We need an educated approach to education
I may be old-fashioned but I like my politicians to be reasoned and reasonable people who make sound arguments supported by objective evidence. Populist promises and ideological rants may excite political activists, but they don’t make for good government or a better Britain.
On Friday I was in Shanghai meeting with Chinese parents who were very excited about The Perse opening a Sixth Form college in Suzhou to teach IGCSE and IA level. They put aside any ideological concerns about British independent schools to welcome The Perse as a centre of excellence that could offer a first-class 3D education, giving students intellectual scholarship, wider learning through extra-curricular opportunities and personal development via strong pastoral care. On Saturday I landed at Heathrow to headlines that Labour would abolish independent schools, seize their assets and redistribute them. Jet lag disorientates, but I found the differences in the Chinese and Labour reactions to independent schools even more disorientating.
Perse staff and pupils know that if a new idea is proposed in school, my first question will be ‘what is the purpose?’ If the purpose can be clearly defined, then my second and third questions are ‘will this achieve the stated purpose?’ and ‘will it do so in a simple and efficient manner?’
I’m unclear as to the purpose behind Labour’s abolitionist policy. It could be a mix of positive and negative thinking. The positive reasoning might be that independent schools are sitting on a mound of money that if redistributed could finance facility improvements and additional staffing, thus improving the quality of state education and benefiting the 93% of children who attend state schools. The negative thinking might be that in destroying independent schools, the Labour party would be rooting out a bastion of privilege that unfairly advantages some children over others – without independent schools, children would have a more equal start in life.
The problem is that both these positive and negative strands of thinking don’t stand up to reasoned and reasonable analysis. Furthermore, the policy of abolition and redistribution may be unlawful as it could contravene the European Court of Human Rights and will be subject to multiple legal challenges. It may go nowhere slowly and as a policy instrument will be neither simple nor efficient.
Independent schools educate over half a million children at no cost to the state. If these schools were abolished then the costs of educating 536,109 pupils would transfer back to the state at a price of about £3.5 billion per annum. The state education budget is already stretched with large class sizes and limited resources. The arrival of half a million extra pupils ‘overnight’ would surely make a bad situation even worse.
Perhaps because the anti-independent school movement is focused on a few high profile schools, there is an assumption that all 1,300 independent schools are like Eton and Harrow, but they are not. In seizing independent school assets, Labour politicians may find themselves decidedly disappointed. The vast majority of independent schools have limited assets and reserves. Far from grabbing a mountain of money, politicians could be taking on private school debts and liabilities – picturesque Grade 1 historic buildings have huge upkeep costs that, because of their listed status, have to be met.
So abolishing independent schools and transferring their pupils and assets to the state is unlikely to have a positive effect on state school standards. Could abolition create a more equal educational playing field? I fear not.
The root cause of educational inequality is not the presence or absence of any one type of school. Educational inequality instead is a product of wider socio-economic inequalities in society. Whilst parents have differing incomes, there will be differences in educational provision. This is evident even in state schools where wealthier parents can afford to buy or rent homes in the catchments of good state schools, but poorer parents can’t. The abolition of independent schools will not suddenly stop parents wanting to do the best they can for their children. Parents no longer paying independent school fees will use the money saved to advantage their children by other means, including buying the services of private tutors. Indeed, two outcomes of any policy to abolish independent schools would be a further increase in private tutoring (for those families who can afford it) and a steep increase in house prices around top-rated state schools.
The purpose of an educational policy should be to increase educational standards so that the potential of as many children as possible is fully realised. Such a policy would involve identifying educational best practice, wherever it occurs, setting high standards and driving up performance to the highest common denominator. It would not involve closing down centres of educational excellence for ideological reasons.
The largest single reason why independent schools do so well is resourcing. The answer to improving state education lies in better funding. However, better state funding will not be achieved by bringing in half a million extra children into already cash-strapped state schools. This is a recipe to reduce per capita spend. With so many demands on public funds and practical limits on the levels of taxation (go too high and the tax base of companies and individuals will relocate overseas), we have to find other sources of educational funding.
Far from removing the private sector from education, we should see the private sector as an additional source of much-needed funding for education. This could be large companies financing research and development in universities, smaller companies training and developing staff, or independent schools using their resources to fund means-tested places and outreach work. This takes me back to where I started and my recent trip to China. One of the reasons for opening a Perse Sixth Form college in China is to develop an additional revenue stream that could finance a doubling of Perse bursaries from 100 to 200, allowing more children from less advantaged backgrounds to be educated at The Perse with zero cost to the state. Income from China will also help grow our primary school partnership programme beyond the 20 schools The Perse already works with. Our primary partnership programme involves The Perse providing teachers, equipment, facilities and student volunteers to primary schools at no cost. It is generously supported by donors.
I hope that reasoned and reasonable arguments will eventually prevail and the Labour party will work with independent schools to improve education in Britain for all our children. This will involve thinking creatively to bring extra resources into education and will require pragmatic co-operation rather than ideologically induced abolition. Education in Britain will not be improved by removing some of our best schools, instead we must all work together to raise educational standards. Education is too important to be used as a political football.