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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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.