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Schools who have their tax reliefs withdrawn will raise their fees or close their doors.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

Arsène Wenger. Credit: Getty
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My biggest regret of the Wenger era? How we, the fans, treated him at the end

Arsenal’s greatest coach deserved better treatment from the Club’s supporters. 

I have no coherent memories of Arsenal before Arsène Wenger, who will leave the Club at the end of the season. I am aware of the Club having a new manager, but my continuous memories of my team are of Wenger at the helm.

They were good years to remember: three league titles, seven FA Cups, the most of any single manager in English football. He leaves the Club as the most successful manager in its history.

I think one of the reasons why in recent years he has taken a pasting from Arsenal fans is that the world before him now seems unimaginable, and not just for those of us who can't really remember it. As he himself once said, it is hard to go back to sausages when you are used to caviar, and while the last few years cannot be seen as below par as far as the great sweep of Arsenal’s history goes, they were below par by the standards he himself had set. Not quite sausages, but not caviar either.

There was the period of financial restraint from 2005 onwards, in which the struggle to repay the cost of a new stadium meant missing out on top player. A team that combined promising young talent with the simply bang-average went nine years without a trophy. Those years had plenty of excitement: a 2-1 victory over Manchester United with late, late goals from Robin van Persie and Thierry Henry, a delicious 5-2 thumping of Tottenham Hotspur, and races for the Champions League that went to the last day. It was a time that seemed to hold the promise a second great age of Wenger once the debt was cleared. But instead of a return to the league triumphs of the past, Wenger’s second spree of trophy-winning was confined to the FA Cup. The club went from always being challenging for the league, to always finishing in the Champions League places, to struggling to finish in the top six. Again, nothing to be sniffed at, but short of his earlier triumphs.

If, as feels likely, Arsenal’s dire away form means the hunt for a Uefa Cup victory ends at Atletico Madrid, many will feel that Wenger missed a trick in not stepping down after his FA Cup triumph over Chelsea last year, in one of the most thrilling FA Cup Finals in years. (I particularly enjoyed this one as I watched it with my best man, a Chelsea fan.) 

No one could claim that this season was a good one, but the saddest thing for me was not the turgid performances away from home nor the limp exit from the FA Cup, nor even finishing below Tottenham again. It was hearing Arsenal fans, in the world-class stadium that Wenger built for us, booing and criticising him.

And I think, that, when we look back on Wenger’s transformation both of Arsenal and of English football in general, more than whether he should have called it a day a little earlier, we will wonder how Arsenal fans could have forgotten the achievements of a man who did so much for us.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.