The NS debate: what should we do about education’s Berlin Wall?

Leading educationalists respond to the question of public schools.

The boys of Eton College stand as headmaster Tony Little arrives for morning assembly. Photo: Getty.

In a wide-ranging essay in last week’s New Statesman, David Kynaston and George Kynaston challenged policymakers (especially on the left) to address the dominance of the private school minority in public life. This week, leading educationalists reply to the essay and offer their own solutions to what we are calling the “7 per cent problem”.

Anthony Seldon | Andrew Adonis | Laura McInerney | Tony Little
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett | Tristram Hunt

* * *

Open up the private schools to the poor
Anthony Seldon

David and George Kynaston have written one of the most thoughtful recent contributions about private schools. Their question, why has the left not done more to address the private school problem, is more pertinent than ever. Labour’s private school prime ministers, Clement Attlee and Tony Blair, proved far more successful electorally, winning five general elections and losing only one, than its state school premiers. Many of Labour’s towering figures have indeed been public school products, as have many of its private donors and most influential supporters. The party has rattled sabres in opposition, but once in power it has been uncomfortable doing anything to challenge the entrenched position of private schools. It has equally been as silent on another topic not mentioned in the Kynastons’ article, the stranglehold that the better-off have over top state schools.

It is not only Labour that has been silent. The Conservative Party, guided for nearly 40 years after 1965 by leaders who had attended state schools – Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher and John Major – and committed to equality of opportunity and a competitive economy, has been equally coy about private schools.

Private schools, for much of the past hundred years, and especially when the economy has been adverse, have had difficult periods. But since the 1980s they have forged ahead, in confidence and academic success. However much the state sector improved, and it has done so markedly in the past 15 years, the private sector has achieved still more. True, private schools in the north of the country and in rural areas have found it hard, but parents are still managing to find the fees. It has been a continuing misconception of the left that the private schools are full of rich children, sent by snobby parents who don’t want them to mix with those from ordinary backgrounds. Part of the left’s problem is its failure to understand the schools and their parents.

The myopia of the left about private schools does not stop there. It has taken as a given that parents of children in private schools should pay twice, through taxes and school fees, while refusing even to coun­tenance the possibility of affluent parents contributing to fees at top state schools. The left has proved equally out of touch in imagining that private school heads could not have any non-cynical reason for wanting to partner with state schools. It was risible hearing for years that the only reason why they wanted to do so, at heavy cost to the schools, was a cowardly wish to avoid losing their charitable status. Yet, since 2011, when the threat to the charitable status of private schools was lifted, charitable activity partnering state schools has increased. Many of the best-known critics of private schools on the left have never visited them. Those who have, like Melissa Benn, are often pleasantly surprised, even if it doesn’t change their outlook.

A January report from the Institute of Education argues that English education is among the most class-ridden in the developed world. It blames decades of inequality on the gap between the best schools and the worst. The problem of stagnating social mobility is worsening and we have no time to lose. To me, after a lifetime writing about education and working in schools, it has become clear that neither the Conservatives nor Labour alone will be able to produce the policies we need to give an excellent education to all, regardless of background.

Only a cross-party commission will be able to make the breakthrough that Britain so badly needs, as I argued in a report for the Social Market Foundation, Schools United, published last month. My particular focus is the bottom quartile. If we can advance their opportunities for education, we will transform the entire landscape. Only brave and radical change will solve the deep-seated problems we have. I thus propose that a quarter of places at private schools in Britain (as well as a quarter in the top-performing state schools) be reserved for bottom-quartile children. Places at top state schools could also be means-tested so that those who can afford to pay do so, which would bring much-needed money into the state system while guaranteeing that the principle of free state education for all stays untouched, because spaces at middle- and low-performing state schools would remain free even for the most wealthy. The affluent would either pay for the top places, or move to the less popular schools, where their muscle would drive up standards. True, some might switch to private schools; but as premium house prices in the catchment areas of top state schools often far outstrip private-sector fees, as the Reform Scotland think tank argued at the end of January, is that necessarily so unjust?

My own report proposes a series of further moves to build a more united school system, and hence a more united country. They include the cause I have long championed – all private schools should start named academies, and work with a proven academy provider or a successful state school to provide the necessary expertise. All state school pupils should have access to the breadth of educational experience and the preparation for careers that their counterparts at private schools enjoy. The left, sadly, has poured scorn on these ideas, preferring to cling to proposals that simply will not happen, such as the abolition of the private sector.

