Eton's headmaster on abolishing private schools, Gove's reforms and free schools

Web-only extracts from Jason Cowley's interview with Eton headmaster Tony Little.

In this week's issue, NS editor Jason Cowley interviews Eton headmaster Tony Little and, with an eye to the growing clique of Old Etonians around David Cameron, asks "how the old ruling class became the new ruling class". You'll have to pick up the magazine to read the full piece (go on, subscribe), but here are some extracts, which didn't make the print version, which I thought might be of interest to Staggers readers. 

On abolishing private schools (or at least their charitable status)

I’m sure there are people who would wish to do exactly that [abolish private schools' charitable status]. I have no doubt. Outright abolition would be incredibly difficult, not least in terms of international law, freedom of choice is enshrined in the UN.

The charitable status issue is an interesting one. When this became lively a few years ago, and the charity commission started looking at it more closely, one of the interesting things was that schools like this, that haven’t sought to trumpet what they do...were suddenly being ‘outed’ about their charitable activity. However you want to cut it, this wasn’t something dreamt up in the past couple of years. We spend about £5m a year on bursaries. For over a quarter of a century we’ve run a summer school for state school students in preparation for university, about half of whom have ended up at Oxford and Cambridge. It’s not something we’ve thought to headline anywhere, it’s just something we’ve done. 

On whether public schools feel threatened by academies and free schools

I don’t feel threatened at all, we deliver a very distinct education and it is attractive to people around the world as well as in this country. We are in a different situation than an academically-focused day school. There is a huge difference between London and the rest of the country. I can see that if you are trying to run a high-quality academic day school and a free school opened down the road it could be challenging, but one of the great things about the independent sector is its resilience over the years. I have been a head for 25 years and we have had more than one downturn and this one is particularly savage. In the 1990s we had problems as well, with the high interest rates and the major recession. At the time I was the head of an independent school in Essex and there were quite a lot of parents at that time who were paying school fees out of own income or from their business, that was a very tough time. You have these waves of difficulties, but the independent sector as a whole has learned to adapt and move on. I am generally positive about the situation as long as the sector remains sensitive and responds to what is going on.

On the good and the bad in Gove's reforms

The good bit is rattling the cage, and rattling it mightily. We now have these pinpricks of light, of some outstanding practice. If I have to identify two positive changes in the travel of direction, the first is the Teach First scheme. We now have a quality of young people thinking of going into teaching, the like of which we haven’t had. It is the single best initiative that has happened in my professional lifetime.

...

The second thing is a by-product, which may not have been an intent, but it is palpable. It is the level of pragmatic conversation going on across the sector and between different people. When I started as a head 20 years ago, there was no conversation at all at local state schools, the drawbridge was up. Now, for example, I have a phone call from a chap I have never met before who is head of a converted academy in Hull and he’s seen something I’ve written about GCSEs, he’s got some ideas about GCSEs and ‘chat, chat, chat,’ would he like to come down to Eton? ‘Yes’. So we spent an afternoon talking about GCSE reform. That would have been inconceivable ten years ago. Certainly 20 years ago. 

...

The fact that I see no joined up plan [the downside of Gove's reforms]. Nationally – I’m talking about. That’s the worry to me...Huge amount of reform. Maybe too much. I think most of the people I work with can’t see the big picture we are aiming for. People can see merit in the individual things that are going on, but we don’t yet see the whole picture.

The boys of Eton College stand as headmaster Tony Little leaves morning assembly. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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