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11 December 2014

On schools, Labour finally addresses the 7 per cent problem

It is a fallacy that attention to the private-school question will distract from improving state education. For 70 years this has been a tired excuse to avoid a difficult problem. 

By George Kynaston

Change takes time. It is a lesson I learned as a secondary-school English teacher in Birmingham, gaining my qualifications on the job in a community hit hard by unemployment and a lack of opportunity. And it is a lesson reinforced by ten months of frustration since my father, the historian David Kynaston, and I wrote about private education in the New Statesman in January. Our essay sparked a wide-ranging debate about how to bring down what the NS in a leader called education’s “Berlin Wall”. The then education secretary, Michael Gove, wrote a reply but the Labour leadership remained silent.

And so it was with excitement that I read of the proposal by the shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt, for a school partnership standard, “requiring all private schools to form genuine and accountable partnerships with state schools if they want to keep their business rates relief”. Hunt’s policy will be flexible enough to allow schools to focus on local strengths and needs – such as the shared use of specialist teachers, joint extra-curricular programmes and collaborative university access efforts – but, for the first time, it will demand that every private school proves a demonstrable positive impact on state education.

The backlash has been predictable. The first criticism, of Hunt’s privileged background (he was educated at the selective, fee-paying independent University College School in north London), is irrelevant. Given the nature of the “7 per cent problem”, privately educated politicians – as well as journalists and parents – have to be part of the debate, otherwise reform is impossible. The second criticism is more invidious. It was exemplified by the Conservative MP Nick de Bois, when he said to the MailOnline: “Why is he [Hunt] attacking something that is successful and not focusing on how to continue the drive to improve education?”

As a nation, we are capable of dealing with more than one issue at a time. It is a fallacy that attention to the private-school question will distract from improving state education. For 70 years this has been a tired excuse to avoid a difficult problem. Hunt is being constructive: he is not seeking to abolish private schools but rather aims to leverage their resources for other students.

Most interesting is that, for all the noise, a consensus is emerging. Consider, for instance, the response of Mark Beard, the headmaster of Hunt’s alma mater, UCS. He accused Hunt of “espousing what some might deem an offensive bigotry”. Yet at the heart of his anger is a belief that Hunt’s attack is unjust because it ignores the work already carried out by private schools “to share resources, facilities, good practice and staff time”.

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The head of Ofsted, Michael Wilshaw, the former education secretary Gove and now Hunt have all called for greater partnership between state and independent schools. Private-school head teachers have not rejected the idea but rather many have embraced it. Their discontent arises only when they feel their efforts have been undervalued, or because they instinctively object to government compulsion. This is a considerable thawing of a debate once stuck in perma-freeze.

Private schools could start by publishing details of their existing partnerships, not only as a sector but school by school. If some are doing more than others, as they surely are, then schools can hold one another to account and expose the divide between the moderate, pragmatic voices for reform and reactionaries.

Labour, meanwhile, needs to use carrots as well as sticks: it could praise schools that are already partnering effectively and use those examples to combat scepticism. Those on the left who want further reform would do best to resist the urge to dismantle these plans because of their lack of radicalism.

There are still long-term questions to keep in mind. Consider Finland, where the right of every child to a fair start has largely trumped the right of parents to pay. Founded on the principle of equality, its education system has delivered excellence as well. We cannot stop asking whether we accept the fee-paying principle in education.

Even so, Hunt’s intervention is bold. He has overcome personal reluctance and ended a damning Labour silence by putting forward a sensible and practical policy. And he has done so at a time when questions of inequality and social mobility are more pressing than ever. It is a promising and much-needed starting point and Tristram Hunt deserves support for it. 

George Kynaston is a Kennedy scholar at Harvard and a Teach First ambassador.