The left, as well as the right and centre, must be silent no longer: they must join forces along the lines I have suggested. Fail to do so, and in the next hundred years Britain will become even more polarised and fragmented.

Anthony Seldon is the Master of Wellington College and executive principal of the Wellington Academy

* * * 

Academies can make the difference
Andrew Adonis

David and George Kynaston describe brilliantly the reasons we are where we are. But what is to be done? The imperative is for a bold and credible reform that has a realistic prospect of achieving system-wide transformation, rather than piecemeal initiatives or utopian gestures that signify nothing. Systematically engaging good private schools with the academies programme is the policy to make a real difference. Good progress has been made since the launch of academies 14 years ago. It needs to be continued resolutely; if that happens, the sum will increasingly amount to more than the parts.

There are two options for successful private schools within the academies programme, and both involve a fundamental change to the institutional character of private schools, making them in effect state-private hybrids. First, good private schools, too, can become academies – or “free schools”, in the Gove lexicon, which legally are the same as academies. This reincarnates them as state-funded but independently managed schools, sustaining their ethos, character and standards while accepting pupils without fees on the basis of fair admissions (in other words, no eleven-plus selection).

So far, more than a dozen leading independent schools have taken this course, and the number increases by a few each year. The biggest coup is Liverpool College, one of the founding members of the Headmasters’ Conference in 1869, which last year became an academy and opened its educational excellence, facilities and 28 acres to Liverpool children without fees. It promptly received 600 applications for its year 7 places. As part of its transition to being an academy, it is increasing its total places from 730 to 1,150, and will continue to run a boarding house.

Hans van Mourik Broekman, headmaster of Liverpool College, is frank about the combination of altruism and self-interest which motivated the decision to become an academy. The affluent middle class is increasingly thin on the ground in Merseyside. Liverpool College could have continued in the fee-paying sector, small and select, but academy status is enabling it to become large and open, true to the progressive social mission that animated its foundation by Gladstone and the Liverpool merchants a century and a half ago. A Dutchman who exudes in equal measure educational professionalism and mystification about the English class system, Broekman was well placed to make the change.

Like Liverpool College, the other private schools that have become academies are all of high quality and great popularity in their localities. Mostly in the less affluent north of England, they include Birkenhead High School, the Belvedere School in Liverpool, William Hulme’s Grammar School in Manchester and the King’s School Tynemouth. The first two of these are run by the Girls’ Day School Trust, which operates a historic national chain of highly successful private schools for girls, several more of which are ripe for conversion to academies to fulfil their original social mission.

Not all the “converters” are in the north: there are two in affluent Bristol – Bristol Cathedral Choir School and Colston’s Girls’ School. As the success of Liverpool College and the other converters becomes well established, the altruism/self-interest dynamic could easily yield another 50 or 100 nationwide within a decade, forming a substantial new private/state sector.

The second option is for successful private schools – or the foundations behind them – to sponsor academies or free schools, taking responsibility for the governance and management of a school or schools in the state-funded sector as well as their existing school or schools in the fee-paying sector.

There are now several dozen of these “new” independent school academies. Here, too, the past year has brought a significant breakthrough. Eton and Westminster, the two most prestigious private schools, have become academy sponsors, taking sole or joint responsibility for the management of their new state-funded institutions.

Eton is the sole sponsor of Holyport College, a free school opening near Maidenhead this September for 500 pupils. It will be half boarding and half day, leveraging Eton’s boarding expertise, facilities and curriculum. Eton’s governors will henceforth be responsible for two institutions: one private-funded, one state-funded; one (essentially) for the super-rich, the other (essentially) for local families and those with boarding need, both with Eton’s reputation attached.

Westminster School is also opening a free school in September – in the shape of a sixth-form college for 500 16-to-18-year-olds with top GCSE grades who have the potential for entry to leading universities. The Harris-Westminster Sixth Form is being established and managed in partnership with the Harris Federation – one of the most successful academy chains, sponsored by the carpet magnate and philanthropist Lord Harris of Peckham. The initial places are far oversubscribed. Outreach to poorer communities is a central part of the mission: 70 per cent of the applicants are eligible for the pupil premium, and one in five is a pupil at one of the 27 existing Harris academies, all of which are in deprived parts of the south-east (mostly south London).

