Education’s Berlin Wall: the private schools conundrum

Does a better social mix make these schools acceptable? The left has been silent on this issue for the past 40 years.


High and mighty: in 2013 Tony Blair’s alma mater Fettes, one of Edinburgh’s top independent schools, was ordered to increase its intake of poorer pupils. Photo: Murdo McLeod.

Something happened near the end of 2013. John Major called “truly shocking” the way that “the upper echelons of power . . . are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle class”; the Guardian ran the arresting front-page headline “PM’s despair at private school grip on top jobs”; the Times columnist and former Tory MP Matthew Parris dared David Cameron to seize his Clause Four moment and compel private schools to accept 25 per cent of their intake on a state-funded, means-tested basis; even Nigel Farage of Ukip, analysing the Ashes debacle, declared: “Our Test team, like so many sectors of our public life, are increasingly a reflection of the private education system.”

And the left? As so often in the past 40 or more years, it stayed largely silent on the issue of public schools. Indeed, only one senior Labour politician, Andrew Adonis, consistently addresses it in any big-picture sense. The failure of nerve is palpable, even embarrassing. And as so often, it is a failure rooted deep in history.

The modern story begins in the 1940s (centuries after Eton, Harrow, Westminster, St Paul’s, Charterhouse, Winchester and others were endowed and established to provide an education for the poor). “Though engaged in a death struggle with Hitler,” noted an American observer in 1941, “England is at this very moment liter­ally seething with plans for the reform of the public [ie, private] schools, from which almost anything can result after the war.” The tangible upshot was the Fleming committee, established in 1942 and reporting two years later. This had only limited left-wing input but, almost 70 years before Parris, did recommend that 25 per cent of places be allocated to children who would benefit from boarding, funded by a national bursary scheme. “The Public Schools are saved,” commented a relieved Tory politician, the education minister Rab Butler, “& must now be made to do their bit.”

In the event, Flemingism amounted to little more than the proverbial hill of beans. Whether on the part of the private schools themselves (once fee-paying demand began to pick up soon after the war) or the ministry of education (resistant to state bursaries) or the local education authorities (unwilling to see their brightest pupils creamed off) or working-class parents (reluctant to have their children removed to such an alien environment), the lack of enthusiasm was almost total – resulting in only minimal implementation of the scheme. As for the left specifically, it was reluctant to accept a quarter of an inadequate loaf at a time when, amid “the 1945 moment”, the tantalising possibility seemed to exist of something altogether more ambitious: in short, full-scale integration of the private and the state systems, or even abolition of the private.

George Orwell certainly thought so. “The Stock Exchange will be pulled down, the horse plough will give way to the tractor, the country houses will be turned into children’s holiday camps, the Eton and Harrow match will be forgotten . . .” was how he had looked ahead to the postwar socialist future in his 1941 essay “The Lion and the Unicorn”. So too the TUC, which in its response to the Fleming report flatly stated that it had no wish “merely to transfer this [system of educational] privilege from one group in the community to another group”. They reckoned without Clement Attlee. Labour was in with a thumping majority after the July 1945 general election, a bewildered upper class had not yet had time to regroup, and here apparently was a unique opportunity to end a crucial source of political, social and economic privilege – but the Old Haileyburian was simply not willing to go there. “He saw no reason for thinking that the public schools would disappear,” ran the report of the PM’s reassuring speech on a 1946 visit to his old school in Hertfordshire. “He thought the great traditions would carry on, and they might even be extended.” Which left only one game in town. The correct approach to the private school question, Labour’s education minister Ellen Wilkinson insisted at about the same time, was to make state schools “so good and so varied” that it would become “quite absurd” to educate children privately.

The matter was next on the table in the late 1950s, as Labour tried again to formulate a policy, this time against salutary polling evidence that “an overwhelming majority of parents”, including working-class parents, were “in favour of private spending on education” – and that “any attempt to stir up hostility against private education would probably only seem curious to the electorate”. The outcome was Learning to Live, a document that denounced the private sector (“damages national efficiency and offends the sense of justice”) but argued that the higher priority was to improve the state system (“capable of great advances”). The journalist Geoffrey Goodman was appalled. “It is almost inconceivable,” he wrote to the New Statesman, “that a party dedicated to the concept of greater equality . . . can argue that privilege of any kind will wither away in an acquisitive society, provided you offer ‘suitable’ alternatives.” The magazine itself was unmoved. “Some day,” it reflected later in 1958, after the party conference had confirmed the policy, “Labour must clearly make away with the fee-paying public schools; but it had better choose its own time, which will not be until the comprehensive schools have been firmly established in sufficient numbers and have had time to show their merits.”

