The 7 per cent problem: how to reform private schools

Under a “Fair Access Scheme”, all independent schools would accept a proportion of their intakes from low-to-medium-income families. 

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The “7 per cent problem” – that small proportion of Britain’s children attending private school but then going on to enjoy so much privilege and influence in adult life – remains an emotive issue. Just last month Stowe’s headmaster, Anthony Wallersteiner, was ridiculed for claiming that earmarking more Oxbridge places for state school pupils is a sign of “social engineering”, and for likening critics of private schools to anti-Semites.

The Times, normally so friendly, followed up with an editorial emphasising the sector’s huge resource advantages and the fact that the schools ruthlessly game the system to get pupils into top universities. Politicians from both sides of the aisle are becoming a little less reluctant to speak out; and on 12 June a sold out public event is being held at the House of Commons, “Phasing Out Private Schools”, with a view to forming an all-party parliamentary group.

So where, at a potentially historic juncture, do we go now? What is the right way forward?

For starters, there is Labour’s 2017 manifesto promise to levy VAT on private school fees. This would raise as much as £2bn, which could be put to good use in state schools. The private sector would be reduced in size by about 40,000 pupils, which would cut a little into this windfall. But the proposal carries no narrative of reform, and, besides leaving the bulk of the sector intact, what remained of private schools would be that much more socially exclusive.

Also feasible, and probably more effective, would be to up the ante on universities’ use of “contextual admissions”. From timid beginnings, Oxford’s plan to expand its access programme, along the lines of Lady Margaret Hall’s successful foundation year (barred to any child who has ever attended a private school), signals that the university might really mean business. Cambridge is considering its own scheme. Warwick is extending its concession to up to four A-level grade reductions. The more universities take the privilege of an expensive private schooling into account, the less uneven the playing field. And the more private schools will be anxious about losing their fees-justifying USP.

The policy that might resonate most would be to somehow remove those schools’ charitable status: how absurd it seems that state schools must pay all their business rates, while most private schools get away with paying only one fifth. But let’s not get carried away with this: the schools could recoup their losses with less than half their annual fee increase. Most would protest loudly, while brushing this inconvenient fly off their backs.

Reducing the demand for private education is one approach. Another is to integrate the private with the state sector. To do this completely would amount to abolition and there remain many on the left who would support that. Nevertheless, an outright nationalisation policy carries hefty, perhaps insuperable, legal and financial obstacles, would risk losing what is good in the private sector, and is not necessary for achieving a fair educational system.

More feasible is a “Fair Access Scheme”, in which all private schools would accept a proportion – initially a third, later to be increased – of their intakes from low-to-medium-income families. The state would contribute the same amount of funds for these pupils as it does for those in state schools. Whether through parliament, local government or other agencies, the state would determine the criteria for allocating these places in what would have become, in effect, part of the state sector.

We would need to strengthen and enforce the Schools Admissions Code, to ensure that the reform does not lead to an expansion of academic selection by the back door. It is also important that the influx of less affluent children is properly managed with due attention to potential culture clashes; some state representation on governing bodies would be required.

The private school sector itself says that it is keen on becoming more accessible through using bursaries. This has not been successful so far and we are sceptical whether most schools could expand their bursaries provision very substantially.

The Independent Schools Council has proposed instead that private schools could admit 10,000 state-funded pupils each year, but this would constitute a small effort for a sector with more than 600,000 pupils. Some private sector leaders are known to be receptive to something like the Fair Access Scheme.

Yet it is no good just sitting back and waiting for either a “reform from within” or for private schools to fade away. And we must also face two other realities. The first is the futility of blaming left-liberal parents who go private – the dead-end politics of hypocrisy. Parents (even politician parents) all live in the world as it is, not as they might wish it to be, and they will do what they see as best for their children. Trying to make parents feel so guilty that they shun private schools won’t work.

The other reality is that the per-pupil resource gap between the private and state sectors is so huge – upwards of three to one, and rising – that the average private school is in some obvious sense “better”, whether defined by academic or other achievement, than the average state school.

How, given that grotesque and morally indefensible gap, could it be otherwise? To make that point is not – absolutely not – to denigrate the state sector, which is battling gamely against ever-greater resource shortages. But let’s not delude ourselves that private school parents are wasting their money.

If something is happening now, we urgently need a realistic discussion of how to enact this reform. A lasting solution to what has been a difficult and invidious issue is only going to be found through an inclusive and name-calling-free national conversation.

“Engines of Privilege: Britain’s Private School Problem” by Francis Green and David Kynaston is published by Bloomsbury

This article appears in the 07 June 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump alliance