Here again, the change for the sponsoring private school is profound. Westminster School is located in the precincts of Westminster Abbey, harking back to its original charitable mission, and the chair of the school’s governors is always the Dean of Westminster, one of the most senior clerics in the Church of England. John Hall, the current dean, is conscious that the Church’s social mission sits uneasily with England’s foremost cathedral being physically and institutionally conjoined to one of the world’s most exclusive private schools, with fees of £33,000 a year. The Harris-Westminster Sixth Form academy will also conjoin it to a state-funded school for the less affluent.

Academy by academy, year by year, the private-state divide in education is being overcome. There is far, far further to go. But we have made a start.

Andrew Adonis, minister for schools under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, is the author of “Education, Education, Education: Reforming England’s Schools” (Biteback, £12.99)

* * * 

Follow the Indian model
Laura McInerney

Reading the Kynastons’ essay, one almost gives in to sympathy for the Labour Party. How difficult it must be to overthrow the private schools when so many politicians (and their children) have benefited from their hallowed halls. How tragic it would be to yank away the right of individuals to pay for tennis courts and Latin lessons. Your heart bleeds less, however, when you realise that India, a nation with a caste system, now requires all of its private schools to ensure that 25 per cent of their intake comes from the poorest children in a given area. And don’t think that they can pick out their favourites. The places are won by open, random lottery. Any child from a low-income family can enter; if he wins he must be admitted and taught. As far as India is concerned, if you want to be a private provider, you better be ready to take those most in need alongside those who can pay.

Much as the Labour Party has had to face continuous wailing over the private schools issue, India’s revolution was not quiet. Due to be introduced in 2006, the law was passed only in 2009, after agreement on the 25 per cent figure (a reduction from the 50 per cent initially posited). Predictably, wealthy parents complained. The irony of allowing lower-caste women to serve as their nannies while arguing that the children of these same women were unworthy to rub shoulders with their own children was lost amid complaints about “different sorts” of child.

The private schools also complained. Although the government reimburses every school for each poorer child it admits, it does so only at the same rate as any state school would receive for the child. With the extra cash for these children gone, the schools were concerned about the upkeep for their fancy facilities. Faced with being judged solely on their teaching – rather than their sports facilities and music rooms – many gurned. One can only imagine the long faces in England if we did likewise.

Nevertheless, India’s government persevered. It has sent watchdogs to tackle lottery rigging and the systematic mistreatment of students. Examples include poorer students being seated at the back of the classroom, or siphoned into separate classes altogether.

So, compare India’s bravery to the compromises offered, in the Kynastons’ article, by Peter Lampl of the Sutton Trust. It describes the generous-sounding proposal that private schools “open up” one-third of their places – just as long as they are funded by the government.

But read the original report and note the actual, complete proposal. It reads: “Open Access is a voluntary scheme that would open the best independent day schools to talented children from all backgrounds.” Did you spot the keyword? Private schools would open to “talented” children. But, one should ask, why? Why should private schools – with their extra cash and bundles of social capital – skim off only the most “talented” children?

And this is where a lie is made of the suggestion in the Kynastons’ essay that private schools are somehow of “intrinsic merit”. See, if private schools really are imbued with magic sauce why must they take in only the talented? Why not, instead, select 25 per cent randomly from among the ranks of the poor? (Assuming, of course, that they would wish to go.) Only it seems to me that the “inventory of privileged access” that the Kynastons say is bestowed on private schoolers can’t be attributed to intrinsic merit at all. It is merely down to a calculated selection of children. I wonder whether the private schools fear that if selection stopped, their not-so-greatness might be exposed after all.

Perhaps I am being harsh. Let us accept for a moment the idea that most private schools are superb and confer the best-quality teaching going (and, to be fair, this is true for some). Given such skills, why limit access solely to the talented? The poor-yet-dim child is surely at least as deserving of a great education as the poor-but-bright. In fact, given that a child who is both poor and struggling with school runs a greater risk of becoming unemployed, ill or homeless in the future, might it not even be prudent for him or her to be given such an excellent education?