Did it have to be either/or? After all, the privately educated Anthony Crosland had advocated, in his influential book The Future of Socialism (1956), the integration of private and grammar schools into a single “comprehensive” state secondary system, an approach that by the early 1960s was chiming with the rapidly emerging national mood that questioned the leadership capa­cities of the old establishment. It was also clear by this time that Labour was likely to win the next election on the back of that mood. “Some of us expected a sharp attack,” recalled Repton’s John Thorn, who in 1965 joined a cluster of other private school heads to have dinner with the new secretary of state for education, Crosland. “Now,” drawled the minister at the end as he leaned back in his chair, “what are we going to do about these damned public schools? I suppose we must have a royal commission, something like that.”

So it was. Over the next few years, as Crosland’s comprehensive revolution in state secondary education got under way, the Public Schools Commission deliberated, finally recommending in 1968 a form of super-Flemingism: in this case, a group of private schools that over the next seven years would assign at least half their places to state pupils with boarding needs, their fees to be publicly subsidised. The report received a thorough caning. Crosland’s successor-but-one, Edward Short, called it “somewhat unhelpful”; Tony Benn thought it “a ghastly document”; and the Guardian accused the commission of “proposing, in effect, to use mainly backward, deprived, or maladjusted children to cure the public schools of their social divisiveness”. Unsurprisingly, nothing happened, and the report was left to gather dust.

It was a piquant state of affairs. “I have never been able to understand,” Crosland had written, back in 1956, “why Socialists have been so obsessed with the question of the grammar schools and so indifferent to the much more glaring injustice of the independent schools.” Did he now feel a sense of failure? Why, he would be asked in the 1970s, had he not tried to abolish private schools when he had the chance? Crosland answered to the effect that, at a time when many state school conditions were still Victorian, it would have been a strange use of resources to be finding maintained places for the 6 per cent of children hitherto educated privately. That was presumably an honest reply, but of course there were other reasons why Labour, during the meritocratic, opportunity-seeking 1960s, failed to lay a glove on the private schools: an awareness of Richard Crossman’s warning to his party against policy “actuated by motives of envy”; libertarian considerations; the inconvenient truth that many Labour MPs educated their children privately; perhaps above all an inability to decide (in the retrospective words of one of Crosland’s senior civil servants, Wilma Harte) “whether these schools were so bloody they ought to be abolished, or so marvellous they ought to be made available to everyone”. “The problem,” Crosland conceded in 1970, “is still there, and we shall eventually have to come back to it” – an assertion, notes his biographer Kevin Jefferys, made “more in hope than anticipation”.

In fact, there was time for one final, forlorn initiative before the great freeze. “A better social mix in no way makes the private schools more acceptable,” Labour’s shadow education secretary Roy Hattersley, no Flemingite, told prep school heads in 1973. “It merely gives them a spurious political respectability.” And he went on: “I must leave you with no doubts about our serious intention initially to reduce and eventually to abolish private education in this country.” Despite Auberon Waugh’s characteristic message of support in the New Statesman – “if the privileged were not so easy to identify, the unprivileged would not be so difficult to appease” – the outcry was immediate, loud and hostile, Frank Fisher, master of Wellington, accusing Labour of proposing “an act of educational vandalism unparalleled in the history of the free world”. In the run-up to a probable election year, Hattersley’s leader rowed back. He agreed in principle, Harold Wilson explained on Panorama, about discouraging private education, but it was “not a high priority”; off the record, he complained that Hattersley had “got religion”.

And that, notwithstanding a vague commitment in 1979 to abolition, was more or less that for the next four decades – decades in which the private schools systematically got their academic act together and became relentlessly formidable, highly resourced exam machines. Even in Michael Foot’s “suicide note” manifesto of 1983, Labour did not promise anything beyond ending their charitable status; and it is startling to scour Tony Benn’s diaries through the 1970s and 1980s and find so little about the issue. The input from risk-averse New Labour was predictably nugatory. It abolished the Tories’ Fleming-lite assisted places scheme but put nothing in its stead; a belated attempt to tackle the charitable status scandal foundered; even Adonis concedes that Tony Blair, albeit the first prime minister to send his children to state secondaries, was “politically and personally – Durham Cathedral School, Fettes, Oxford – not minded to put himself seriously at odds with the private schools”. Gordon Brown had his unfortunate Laura Spence moment in 2000 and thereafter steered almost wholly clear of the subject. Like equality more broadly, it was simply off the agenda. And, to an overwhelming extent, that remains the case four years on from New Labour.

