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8 January 2001

Reform the private schools

NS/Fabian Society Second-Term Agenda - Reform the private schools

By Harry Brighouse

Even better than old Labour, new Labour should understand how private schools compromise social justice. Socialists, after all, seek something close to equality of income and wealth; and if there were such equality, educational inequalities would not matter much, since education would not provide access to superior resources. But new Labour accepts the great inequalities of income and wealth generated by capitalism. It wants to make those inequalities fair through equality of opportunity.

Although precise figures are hard to get, it is clear that private schools spend, on average, more than twice as much per pupil as state schools. But this does more than boost the performance of children who attend private schools. It also depresses state-sector performance. Private schools can pay higher salaries, so they suck the best-qualified teachers away from state schools: an Eton administrator recently boasted that every maths graduate with a First entering teaching in the next decade will go into the private sector.

State schools also lose many relatively able, relatively well-behaved children, and their pupils are thereby deprived of what sociologists call beneficial “peer group effects”. Every class has fewer well-behaved children who bring with them an academic home background. Less-advantaged children do better, other things being equal, in schools with a more heterogeneous population than in schools with high concentrations of high-need pupils. Yet the abolition of private schools remains politically impossible. What can Labour do instead to promote equality of opportunity?

The main lesson from the private sector is that, other things being equal, spending more money in schools improves outcomes. By spending twice as much per pupil, the private schools, according to the latest academic studies, add more value, and this with children who are already close to being saturated with educational resources. This should be no surprise: wealthy parents don’t spend £9,000 per child per year frivolously.

The government should set a ten-year timetable, by the end of which spending per pupil in the state sector will equal that in the private sector. This could almost certainly be achieved without doubling spending in real terms: as state schools improve, they will attract the private schools’ clientele, so the income (and spending) of private schools will decline. Hypothecated tax increases (earmarked for education) and increased university tuition fees could yield the extra money.

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Second, the government should make the charitable status still enjoyed by most private schools conditional on philanthropic action. Though charitable status benefits private schools to the tune of only £63m against a total school fees’ turnover of £2.5bn (1995-96 figures), it is symbolically important, and many schools would want to retain it. They should be made to bid for charitable status, and the government should set clear – and quite demanding – criteria for a successful bid: for example, that schools provide full scholarships to children from low-income families, but refrain from selecting them on the basis of ability; or that they establish partnerships with high-need inner-city schools, sharing teachers and facilities.

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Third, the government could use the model of the Milwaukee parental choice program in the US. This takes children from households with income at or below 1.75 times the national poverty level. The government pays the same as it would for the child to attend a state school, and the private schools may not charge top-ups. Crucially, the latter are not allowed to discriminate on the basis of race, special educational needs, past academic performance or past behaviour – thus meeting the main objections to the Tories’ assisted places scheme. (There’s nothing wrong, in principle, with educating poor children outside the state sector. But if private schools want to be credited with contributing to educational equality, they cannot be permitted to cherry-pick.) When a Milwaukee private school is oversubscribed under this scheme, it must select by lottery.

It would be hard to force schools to take part in such a scheme. But the government could organise the admissions, and provide financial support if schools took more than 20 per cent of their intake on this basis.

Finally, the government could tackle the most glaring educational inequality of all: although only 7 per cent of children attend private schools, almost half the undergraduates at universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, the London School of Economics and Imperial College are privately educated. These universities, in return for their public subsidies, should be required to follow the model of the great public universities in the US, which take their mission to be educating the whole of the public, not just some privileged sector. They consider academic achievement alongside factors such as the region where applicants live and the kinds of schools they attended.

The government should set targets whereby the elite universities would admit 70 per cent of their undergraduates from the state sector within five years, 90 per cent within ten years. The universities should get more money for state-educated students – and even more for low-income students – than for privately educated undergraduates. An unconditional top-up grant (of, say, £500 a year) to undergraduates from low-income families who attend elite universities would create an incentive for them to apply.

These measures fall short of abolition. But they would reshape the relationship between the private and state sectors, and provide incentives for private schools to contribute to educational equality. New Labour is right that unequal incomes can be fair only if opportunities for people are equal. It should therefore tackle these educational inequalities with enthusiasm.

Harry Brighouse is professor of philosophy of education at London University’s Institute of Education. This article – the fifth in a series on ideas for a second Labour term – is based on his pamphlet A Level Playing Field: the reform of private schools, published by the Fabian Society at £7.50