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16 July 2001

This love affair could go too far

New Labour has enveloped the private schools in a fierce ideological embrace. But the schools would

By Francis Beckett

This year, BBC Children in Need fell out of the top 100 charities in terms of income. In its place came Eton College, at number 72, not far below the National Autistic Society at 63, but well above the Poor Sisters of Nazareth at 93.

What are we to make of this? That Eton’s stock has risen amid rumours that the former Ofsted chief inspector, Chris Woodhead, is to be its next head? No, it is simply that new Labour education policy, the first principle of which is that there is nothing the state sector can do that the private sector can’t do better, has given fee-charging schools a strident confidence they never had under the Tories.

The schools spent years worrying that a Labour government might take away their privileges; in just one absurd anomaly, eight out of ten fee-charging schools have charitable status, enabling them to claim all the tax advantages designed for organisations that help the poorest. They quickly found not only that they had nothing to worry about, but that new Labour really wanted to help them. Now they have started worrying that ministers are a bit too devoted to them, and have moved decisively to escape new Labour’s fiercely ideological embrace.

Heads at fee-charging schools were alarmed to read newspaper stories saying that they were planning to take over state schools and run them, just as private companies such as Nord Anglia do already.

The idea originated in the fertile brain of Sir Cyril Taylor. Back in 1986, Margaret Thatcher’s education secretary, Kenneth Baker, anointed Taylor (then plain Mr) as the saviour of Britain’s education system, by putting him in charge of the first privatised state schools, the city technology colleges. These mostly failed to happen, because industry was not prepared to put in anything like as much money as Baker expected. A few CTCs made it, but most of the costs were met by the Treasury. Yet Taylor (knighted for services to education) is still in charge of education privatisation, and last September made a pilgrimage to an Independent Schools Council conference.

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There, he called on the assembled heads to show an interest in taking over state schools. They showed little interest. But this month, newspapers suddenly reported that fee-charging schools were planning to take over the running of state schools. This had all the hallmarks of government spin-doctors trying to force the pace, and the director of the Independent Schools Council, David Woodhead (no relation), acted at once to slow it down. He wrote to the Independent: “Leading independent schools are not ‘poised’ to run state comprehensives; nor is the Independent Schools Council aware of any ‘plan’ to increase such private sector activity – yet.”

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If independent schools were ever to run comprehensives, they would be found out, as their apparent success is almost entirely based on selecting clever children from mostly privileged homes. But the schools have two further worries. First, they want to be sure that they will not be expected to put up much money. I can reassure them on this one. Taylor used the words “sponsorship” and “partnership”. These are well-established code words. They mean, in practice, that the taxpayer puts up most or all of the money, and the private sector runs the show.

I find it harder to reassure them on their second concern: that they should not overplay their hand. In the last years of Tory rule, there was a fall in the percentage of the school population going to fee-charging schools, from a peak of 7.3 per cent in 1990 to 6.9 per cent in 1995. This has been arrested. Numbers have risen this year by 1.4 per cent, or 6,557 pupils.

The schools know that their recent success owes much to a friendly government. Ministers did fulfil their 1997 manifesto pledge to abolish the assisted places scheme, under which a few bright secondary pupils received means-tested assistance with fees. But ministers also reversed a hostile measure introduced by Shirley Williams, Labour education secretary in the 1970s. She removed from fee-charging schools the services of Her Majesty’s inspectors, so that they could no longer advertise themselves as being officially “recognised as efficient”. Now the schools have an easier ride than ever, because they are allowed to use their own, home-grown inspectors and inspection systems, and have Ofsted rubber-stamp the findings.

So fee-charging schools are on a roll. In the Thatcher years, they feared that one day they might face a hostile government. Now, short of Roy Hattersley’s rebellion succeeding, there is not the slightest prospect of that.

Does it matter? Yes, it does, for three reasons. First, if we keep repeating the lie that fee-charging schools are better than state schools, it will eventually come true. We will so undermine the confidence of state schools that there really will be only one way to get a decent education, and that will be to pay for it.

Second, fee-charging schools enable the rich to buy their sons and daughters a better future than the sons and daughters of the hoi polloi. They charitably provide a very few places for pupils whose parents cannot afford their fees, but what they are doing – quite consciously – is reinforcing class barriers, and then enabling a very small number of children to climb over them.

Third, they succeed in providing a better future for their pupils, not because they are better schools, but because British society is still riddled with snobbery. They remove the sons and daughters of the upper middle class and place them in ghettos where they meet only people of their own class. They then create similar ghettos, consisting of the same people, in our poshest universities – almost half the students at Oxford come from the 6.9 per cent of the population who went to fee-charging schools.

Oxford blames that on comprehensive teachers. The president of Magdalen College, Anthony Smith, claimed in a recent speech to know of a comprehensive teacher who “went to the home of one of her pupils to tell the mother that she would never see her daughter again if she successfully applied to a Cambridge college – she would no longer be good enough for her”. This is just one example of teachers quelling their pupils’ aspirations, he says.

Smith will not name the teacher or the school. All I can say is that I have written about education for some years and have talked to hundreds of comprehensive schoolteachers. I do not believe I have met a single one who would give anything but enthusiastic encouragement to a pupil with a chance of securing an Oxbridge place.

Smith’s spicy little tale is simply part of the attempt to show that our bog-standard comprehensives are no good, and that our education system will not work until they are handed over to the private sector to get licked into shape. But that is not the solution. We need a government that believes in the state giving the best to all children. Then Eton will not be among the top 100 charities, because it will not be feather-bedded with charitable status at all.