Why? Why is the British left as a whole, and not just the Labour Party, so uncomfortable with the matter? There are several possible explanations, but arguably two stand out.

The first is the understandable concern that to concentrate on private schools, with their superior academic achievements (even if gained on a severely sloping pitch), is implicitly to denigrate state schools. Many on the left have a huge emotional investment in state education and are reluctant to concede that private schools may have intrinsic merits, including an unambiguously single-minded focus on university admission on behalf of the academic child. One of us, privately educated, had an instructive experience last summer on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week in a discussion about social mobility. Raising the question of private schools and their malign impact on equality of opportunity elicited little or no support from Zadie Smith and Owen Jones – both of whom were state-educated and would undoubtedly consider themselves as on the left, but seemed reluctant to say anything that might have negative connotations about state schools. It is impossible not to respect that point of view; yet such silence is frustrating if one believes that the success of state education is directly and negatively affected by the private sector.

The second explanation also has an invidious element, not least because many left-of-centre people, especially among the metropolitan intelligentsia, went to private schools and/or have sent their children to private schools – and consequently have felt inhibited talking about them. The classic institutional example is the Guardian: day in and day out a fine newspaper, but seemingly unable or unwilling to forge and proclaim a consistent editorial line on the subject. Among its columnists there is none finer than Polly Toynbee, who fearlessly and forensically tackles so many topics but remains muted on this one. If these assertions are correct, it is a dismal state of affairs. Children seldom determine where they go to school; parents make decisions about education for any number of reasons. What matters is establishing the most beneficial educational structure, socially, for the future – and that debate should be open to anyone, free from tawdry accusations of bitterness or hypocrisy.

****

Why, then, are private schools (still) a problem? They are for the most part excellent institutions that remain in largely recession-proof demand, particularly in London and the Home Counties. Why should we not just leave them to it?

They matter because of their continued dominance, acting as a roadblock both to upward and (less often noted) downward social mobility. The stats are well worn, but an inventory of privileged access retains the power to shock.

PM an Old Etonian? Check. Mayor of London? Check. A of C? Check.

Deputy PM, Chancellor, Chief Whip all privately educated? Check.

Over a third of MPs, over half of doctors and leading chief executives, over two-thirds of judges, barristers and leading journalists? Check. Top sportsmen, top musicians, top actors? Check.

Sherlock? Check. Moriarty? Check. But Sherlock doesn’t like to talk about it.

All this is not just down to talent and “character”. There is a systematic process at work of giving better educational – and subsequently professional – opportunities to those already from the best-off backgrounds. Although private schools educate only 7 per cent of the population, their students take up almost half the places at Oxbridge and one-third of the places across the whole Russell Group. According to the education charity the Sutton Trust, an independent day school student is 55 times more likely to win a place at Oxbridge and 22 times more likely to go to a top-ranked university than a state school student from a poor household. It is not just education that the parental chequebook buys but the assumption of a substantial socio-economic premium. There are, after all, only so many available rungs on the ladder.

Justifications for the status quo boil down to four principal arguments:

 

1) The true engines of social mobility

With their scholarships and bursaries, private schools portray themselves as the solution, not the problem. This is indisputably the reason for their historical charitable status: they were founded to educate the poor, not the rich. (Eton’s founding charter of 1440 prescribes education “without exacting money or anything else”.) And any negative article will elicit an irate response from head teachers claiming that their schools do plenty.

We need to look closely at the facts. As one examines the figures for the 1,223 member schools of the Independent Schools Council (ISC), a few things become clear: although 33.7 per cent of pupils at private schools receive help with their fees, two-thirds of these are either reductions for military, clergy, siblings and staff, or scholarships, and generally they provide only a quarter of the average day fee (barely one-tenth of the average boarding fee); only one in 12 private school students receives a means-tested bursary; and among these, 58.6 per cent are still paying at least half the full fee. The number of students in receipt of a full bursary, paying no fees at all, is fewer than one in a hundred.

The ISC’s are not the easiest figures to unpack, and it is hard not to suspect a degree of sleight of hand – fees presented as termly figures but bursaries as annual, conflation of fee assistance for boarding and day students. Even as bursaries increase, their total value up by a fifth since 2010, the fact is clear: the overwhelming majority of students at private schools are still fee-paying, and most of these students are paying the full amount. For every example of a child from a poorer background receiving significant financial support, there are multiple children whose parents are paying heavily for the privilege.

