For some, the British private school system evokes images of rolling playing fields and academic excellence that can pave the way to an elite university education and a prosperous life. For others it simply cements societal injustice and inter-generational inequality.
Unsurprisingly, the UK’s Labour party is now in the latter camp. And at its recent national conference it endorsed a series of measures that would effectively see private education abolished.
The proposal would see endowments – or recurrent income from past benefactors – of wealthy private schools “nationalised”. The money would then be used to help subsidise the integration of private schools into the state-funded system.
Creating one system of schools for all would have many potential benefits. For a start it might mean that more high attaining pupils, currently in private schools, would be role models for a wider range of fellow pupils. It might also help to improve social cohesion and foster understanding by creating a better mix of young citizens who will work together in the future.
The better-off parents currently using private schools could add their support to the operation and improvement of their local state schools. And it would enable a large number of issues to be standardised – such as teacher qualifications, provision of extracurricular activities, access to sporting facilities and safeguarding.
Critics have also pointed out that private schools already offer free and assisted places to a small number of disadvantaged pupils – or open their facilities for use by nearby state schools. And others have proposed more modest changes such as ending the charitable status and tax exemption of many of the richer schools.
Are private schools better?
Private schools come in all shapes and sizes. Many are small, with few facilities and these are often accommodated in converted residential accommodation. Quite a few are religious. And some buy in (often from the US) their own curriculum and teaching materials.
In general, these schools don’t take very privileged children, and do not produce notably high attainment results. Quite a large number are special schools, or even hospitals – taking in young people with some of the severest learning or physical challenges.
That said, the majority of privately educated pupils attend larger, more established and popularly successful schools – though few of these are like Eton. Most are coeducational, non-selective, day schools, with somewhat smaller class sizes than in the state sector, but otherwise not very remarkable.
A number of private schools have among some of the highest exam results in the country. Though this is not entirely surprising as not only do private schools have better facilities and smaller classroom sizes, but the state sector also has special schools and pupil referral units making up a proportion of its exam grades.
Indeed, more than 20 years of educational research shows that the results of any school are largely determined by the nature of their pupil intake. That is to say, grammar schools do not produce better results, they simply select the most pupils who are already achieving higher levels academically. Schools in the north of England are not worse than those in the south, they simply have more long-term disadvantaged pupils.
Across the state sector, any difference in results can be explained by the prior attainment and challenges that pupil’s face. And although the data is less complete for private schools, there is no reason to expect anything different.
Reform the state sector
So if private schools are no better for pupils, perhaps abolishing them would make no difference either way. It would not create a crisis of attainment, but neither would it enhance equality – as the same privileged pupils will still have high attainment at state schools. And those pupils will still dominate subsequent opportunities based on having higher grades.
Some richer parents might also opt for home education, paying for tuition, and banding together to fund extra-curricular activities. The result would be the same as now. Indicating that schools themselves may not really be the issue.
Perhaps then it would be better to address the sharp inequalities in school access in the state system and move towards a position where there isn’t an incentive to spend money on private education. But for this to happen laws and procedures for all schools would need to be equalised.
Private schools would need to be made more transparent, provide more data and be required to use qualified teachers. At the same time faith-based, grammars and all other “diverse” kinds of schools should be phased out – and one school format decided upon.
Above all, successive administrations and secretaries of education need to stop creating or expanding new types of state schools – and instead use the clear evidence which shows that the tax-payer funded, SAT-tested, Ofsted-inspected schools are all about as good as each other. And that paying for a private school simply to get an advantage in terms of exam results is a waste of money.