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19 February 2014updated 07 Sep 2021 11:08am

Letter of the week: Scrutinise private schools

By New Statesman

As the chairman of governors at an outstanding state middle school, I have no fear of Michael Gove’s comparisons with private schools (“Education’s Berlin Wall”, 31 January). However, such a comparison must be made on a fair basis.

Let private schools be subject to inspection by Ofsted, using the same criteria as for the rest of us, and let those reports be published. Let private schools be required to demonstrate how they improve pupils’ abilities, the value-added measure. Let private schools be judged on their efficient and effective use of money. Only when they are described in the same way as state schools will any comparisons be valid or useful.

Everyone would agree with the Secretary of State about the importance of continual improvement in the education offered to our children. Those of us directly engaged in it, however, would like him to show some fairness and consistency. Is this too much to ask?

David Bowen

Dorchester, Dorset

Schools of thought

Your article by David and George Kynaston (“Education’s Berlin Wall”, 31 January) raises many valid questions about school-age education. It is not, however, the full picture across the UK.

The article refers to both developments in England (and in part, Wales) and political figures at Westminster. But education has been devolved in Scotland for over a century – so the debate about free school/academy sponsorship, or charity legislation, or Attlee, Crosland, Hattersley and Foot, are of neighbourly interest only. Fascinating though the debate about the rights and wrongs of the system in England is, it would be worth remembering that the UK has four education ministers, from four different parties, and dozens of discrete bodies to deal with. Choice and diversity indeed.

John Edward

Director, Scottish Council of Independent Schools


The “Berlin Wall” between the independent and state school sectors exists because those who pay for the former want it to. Parents of children educated privately buy not just a particular kind of education but also enormous social capital: networks that last a lifetime. It is probably only the “top” schools that confer these networks and where, because your parents can afford such an expensive education, you mix only with others whose parents can also afford it.

So the Berlin Wall won’t come down. Social mobility continues to be obstructed by the existence of these schools. Their charitable status should be removed (if no political party is brave enough to abolish them).

Anne Reyersbach

London SW11

In his book Spheres of Justice, Michael Walzer observes that “parents take a much livelier interest in the schoolmates than in the schoolbooks of their children … Since so much of what we learn we learn from our peers, whom and what we know always go together.”

This is clearer now than ever. There was a brief period when the parents of the Milibands consciously opted for schools in need of improvement, as did their professional neighbours. Their children formed a critical mass of pupils who were clear that learning was important. At a high-achieving school such as in Channel 4’s Educating Yorkshire, the one element needed, but not present, was a core of children from the homes of our Prime Minister and cabinet. All would benefit.

Margaret Maden


The Kynastons make excellent points but miss out two critical factors. First, private schools are primarily responsible to their owners or trustees. Their governance structure is quite inappropriate for publicly provided schools, which have a much wider set of responsibilities, including to taxpayers and the whole citizenry, as well as to their local community in the broadest sense. Second, there is no case to sanctify private schools. As the OECD has pointed out, state schools in the UK perform much better than private schools once the differences in pupils’ socio-economic background are accounted for.

Ron Glatter, PhD FRSA

Emeritus professor of educational administration and management

Open University

The Kynastons’ article leads me to wonder how many of those in government and elsewhere who are currently demonising benefit claimants were once enjoying state benefits in the form of tax-exemption subsidies to the budgets of their public schools.

Derek Rowntree

Banbury, Oxfordshire

Anthony Seldon (“Education’s Berlin Wall”, 7 February) somewhat misses the point by wishing for an admissions system under which a quarter of pupils in fee-paying schools come from a lower socio-economic background. A system of elitism is still elitism, even where the children chosen for this privilege are from a different background.

Sarah Maynard Smith

Rothley, Leicestershire

I find the government’s beloved academies revolting. If the price of academic success is non-stop pressure, petty and totalitarian rules and no social life, it’s too high. Both governments and employers put far too much emphasis on paper qualifications.

Mark Taha

London SE26

Simple answer to the problem of the public school “Berlin Wall”: take it down. Like the monasteries, rich, used to power, doctrinally divisive; dissolve them. Use their endowments to fund the common weal. Done it before, do it again.

Mark Williams

Lewes, East Sussex

I couldn’t help noticing that the debate in the NS on education and the dominance of public life by those from privately educated, fee-paying backgrounds, was itself, er, dominated by people from privately educated, fee-paying backgrounds. If the NS is serious about improving education and life chances for everyone, perhaps it should start by allowing a few people who are not from selective educational backgrounds into the debate.

