Private education is not just for oligarchs and aristocrats. Photo: Getty
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How Labour's hostility towards private education could damage the disadvantaged

The Labour party's attack on fee-paying schools is simplistic and harmful.

Here we go again. Labour is attacking private education for causing a “corrosive divide of privilege.” They want to enforce a “School Partnership Standard” to make these evil fee-paying schools channel more resources towards the greater public good. If they don’t comply, then a Labour government will take away their tax reliefs.

We all want to see more children from less advantaged backgrounds gain greater social mobility, but this kind of visceral proxy class-war needs unpicking.

To be fair to Tristram Hunt, he has identified a problem. All too often, children from poorer backgrounds do not get the education or know-how they need. But while his observations may be correct, his solution is wrong-headed, and panders to pseudo class envy. He knows better than most the benefits of a private education, but his proposals will close the door on children who could access the same advantages he enjoyed.

The savings available to independent schools through tax reliefs are more than recouped through not having to educate their pupils in state schools. Let’s not forget that parents of privately-educated students are, in effect, paying twice for education. First, through their taxes and secondly, through school fees.

Fee-paying schools also provide great help to the wider education landscape. Eton College, in my constituency, provides opportunities for many children from modest backgrounds through summer schools; sponsorship of local colleges; shared access to its world-class facilities and a huge number of full bursaries and scholarships for less well-off children.

Labour’s plans would give bureaucrats licence to criticise schools whose schemes do not fit rigid criteria, and nothing kills a sense of public duty quicker than undeserved criticism. Threatening independent schools with financial punishment for political gain will make the situation worse.

Schools who have their tax reliefs withdrawn will raise their fees or close their doors. Many parents will have no choice but to return their children to the state sector, placing an even greater burden on the education budget.

The "corrosive divide" would be replicated at a higher cost to taxpayers by Labour’s approach, because parents who can afford it will simply pay for private tutors to give their kids the edge. This will further entrench the imperfections that Labour say they want to tackle.

Private education is not just for oligarchs and aristocrats, as some would have us believe. While some parents are indeed wealthy, most make huge personal sacrifices to give their children the chance to attend a fee-paying school. Neither are private schools the preserve of the academically elite. Many specifically cater for children with learning difficulties such as dyslexia, dyscalculia and Asperger’s.

Having grown up in a single-parent household in social housing for much of my childhood, I am determined that we do not allow the circumstances of birth dictate where we end up in life. Blaming fee-paying schools is as simplistic as it is harmful.

I am however optimistic, because there are practical ways in which we can improve social mobility. By allowing the fee-paying sector to grow, we will see a diverse provision of educational services to choose from which will bring down prices. New educational institutions already offer fees close to the current cost of state education, and schools that provide excellent results at affordable prices will continue to attract parents. At the same time we must, of course, continue to push up standards in state schools so that fee-paying schools feel the pressure to deliver even better value-for-money.

And we can open up top-quality education to more youngsters with academic aptitude, regardless of background. Why not significantly increase the number of bursaries and full scholarships for less well-off families?

In the same way that wealthy entrepreneurs have donated large sums of money to academies in areas in which they have a personal connection, philanthropy has a role to play in boosting scholarships and bursaries. The Royal National Children’s Foundation already does excellent work in helping thousands of at-risk children into top boarding schools. This scheme can be expanded further and the criteria widened.

We must remember that education is a public good in its own right. Independent schools must of course continue do their bit to retain charitable status but do we really want institutions that equip children with knowledge and skills to receive no better tax treatment than a commercial firm?

There is much more to do to open up opportunities to disadvantaged children. The expertise of fee-paying schools is a key tool in the fight and it would be disastrous to endanger this progress.

Schools, independent and state-funded, must work together, yet challenge each other, to shape better teaching. We must put prejudice aside and recognise the positive role that fee-paying education can play in creating a rising tide of social mobility that lifts all boats.

Adam Afriyie is Conservative MP for Windsor. He was shadow minister for science and innovation from 2007-10 and now chairs the Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology (POST) and the Parliamentary Space Committee

Adam Afriyie is the Conservative MP for Windsor

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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