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15 November 2023

Letter of the week: Diverse education

Write to letters@newstatesman.co.uk to have your thoughts voiced in the New Statesman magazine.

By New Statesman

I enjoyed Melissa Denes’ wide-ranging piece on private schools (“What are private schools really selling?”, 10 November). However, it misrepresents the racial diversity of the sector. It uses Katharine Birbalsingh’s views on the “wokeness” of private schools – along with the fact that a school Denes visited had few black children or staff – to portray diversity initiatives as inauthentic. But private education has a higher proportion of ethnic-minority pupils (38.5 per cent) than state schools (35 per cent). Part of private schools’ raison d’être is to preserve class divides. But the story on race is not so simple. Ethnic-minority parents are increasingly seeing private schools as a way for their children to succeed. Labour should examine this, rather than pretend it isn’t happening.
Dan Johnson, London SE27

[See also: Letter of the week: Starmer’s struggle]

Listen up

Andrew Marr’s clarion call for storytelling (Politics, 10 November) noted an important caveat: “to try to change the minds of those listening”. Therein lies the problem.

Many in the UK are struggling with the cost-of-living crisis and are simply focused on getting through the next days and weeks; they don’t have time to listen. Many are too occupied wrestling with degrees of despair – either over their personal lives (with the burden of caring, perhaps) or the (climate-changed) future being bequeathed to their children – to listen. And far too many hold fast to a sense of entitlement; they are not willing to listen. Inequalities of income, wealth and opportunity underpin all this. That is a story that desperately needs telling.
Michael Haskell, Broughton, Flintshire

High-definition writing

“Western policymakers have interpreted Iranian intentions over the past four decades not as a combustible mix of tactical pragmatism and eschatological fervour but through a hermeneutics of secular rationality.” Am I alone in requesting the New Statesman issue a “Dictionary required” warning ahead of articles such as John Jenkins’s “The Iran Trap” (10 November)?
Mark Bignell, Tuddenham, Suffolk

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THANK YOU

Schools of thought

Melissa Denes has produced a superb, forensic exhumation of the many issues surrounding independent education (“What are private schools really selling?”, 10 November). I feel it’s almost churlish of me to suggest one significant omission. Put simply, for many readers, private education – along with private healthcare – cannot be justified on ethical grounds. Education and health are fundamental rights; no one should have favoured treatment or be deprived of good provision on the arbitrary grounds of income or social class.
Colin Richards, Spark Bridge, Cumbria

Melissa Denes if anything understates the degree of state support for private schools. Most private-school teachers are trained at state-supported higher education institutions, receive access to state loans for tuition and maintenance, and belong to the state-subsidised Teachers’ Pension Scheme.

Together with the various tax breaks, the average taxpayer whose children will never go to a private school are enabling wealthier families to gain an even greater advantage over the average taxpayer’s children. Such public benefit as the schools provide – which are highly arguable – will never offset this. One could hardly have a better example of wealth being transferred to people who are already quite sufficiently wealthy from those who are much less so.
Roger Brown, Southampton

Melissa Denes writes about her visits to “three of England’s most exclusive schools” in the independent sector. She should have chosen a more representative sample. She could have found it among the 650 schools belonging to the Independent Schools Association, of which I am president. These schools account for nearly half the membership of the Independent Schools Council (ISC). They are virtually unknown outside their local communities, which they serve faithfully alongside colleagues in the state sector, in some cases as part of organised partnership projects in music, drama, sport, the arts and specialist subject teaching (there are nearly 9,000 of these altogether involving ISC schools).

The hard-working families without large incomes who send children to these mainly small (some with no more than 150 pupils), unpretentious but highly successful schools do not deserve to be hit by the brutal tax increase that Labour proposes. Some will be forced to move their children to schools in the state sector. It cannot be right that they should be uprooted in this way. Has any significant support for Labour’s punitive tax proposal been voiced by state schools?
Alistair Lexden, House of Lords

This week I spent a day in a room with 100 or so other state- and independent-school leaders plotting ways in which partnerships between our sectors could do even more than they already do to enrich education for all children in the UK.

Returning home, I pick up my New Statesman and read the sadly predictable article making the case against the sector I work in and advocating Labour’s policy to impose VAT on private-school fees. What is depressing about that policy is not only its inevitable outcome (slightly fewer independent schools, charging higher fees and with consequently less positive impact in their communities) or its cynicism (even if it raised the amount sometimes claimed, no serious commentator actually believes this would be enough even skim the surface of the underfunding of the state sector), but its lack of imagination and ambition.

I absolutely agree with Hans Broekman, the principal of Liverpool College whose views Melissa Denes cites approvingly, saying it is “time for a more radical reimagining of what education could be, for everyone”. But it is also time for a radical reimagining of the contribution the independent-schools sector might make to that prospect. A Labour government of real ambition would disdain tired stereotypes and grasp the opportunity not taken by its predecessors in 1945, 1974 or 1997. It would work with the independent-schools sector to secure real, tangible benefits for the 93 per cent of pupils who do not attend private schools.

I am confident that those benefits would far outweigh any that might result from charging VAT on fees. And Labour would be working with the grain of the majority of independent schools and the vast majority of my colleagues who lead them. Perhaps the New Statesman could start a process of constructive dialogue in your next article on this subject?
Melvyn Roffe, principal, George Watson’s College, Edinburgh

Parents who send their children to private schools are not simply buying social privilege, as Melissa Denes suggests. Many of them want their children to be able to explore their interests in the arts, drama, classical music and classical languages. An old and good form of socialism wanted these good things to be offered to children in maintained schools as well. Sadly, our present political leaders are happy to buy these opportunities for their own children while squeezing them out for the rest of us.
Stephen Barber, Witney, Oxfordshire

Bad times today

I wonder whether Salman Rushdie’s “obscure reference to a song by Creedence Clearwater Revival” mentioned in Sarah Baxter’s Diary (10 November), was the song “Bad Moon Rising”. Its 1969 lyrics were never more prescient.
Helene Witcher, Stirling

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[See also: Letter of the week: Temperate conservatism]

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This article appears in the 15 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Desperate Measures