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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”