Which leads to the much-voiced response of parents who make “sacrifices” to put their children through private school, who are not “rich” in their own right but who work hard and make tough choices. Again, the facts are not on their side. Let’s look not at the minnow, but at the whale – leaving aside for a moment the 13 per cent of private school students who are boarders (including the Etons, Harrows and Winchesters that suck up most of the oxygen from the debate, with boarding fees averaging £33,400 yearly) and focusing instead on the 87 per cent who are day pupils, generally at schools few people have heard of.

The parents of a student at a private day school pay £11,500 on average each year. This is not a figure that the average household – disposable income of approximately £25,000 – can afford. More than this, we should not merely be comparing against the average: we should include and indeed concentrate on the poorest, including those families whose children are eligible for free school meals (annual gross income of less than £16,190). If you are in a position to pay fees, or even a substantial portion of fees, you are far removed from the reality of most parents and are paying to confer an advantage on your child that very few can afford.

2) The real problem lies elsewhere

Defenders or acceptors of the status quo prefer to focus on the state system (not good enough) or the grammar schools (the solution or the real evil, depending on the viewpoint). The latter, though, is a separate debate. Yes, it is an anomaly that 165 grammar schools still exist. Arguably – particularly given recent research which suggests a predominantly middle-class intake – they should go. But their only relevance to this debate is as proof of the potential excellence of state schools.

As for focusing first on the state sector (80 per cent of which is now rated good or outstanding) and leaving the private sector well alone until an ill-defined point in the future, it is an argument that has not moved since Attlee and Wilkinson in the 1940s, and has been only ever an excuse for inaction. One has only to witness pushy private school parents on a touchline to realise that the state sector will never achieve its full capability without them; and it can only be damaging that so many of our leading figures are not personally invested in this most crucial part of our society.

Education is not just another item or service to be bought or sold. It is the most formative part of any child’s upbringing and simultaneously the most powerful engine of cohesion we have. In a society in danger of being torn apart by rapidly increasing divisions in wealth and privilege, education is the one place where all parents and children can be brought together with a common purpose.

3) Defenders of the flame

Private schools argue that they should be protected as outstanding institutions of learning, particularly in the humanities (especially languages and classics), and that for this they rely on their independence. Historically, there is a lot of truth to this: private schools have not been subject to government utilitarianism. But it is an argument that has been fundamentally undermined by the game-changing emergence of state academies and free schools over the past decade. Again, the exact successes and failures of these are separate debates; what they have unarguably done is establish within the state sector the principle of previously impossible levels of independence, including the content of the curriculum.

4) The right to choose

The libertarian argument is the strongest defence the status quo still has – the right for parents to spend their money how they like. It is the defence made by Nick Clegg, under pressure on LBC Radio in January 2013 about whether he would educate his eldest son privately: “I just want the best for my child, and that’s what I think most people listening to this programme want for their children.” (Come September, Clegg’s get-out-of-jail card was the same as Blair’s – the London Oratory, a high-performing Catholic state school.) Yet in the same interview he denounced the “great rift” between private and state as “corrosive for our society and damaging to our economy”. And here lies the question, unacknowledged by Clegg – to whose right do we give priority?

As a society, do we prioritise the right for individuals to educate their child as they wish (a phantom right for most people, given that fees are not an option), or the right of every child, including the poorest, to an even start? It is not the child’s money that is spent on fees; no child has earned the right to a better education, just as no child has failed to earn that right. It is a question of liberty – the maximum possible liberty consistent with a like liberty for others. Do some parents have the right to pay for an education that indirectly harms the life chances of other children by blocking their path?

****

Very few on the left, given the chance to design a national education system from scratch, would include private schools. And it is extremely hard not to look at the schools’ original charitable purposes and be angry at how these have been twisted. Yet instincts of destruction have got the left nowhere: the schools still stand, thriving, and the only consequence is an antagonistic, circular debate – as well as the understandable reaction of the private schools to run a mile from state integration, fearing the iron bulldozer behind the velvet glove.

The question is not whether these schools should exist. We are where we are. The question is, are they educating the wrong children? And how do we end the divide to make them part of the common weal?