The Kynastons provide us with a second option: Andrew Adonis’s idea of coaxing private schools into the state sector through the academies and free schools programme. (Rab Butler suggested a similar idea during the drafting of the Education Act 1944 but he was overruled by Churchill.) That only six schools so far have gone down this route suggests the policy is far from being a tide change. Oddly, though, the slow pace does not result from reluctance on the part of private schools. In the first year of the government’s free schools programme, 103 independent schools applied to convert to state-funded academies. However, only five were accepted. And of those five, three were labelled as “requiring improvement” at their first Ofsted inspection. Not the greatest sign that private schools are the answer to perceived state school problems.

Ultimately, the most important question is one posed by the authors: are private schools educating the wrong children? I’m not convinced by “wrong”; but they certainly aren’t helping. If Labour hasn’t the guts to get rid of the private schools it should at least ensure that their charitable status becomes dependent on them saving 25 per cent of places for children drawn at random from among groups with the most need – either those on a low income or those of low ability. Doing so will solve one of the main dilemmas outlined in the piece. It would allow the wealthy to exercise their right to buy a private education but stop them from any longer buying an “exclusive” one. Let us never forget that distinction.

Laura McInerney was a teacher in London and is now a Fulbright scholar studying education policy

The landscape is changing for the better
Tony Little

We are where we are. David and George Kynaston are right to draw attention to the failure of the Fleming report and the half-heartedness of subsequent attempts to address the gap between independent and state schools. But we are where we are because successive broad-brush attempts to realign systems have not been able to accommodate the spirit of independence. We conceive of ourselves as a free country and parents must have the fundamental right to choose how to educate their children.

If independent schools were marginal or feeble, they would, I suspect, pass unremarked. They are popular because they are, in the main, very good schools, not just in terms of academic results but because they celebrate true breadth in education. Indeed, there is a strong argument that independent schools have been able to sustain their vision of holistic education precisely because they are one step away from the fickleness of government policy.

As the Kynastons observe, “Education is not just another item or service to be bought or sold.” The best independent schools thrive because they embody deeply held beliefs about the value of education.

In Shanghai recently, I was in conversation with heads of top-performing schools in one of the highest-performing regions in the world. These are the Olympic medallists of contemporary measurement culture. Yet all, they said, was not right. They realise that the driven approach to exam success was not equipping their students effectively to be citizens in an interconnected world. And to whom do they look for some inspiration? British independent schools.

The best British independents are world-class. We would be foolish to undermine them. The question is how best to use what they have to offer.

For decades, independent schools have turned in on themselves, in part through a comfortable insularity, but largely as a consequence of the hostility they have received. When I started as the head of an independent school 25 years ago, it was made very clear to me by the local state school that there would be no contact of any kind between us. Often, when attempts have been made to bring schools together, they have been ham-fisted, built on the assumption that there is one definitive model that can be readily transplanted. Mistrust and resentment have followed. In recent times, the drive to push independent schools to sponsor an academy as the route to preserving charitable status was misguided. Most independent schools readily acknowledge that they do not have the expertise to tackle the particular issues faced, for example, by an inner-city comprehensive and shy away from patronising intervention.

Yet, if independent schools see themselves as part of our national provision, they must take the initiative and seek to be better connected, not as a reaction to political pressure, but as a moral imperative. Independent schools that are expansive create a richer culture for their own people as well as opportunities for others.

One way to create that richer culture is by making independent schools as open and accessible as possible. Schools should state their intent by publishing targets for increasing means-tested bursaries. At Eton at present, 263 boys receive means-tested financial assistance averaging 60 per cent remission of the fee, with 63 paying nothing at all. The short-term target is to raise that number to 320 with 70 on full remission – and then move on to the next target, with the ultimate goal of being, in the American phrase, “needs-blind”: in a position to take all suitable candidates irrespective of their family’s financial situation.

But above all, independent schools should find practical ways to work alongside fellow professionals in the state sector. They can play to their strengths. In Eton’s case, experience with academic high achievers in the sixth form led us to join a consortium of independent schools supporting the London Academy of Excellence, an academically selective, state-funded sixth-form-entry school in east London. Our belief in the transformative power of good boarding education has led us to be the educational sponsor of Holyport College, a new state boarding school. Relationships with local state school heads, developed over years, have led to the creation of an independent state schools partnership and support for a multi-academy trust.