Keith Slater

Via email

Your discussion of private schools fails to mention a hidden cost of private schooling, namely expensive uniforms and other items such as a special bus pass. State schools have been moving towards inexpensive uniforms that can be bought from high street shops; academies have reversed this trend, demanding that pupils buy bespoke uniforms from single suppliers.

Matthew J Smith

New Malden, Surrey

Gove v Hunt

It seems that “if you are in no doubt what he [Michael Gove] stands for” and that “he may be wrong-headed but has the courage of his convictions” (Leader, 7 February), it’s OK.

But what does Gove stand for? We can only guess from policies based on a febrile nostalgia for an approach to schooling based in the 1950s and discredited in the 1970s; free schools monstrously over budget, half empty and in the wrong locations; a lack of local and national accountability; obscure and often chaotic funding arrangements that fail to keep pace with the rate of expansion; a growing list of academy chains making the most of private-sector freedoms to award their leaders banker-style salaries and perks; an increasingly fragmented school system based on laughingly termed “market disciplines”; and a dismissal of those who might know what they are talking about, or the so-called Blob. A little less conviction and a bit more humility would be good.

Peter Dougill

Via email

The Govian ambition to make it impossible to distinguish between a state and a private school is a mischievous fantasy. He knows full well what costs, financial and social, would be involved in achieving that, as do the parents who fork out huge sums to get access to private education. To pretend otherwise is delusional.

Peter Smith

Downham Market, Norfolk

Like you, I regret Labour’s silence on the subject of private schools, but your nasty dig at Tristram Hunt’s background (Leader, 7 February) was unworthy of you. His father was no Downton-style aristocrat but an eminent scientist who was the leader of Cambridge City Council before becoming director general of the Met Office and a Labour life peer. As for Hunt’s “exclusive” schooling, none of us should be held responsible for what is done to us aged 11.

John Baxendale


Your editorial was spot on. I went to a Compass education conference last month and heard Tristram Hunt speak on education for the first time. He was truly awful: not an idea in his head, nor a smidgen of charisma or vision. How could Ed Miliband have thought this product of the most elitist strand of our education system was up to the job?

Kathryn Dodd

London N16

Keep the faith

I’m sorry that Chris Simms (Correspondence, 7 February) missed the point of my letter (24 January). I was not trying to rationalise my desire to have children. What I was trying to do was to explain how Jesus’s teachings help me deal with a world where you are valued mainly for what you do and earn through paid work.

Ruth Lockley


It’s beneath you!

Rachel Cooke (“Feeding frenzy”, 7 February) is uncharacteristically wide of the mark. That participants in Channel 4’s Benefits Street “knew what they were doing” in being filmed does not mean that none of them was then misled or exploited for the sake of cheap prole-panto.

Sean Cordell


Dorling buds

Danny Dorling’s compelling NS Essay (7 February) at last creates an opportunity to give the coalition a good kicking. While the financial world of the filthy rich continues to appropriate power, wealth and health, it is now clear that early jettisoning of this mortal coil is to be managed for the lumpenproletariat, baby-boomer “tsunami” expected over the next 30 years. Pension problem solved. Housing problem solved. Social services problem solved. NHS problem solved …

Will McMorran

Via email

Dream weavers

Stuart Hodgson is offended to see weavers and typists placed on an intellectual level with software engineers (Correspondence, 7 February). Some weavers – perhaps I had better call them textile engineers – certainly have such a claim: ideas and technologies invented for looms contributed much to the development of the programmable computer.

Peter Robins

London SE15


The Hon David Runciman’s essay (“Notes on a series of scandals”, 31 January) on the forfeit of public trust in our major institutions, and widespread voter disenchantment, surprisingly misses some factors.

He fails to mention the underlying democratic deficit of the EU where now most of our regulations are made by unelected bureaucrats and we can, in practice, do nothing about them. Increasingly, the vacuum caused by this lack of sovereignty is filled by Ukip. The American war of independence triggered that slogan: “No taxation without representation.” And we now have a comparable position of regulation without rectification. In many respects, parliament is a charade and this is compounded by the fact that our criminal justice system, through the European Court of Human Rights, is controlled by others than ourselves – our borders likewise.

He also failed to mention public disquiet over our renewable energy policy – it will have no measurable effect on CO2 levels and yet we are subsidising the rich at the expense of the poor. And all to no purpose. No wonder the public is disillusioned – and disenfranchised. Why did Hon Runciman ignore these matters?

Lord Vinson

London SW7

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