A consensus of sorts has started to take shape. In September 2011 David Cameron summoned head teachers from leading private schools to Downing Street, urging them to do more to justify their charitable status and reduce the apartheid. In May 2012 Michael Gove spoke in graphic detail about the “sheer scale, the breadth and the depth of private school dominance of our society” and about a “stratification and segregation [which] are morally indefensible”. And in October 2013, the chief inspector of schools, Michael Wilshaw, told private school heads at the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) that their existing partnerships with state schools largely amounted to “crumbs off your tables, leading more to famine than feast”.

There seem to be three proposals in play. The first is a range of variations on the old idea of more state-funded places at private schools – not only from Matthew Parris, but also from Peter Lampl at the Sutton Trust and Wellington College’s Anthony Seldon, a brave voice for change from within the independent sector. New Labour, of course, ended the assisted places scheme in 1997, rightly arguing that at best it was a middle-class sticking plaster. Under Lampl’s proposal for “open access”, roughly a third of places at an independent day school would be fully funded and another third partly funded; the claim is that more than 80 schools would be willing to adopt the scheme.

Separate from this are the two newer approaches championed in Andrew Adonis’s book Education, Education, Education (2012). The first is to draw private day schools into the state sector as direct-grant academies, in effect nationalised as all-ability, non-fee-paying, state-funded schools. So far six schools have taken this route, most notably the historically prestigious Liverpool College (a moment Adonis describes as “perhaps the single biggest breach in the Berlin Wall between the private and state sectors of education in recent decades”). Their results are strong; their ethos, governance and management are unchanged; the one difference is that they have given up fees and academic selection, opening their intake to children of all backgrounds. Given sufficient political will, Adonis believes, this group could grow to between 50 and 100 schools.

Realistically, the conversion process will not run south of Birmingham; it is in part reliant on schools feeling the economic chill. Where the private education market is thriving, the other new approach is to make every private school the sponsor of an academy, and for many to become leaders of academy chains. This has begun gradually: 34 ISC schools now sponsor or co-sponsor an academy, less than 3 per cent of ISC members. Seldon has called that “agonisingly slow” process “the most frustrating challenge of my career”, citing resistance among private school governing bodies. But with Eton and Wellington prominent in this movement, the aim is systematically to leverage the expertise, influence and resources of the private sector to improve partnering of state schools – a plan to end private schools’ isolation by allowing them to take responsibility for the success of not only their own students but those in local state schools as well.

It is a plan still in its early stages but gaining momentum. Michael Wilshaw is hardly a darling of the left – and is held in particularly low esteem by teaching unions – yet his remarkably frank and critical speech to head teachers at the HMC last October should be read in full: he makes clear that the existing partnerships do not amount to nearly enough and that “if you believe, as so many of your original founders believed, that how you deal with wider society and how you relate to those children less fortunate than your students defines you as schools”, then much more must be done. And as he notes, without more genuine integration the only other step available is to concentrate the minds of the private schools through university quotas that actively reduce their socio-economic premium. (University College London has already instigated moves in this direction and other top-flight universities are weighing up whether to follow its lead.) The private schools have had their clarion call; the coming months will see how they answer.

Which brings us back ineluctably to our question: where is the left as a whole in this debate? Why are Cameron and Gove highlighting the questions more than Labour’s front bench? Private education has somehow been treated differently from virtually any other area of public policy: too difficult, too emotionally charged, the time not yet ripe.

There is a moment to be seized. The loosening up of the state system through academies and free schools has blown away the old plea of the private schools to be left alone in splendid, independent isolation; social mobility is going backwards; the question of our rich/poor divide in education has been spotlighted not only by the make-up and social background of our current cabinet but also by the increased profile of organisations such as Teach First, dedicated to enhancing equality of opportunity. While on the left we have the haunting, ever more distant memory of 1945, with the knowledge that missed opportunities take a very long time to come round again.

In his New Year message Ed Miliband claimed that people “do not want the earth” but prefer credible specifics, as embodied in his pledge on energy bills. Yet, however skilfully done, there is enormous danger in a strategy of pick-and-choose if it vacates the rest of the field to others. The left should not see the private school question as insoluble, nor too dangerous to touch, but rather as the potential cornerstone of a narrative about a less divided society. It is a debate that should be open to all, regardless of which side of the divide they stand: bringing together all parents, all teachers and all children to craft an education system that gives opportunity to every student, and does not reserve the best prizes for a privileged few.

David Kynaston’s latest book is “Modernity Britain: Opening the Box – 1957-59” (Bloomsbury, £25). George Kynaston recently taught for two years at a comprehensive school in the West Midlands