The key to all such engagements is identifying practical outcomes – what works well. Relationships flourish when there are seen to be reciprocal benefits. In all the projects we undertake, our teachers and students have something to learn and something to give. Their understanding and skills are enhanced as much as those in the partner state school, if perhaps in different ways. Real school partnership is short on rhetoric, long on pragmatism.

The landscape is changing for the better, as witnessed by the quality and frequency of conversation between heads of state and independent schools who recognise they share a common purpose and simply wish to do the best for their young people. This is a meeting of minds that was rare a quarter of a century ago.

By their nature, independent schools exercise their independence. Some are wholeheartedly engaged in seeking to embrace a bigger vision of their purpose: others are not. The Kynastons describe a clarion call. All independent schools should wish to respond to it.

Tony Little is the headmaster of Eton

* * *

How to reduce class bias
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

There is a tendency to regard disparities in education, income, status and power as equally important forms of inequality. But in trying to understand human social hierarchy or, for that matter, animal pecking orders or ranking systems, one must take into account that they are all primarily about access to scarce resources. Parents send their children to private schools to give them a better chance of securing the best-paid jobs. Wanting your children to speak “nicely” and to have the manner and confidence – or sense of entitlement – that go with private education are simply means to that end.

We won’t know precisely how much private education contributes to the upper-class domination of politics, business, the judiciary, the media, medicine and so on, until we have managed to get rid of it and can see how much of the problem remains. We believe private education has very powerful effects, but even without it upper-class parents would still manage to pass on a large measure of privilege to their children.

The difficulty in abolishing private education springs directly from the way the establishment is dominated by its products. Abolition would provoke unified howls of abuse and ridicule from every powerful quarter which no government could withstand, unless it had the strongest backing from public opinion.

Our solution would be to implement policies that raise the price and weaken the value of private education as a means of gaining access to top jobs, so making abolition politically more feasible.

First, the data shows that societies with smaller income differences between rich and poor have higher social mobility. They also have higher overall standards and smaller differences up and down the social ladder. In measures of cognitive development among five-year-olds, in maths and literacy scores among older children, and in measures of child well-being, more equal societies achieve higher standards.

All the ways in which class and status imprint themselves on us throughout life are strengthened by bigger income differences. Because bigger material differences create bigger social distance, you cannot create a classless society without vastly reducing inequalities of income and wealth.

Policies to reduce income differences are therefore an essential part of any strategy to level the playing field from the earliest ages. That is not simply a matter of redistribution and the prevention of tax avoidance. It is also a matter of reducing differences in pre-tax incomes by supporting all forms of economic democracy, from legal provision for employee representatives on company boards to the expansion of employee ownership and producer co-operatives.

Second, we would also weaken the private school advantage in university entry, particularly to the better universities. This could be done partly by requiring that universities randomly allocate places to the highest-ranked applicants from each school. So pupils in the top 10 or 20 per cent coming from schools in the poorest areas would have the same chances as pupils in the top 10 or 20 per cent from Eton. Evidence shows that students from state schools do better at university than privately educated students with the same A-level grades, so this may raise rather than lower educational standards. This could be introduced to cover a low percentage from each school and then raised gradually. Each university would allocate places randomly among pupils who were among the best from each school applying to that university. There are several international examples of successful schemes similar to this.

To reduce further the class bias in entry to the professions and in job selection procedures, professional associations should be charged with the duty of monitoring progress and taking action against offending institutions.

As well as reducing the class bias in access to top jobs which private education perpetuates, measures should be taken to raise the cost of attending a private school. That would at least reduce the proportion of the population that felt it had a vested interest in protecting it. Private education’s charitable status should be withdrawn, and it should be taxed to pay for the external social costs that the perpetuation of injustice imposes on the rest of society. Policies of this kind would gradually change the class nature of our society and weaken the support for private education to a point where its complete abolition would become feasible.

Another reason why enormous inequality has survived in our society is that the public is unaware of its extent. To overcome this, the Equality Trust has developed a resource with information on the extent and effects of economic inequality in the UK.

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett are the authors of “The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better for Everyone” (Penguin, £10.99)
Info: equalitytrust.org.uk/about-inequality

What does Labour think?
Tristram Hunt

The shadow education secretary declined to comment on last week’s NS cover story or to write a reply.