform: outright abolition, as perennially called for by a few brave souls – the playwright Alan Bennett, for example – or the intermittent requests placed on the independent sector by nervous governments to do more to help state schools. Some private schools sponsor academies, although these experiments can have a whiff of patronage about them and have had very patchy results. Meanwhile, a few top private schools, such as Westminster, have backed highly selective sixth-form free schools, often at great cost to the public purse.

Serious attempts to claw back anomalous tax advantages from the independent sector have usually ended in failure. In 2011, the courts in effect returned to private schools the right to decide what constitutes “public benefit” in return for charitable status. In 2014, the then shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt was roundly criticised for daring to suggest the withdrawal of business-rate relief unless independent schools entered into a more meaningful partnerships with state schools.

But there is a third way. In Kynaston’s words, this is the “harder route to reform”: abolition of the fee-paying principle and integration of private schools into a national system. It is hard to imagine, in the current climate, any major party contemplating it. For all their supposed evangelism about educational inequality, the Tories have offered no serious challenge to private education: far from it. The whip hand only ever hovers over the underfunded and ever more demoralised state sector.

Labour, too, has shown little appetite for the fight in recent decades. But Jeremy Corbyn’s idea for a National Education Service provides a sound framework for a fundamental rethink. And political moods can change quickly.

As I tell the Westminster pupils, Finland teaches us significant lessons. Reformers need to build consensus for change across the political spectrum while resisting a return to the grammar/secondary modern divide as the price of integration. The very first thing Derham says to me as we file out: “You know you’d have to bring back selection?” But for someone like Kynaston this is “a second-order issue compared to the ending of fee-paying education.”

As for the pupils, my talk is met by what feels like a slightly tense silence. Most are rushing to classes but one boy thanks me for saying “really necessary things about the privilege in this place”. Later, both the head and chaplain send me courteous thank-you notes, indicating that I have stirred up a great deal of debate, and caused some students much “wrestling with the issue”.

What have I learned from this experience? That the next critic of private education to speak in any similar place should suggest a full-on debate, bringing in pupils from nearby state schools. Let the conversation begin.

A very English mess

Nice try, Nicky. Despite official efforts to bury the bad news of the  government’s major volte face on forced academisation under rolling election coverage, Morgan’s climbdown late last week has been widely publicised and celebrated by what had turned into a formidable array of opponents stretching right across the political spectrum.

In the end, Morgan dared not defy a handful of powerful Tory backbenchers or shire leaders – according to one, the government had simply ‘gone bonkers’ – implacably opposed to having their local power over education destroyed.

But there was a different sort of retreat, just as significant in its way, also at the end of the week.   Free school founder Toby Young, now stepping down as CEO of the West London Free School he set up in 2011,  has expressed regrets at his ‘arrogance’ on school reform in a Schools Week interview, in particular his criticism of other teachers, heads and local authorities. ‘I hadn’t grasped how difficult it is to do better.’

It appears that Young (who now claims that his remarks were taken out of context) has finally caught up with some of the more complex social and political reasons why so many local schools can’t keep pace with the rich, socially selective independent sector that he so admires.

For anyone who has crossed Young over the years, this was a bitter sweet moment ( my phone was buzzing all afternoon).  Let’s not forget the huge part he played in undermining public and parental confidence in state education, particularly non-selective schools,  during the early years of the Coalition which led some commentators seriously to suggest that critics of free schools were ‘actively evil.’

It all feels like another age now. Both Morgan and Young’s retreats signal one more important staging post in the fast diminishing credibility of the school reforms unleashed by the Tories after 2010. If Gove brought an intellectual energy and spurious coherence to a fundamentally flawed project, Morgan embodies the rabbit-caught-in-headlights nervousness of someone placed in charge of a convoy of rackety vehicles that now threatens to veer out of control.

Huge change has been forced through our system at all levels on scant evidence and even less meaningful consultation. There is no substantive proof that academisation is the answer to improved school performance and I don’t know anyone who still argues that  free schools remain a vehicle for meaningful parental involvement.Young himself, an exceptionally well -networked figure in Tory circles, was always an outlier.  Most new free schools are set up by existing chains or groups.

The once alluring mantra of choice and competition,  kick started by the Tories in the late 1980s rings hollow under a government characterised by a crass, heavy handed centralism on everything from school structures to refashioning the curriculum, but an administration not centralised (or merely efficient) enough to avert the continuing crisis in school places, teacher recruitment and workload, or sort out an increasingly rogue school admissions system.

We are left, for the moment, with a typical English mess. The government is still committed, in theory, to an all academy system by 2022 and pledged to force  immediate conversion on on those schools that don’t meet rigidly prescribed bench marks. Given that it’s largely schools in poorer areas serving poorer children that fail to make the often unrealistic grade,  look out for a return of partisan, and now revengeful, rhetoric about ‘under performing’ Labour local authorities.

English education will continue to be split, and run,  along parallel lines: those still working under the often loose aegis of the local authority ( still 74% of all schools),  and academies, most of these now in chains or herded into Multi Academy Trusts ( MATs), all under the notional supervision of the newly created somewhat mysterious and undemocratic figures, Regional School Commissioners.

Meanwhile, Morgan’s disastrous decision to agree an annex to a Kent grammar ( Gove turned the proposal down during his tenure in office) has, as predicted, let loose a flood of applications for expansion of grammars into previously non-selective areas, causing consternation within many communities, wanting further improvement in their local schools not a new, hugely divisive, tier of provision.

Morgan’s retreat on academisation will not, on the face of it, halt other reforms proposed in what some have suggested might be the ‘ most unpopular White Paper in living memory.’  According to a special report by the academic journal Forum, proposals in the paper amount to the ‘continued refashioning of the whole school system’ including the dangerous atomisation of teacher training, increasingly hierarchical schools and a continuing degrading of democratic accountability.

There remain, then, plenty of really important battles still to fight. And new ideas to develop.

All this poses an interesting dilemma for Labour. On the one hand, there is clearly widespread hunger, if not desperation, for an alternative vision in education. ‘High expectations’ yes , but within a pragmatically oriented, well resourced, well supported system, with light touch democratic accountability.  On the other hand, most school leaders and teachers are depleted and demoralised. Too much change,  too many changes of official mind.

Labour, who has scored some notable parliamentary successes in recent months,  is sensitive to this perceived need for politicians to press the pause button. But with four years still to go, the party would be wise to start widespread consultation on everything from reform of the curriculum, genuinely fair admissions and high quality teacher training.

After all, if politicians, past and present, had heeded educational professionals more and listened less to provocative and self-promoting figures like Toby Young, we might not have got into such a mess in the first place.

An edited version of this piece published in Guardian Comment on May 9 2016.