Labour's challenge to bring private schools back into the fold

Cross-party consensus is needed if former direct grant schools are to be persuaded to re-join the st

Labour should grab the chance that Michael Gove's recent Brighton speech has offered to end the dominance of the independently educated, and negotiate to let the old direct grant schools back into the state sector.





The Sutton Trust has done the groundwork. They say that 80 of the best schools in the UK want to return: schools like Manchester Grammar, King Edward's Birmingham, RGS Newcastle and The Grammar Schools at Leeds want to be able to serve the whole community, as they used to do.

It is the Labour Party's approval that these schools need - Gove has signalled his support, but they want a settlement for the long term, one that will not be troubled by changes of government. There is, in the Sutton Trust, an intermediary  trusted by everyone, well able to facilitate the process. If negotiations go well, Labour could bring St Paul's, Westminster and others of the great charitable schools along too, and make a decisive change to our educational landscape.

Ending the dominance of independent schools by other means is a slow and uncertain business. At the current rate, it will take a generation or two to get there. Welcoming back a phalanx of great schools (it will be much easier for them to make the move together, rather than facing the critics one by one) will get us there quickly and certainly.

Schools returning to the state system would operate a needs-blind admissions system, with affordable fees dependent on parental wealth. Admission rules would be crafted and monitored to make sure that all children had an equal chance of admission, and that advantage could not be bought. This is not, of course, the case with most existing state grammar schools, but there are ways of getting there, pre-application support for candidates, tests and interviews designed to draw out potential rather than achievement, balloting, banding, the use of thresholds rather than selecting just the top scores in the entry tests, and rules to keep catchments socially broad and remove hidden barriers to entry. The old direct grant schools used quotas - crude but effective.

The net result of allowing the direct grant schools to return would be that many gifted children from disadvantaged backgrounds would get a better education than they do now. If the great charitable day schools joined in, the remaining independent sector would be confined to the provision of specialist education, where I do not doubt that it would flourish, and state education would gain its proper place in the eyes of academics and recruiters.

These two great prizes justify infringing on the principle of no selection for state education, especially since the trespass is not great. The volume of selection in England will not increase: it will just be better directed.

The Labour Party has not had a chance like this since 1945. The last government's work in increasing the independence of schools within the state system, the prospect of a long recession and the spirit of the times have combined to provide another. I hope that they take it.


Ralph Lucas is Editor of the Good Schools Guide and a Conservative peer

 

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Leader: Theresa May and the resurgence of the state

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years.

Theresa May entered office in more tumultuous circumstances than any other prime minister since 1945. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union was a remarkable rebuke to the political and business establishment and an outcome for which few had prepared. Mrs May recognised that the result was more than a revolt against Brussels. It reflected a deeper alienation and discontent. Britain’s inequalities of wealth and opportunity, its regional imbalances and its distrusted political class all contributed to the Remain campaign’s ­defeat. As she said in her speech in Birmingham on 11 July: “Make no mistake, the referendum was a vote to leave the European Union, but it was also a vote for serious change.”

When the financial crisis struck in 2007-2008, David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, was caught out. His optimistic, liberal Conservative vision, predicated on permanent economic growth, was ill-suited to recession and his embrace of austerity tainted his “modernising” project. From that moment, the purpose of his premiership was never clear. At times, austerity was presented as an act of pragmatic bookkeeping; at others, as a quest to shrink the state permanently.

By contrast, although Mrs May cautiously supported Remain, the Leave vote reinforced, rather than contradicted, her world-view. As long ago as March 2013, in the speech that signalled her leadership ambitions, she spoke of the need to confront “vested interests in the private sector” and embrace “a more strategic role” for the state. Mrs May has long insisted on the need to limit free movement of people within the ­European Union, and anticipated the causes of the Leave vote. The referendum result made the national reckoning that she had desired inevitable.

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years. She has promised worker representation on company boards, binding shareholder votes on executive pay, improved corporate governance and stricter controls on foreign takeovers.

The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has set the ­Labour Party on a similar course, stating in his conference speech that the “winds of globalisation” are “blowing against the belief in the free market and in favour of intervention”. He pointedly criticised governments which did not try to save their domestic steel industries as China dumped cheap steel on to global markets.

We welcome this new mood in politics. As John Gray wrote in our “New Times” special issue last week, by reasserting the role of the state as the final guarantor of social ­cohesion, Mrs May “has broken with the neoliberal model that has ruled British politics since the 1980s”.

The Prime Minister has avoided the hyperactive style of many new leaders, but she has deviated from David Cameron’s agenda in several crucial respects. The target of a national Budget surplus by 2020 was rightly jettisoned (although Mrs May has emphasised her commitment to “living within our means”). Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement on 23 November will be the first test of the government’s ­fiscal boldness. Historically low borrowing costs have strengthened the pre-existing case for infrastructure investment to support growth and spread prosperity.

The greatest political ­challenge facing Mrs May is to manage the divisions within her party. She and her government must maintain adequate access to the European single market, while also gaining meaningful control of immigration. Her statist economic leanings are already being resisted by the free-market fundamentalists on her benches. Like all prime ministers, Mrs May must balance the desire for clarity with the need for unity.

“Brexit means Brexit,” she has repeatedly stated, underlining her commitment to end the UK’s 43-year European
affair. If Mrs May is to be a successful and even transformative prime minister, she must also prove that “serious change” means serious change and a determination to create a society that does not only benefit the fortunate few. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories