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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Women's bodies should not be bargaining chips for the Tories and the DUP

Women in Northern Ireland have been told for too long that the Good Friday Agreement is too fragile to withstand debates about their reproductive rights

When Members of Parliament are asked to pass laws relating to when and whether women can terminate their pregnancies, women’s rights are rarely the focus of that decision-making process. You need only look at the way in which these votes are traditionally presented by party leaders and chief whips as “a matter of conscience” - the ultimate get-out for any MP who thinks their own value or belief system should get priority over women’s ability to have control over their bodies.

Today’s vote is no different. The excellent amendment that Labour MP Stella Creasy has put before the house reveals not just the inequalities experienced by women in different parts of the UK when it comes to being able to make decisions about their health, but also the latest layers of subterfuge and politicking around abortion. 

Creasy’s amendment seeks access to the NHS for women who travel to England and Wales from Northern Ireland seeking abortion. Right now women in Northern Ireland are pretty much denied abortion by legislative criteria that limits it to cases that will "preserve the life of the mother" - (that’s preserving, not prioritising) - and pregnancies under nine weeks and four days. Rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality are not included as grounds for termination. The thousands of women who thus travel to England are refused free abortions on the NHS - confirmed by a recent Supreme Court ruling - on the grounds that this is a devolved matter for Northern Ireland. 

The idea behind devolution is that power should be more evenly and fairly distributed. It is not intended to deprive people of rights but to ensure rights. In refusing to exercise the powers available to him, Health secretary Jeremy Hunt is rightly acknowledging a difficult history of power imbalance between Westminster and Stormont, but he is also ignoring a wider imbalance of power, between men and women.  

There is so very much wrong with this arrangement. But a further wrong could be done if, as reports suggest, the Conservative Party whips its MPs to vote the amendment down in order to protect the regressive alliance with the anti-abortion Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that is keeping their fragile minority government in power.

Instead of taking this opportunity to respond to the demands of women of Northern Ireland, this government is setting out the parameters of its complicity in refusing to listen to them. 

It is not the first time. In 2008 it was reported that the Labour party struck a deal with the DUP to leave Northern Ireland’s abortion laws intact, in exchange for their support over detaining terror suspects without charge for 42 days. Labour said at the time that it was concerned about the impact on existing UK abortion laws if the debate was opened.

But not one woman has equality until all women have equality. Women’s bodies are not chips to be bargained and we should not be bargaining for one group of women’s rights by surrendering the rights of another group. The UK parliament has responsibility for ensuring human rights in every part of the UK. Those include the rights of Northern Irish women.

It’s time to wake up. It’s time to stop playing politics with women’s lives. Women in Northern Ireland have been told for too long that the Good Friday Agreement is too fragile to withstand debates about their reproductive rights – a fragility that was dismissed by the Conservatives as they drew up a deal with one side of the power-sharing arrangement.

It’s time to confront the fact that nowhere in the United Kingdom – taking Northern Ireland as a starting point rather than an end in itself – do women enjoy free and legal access to abortion. Even the UK’s 1967 act is only a loophole that allows women to seek the approval of two doctors to circumvent an older law criminalising any woman who goes ahead with an abortion.

As long as our rights are subject to the approval of doctors, to technological developments, to decisions made in a parliament where men outnumber women by two to one, to public opinion polls, to peace agreements that prioritise one set of human rights over another – well, then they are not rights at all.

The Women’s Equality Party considers any attempt to curtail women’s reproductive rights an act of violence against them. This week in Northern Ireland we are meeting and listening to women’s organisations, led by our Belfast branch, to agree strategy for the first part of a much wider battle. It is time to write reproductive rights into the laws of every country. We have to be uncompromising in our demands for full rights and access to abortion in every part of the UK; for the choice of every woman to be realised.

Sophie Walker is leader of the Women's Equality Party.

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