So you’ve abolished private schools. Now what?
Although firmly to the left of the national conversation today, there have been repeated calls to close down, or nationalise, private schools. Notable figures across the political spectrum have attempted to bring this debate into the mainstream; American billionaire Warren Buffett has called for the US government to “make private schools illegal”, while British playwright Alan Bennett, has said the move would help the UK become “more of a nation”.
The fact that these proposals have failed to catch on isn’t an endorsement of the status quo. Public opinion is moving against private schools; just under half of the public believe private education is harmful and private schools’ charity status is unpopular. No wonder, as around 6.5% of all children in the UK go to private schools, yet they make up 42% of all Oxbridge admissions. On top of this, one third of all MPs have been privately educated.
But the abolition of private schools is still a fringe idea. One reason for this is that there have been strong critiques but little policy discussion. For all the ink spilled in polemics against private education, few people have explored exactly what will happen afterwards. Are private schools to operate as state schools – or will they be abolished altogether?
The last big reform to equalise the education system came under Anthony Crosland in 1965. Crosland set out to deconstruct the old tripartite system, where schools were split into grammar schools, secondary moderns and, less often, secondary technical schools. To do this, he ‘asked’ local authorities to convert their grammar schools to comprehensive schools, for fear of losing funding. Most grammar schools became comprehensives, but a minority shut down or converted into private schools.
However, this model is impotent when dealing with private schools. Local authorities have minimal influence, as most private schools are run independently as registered charities. If the government is to think seriously about abolishing private schools, they should look at the only country to successfully do so, Finland.
Although it can be viewed as a hybrid system, Finland has no fee-paying private schools. Instead, they have privately-run but publicly-funded schools. These schools have independence from the state in some areas, such as teaching style or focus. When it comes to funding, admissions and social benefits, however, they must be equal to an average state school. Think of them as a more tightly-regulated version of England’s academy system.
This is probably the most realistic proposal. For the academy system’s many faults, converting fee-paying private schools into regulated academies removes financial barriers to education and significantly diversifies the social mix of the schools. Faith groups and groups with a unique educational focus are still able to establish schools.
The Finnish model also addresses some of the main practicalities the government would have to consider – namely, compliance with the right to education as set out by the European Convention on Human Rights. The Convention guarantees that individuals may set up and run a private school. It doesn’t guarantee, however, that the government must allow them to do so without regulation. In Finland’s case, anyone is allowed to set up a private school, providing they provide a suitable education and do not charge fees for the service. Like any other school, they are funded entirely by the government.
Although not as radical as total abolition, the Finnish model is a good blueprint to make a persuasive case to the public. Parents can keep the diversity of schools set out by the private sector, but with fewer of the associated social ills. As a message, it has a distinctly third-way flavour, but is preferable to the current reinforcement of class divides.
But what this approach does not reckon with are the oldest, most established private institutions in the UK: public schools. The UK has a unique relationship with the schools of its ruling class. Eton and the like are part of the institutional fabric of Britain, servicing generations of elites for hundreds of years. Whether a progressive education system could convert public schools to state academies, or abolish them altogether, is an open question.
It’s undisputable that public schools are better equipped than their comprehensive counterparts. I can safely say that my state school did not have a library with 30,000 books in it, nor did it have a Natural History Museum. It is fair to be sceptical, therefore, about whether the privilege of these schools can be removed through equalising admissions and removing fees. The bricks and mortar of these institutions, while impressive, are only part of the problem. Their place in the national consciousness and deeply-entrenched elitism means, if turned into state schools, a two-tier state system would effectively be created. The richest children would still go to the school through a postcode lottery, the surrounding housing market becoming a proxy for the abolished fees system.
In this case, what should the government do with public schools? Assuming that they will have lost charitable status and are running as businesses, there is little stopping the government from nationalising the estates. Perhaps the estates of Eton and Harrow could be taken under control of their local authorities, so that youth groups, social enterprises and local comprehensive schools or academies could reap the benefits. It would also put a new spin on old Etonians’ claims that they are from “a Slough comprehensive”.
They could be converted to new further education institutions, which perhaps best fits the drama studios, labs and other equipment these schools hold. The buildings could even be absorbed into public preservation bodies like Historical England, open for visit by the public. However, debate surrounding the future of these select few institutions should not distract from the very real need to lay out convincing proposals for the vast bulk of other privately-funded schools.
Outside of the UK, the abolition of fee-paying schools is fast becoming a reality. Britain must learn from this and provide a progressive alternative to the status quo.
Private schools are patently out of place within any progressive and forward-thinking society. Britain must be unafraid to learn from best practice abroad and seek to forge a new settlement for these institutions to provide a more equitable settlement for pupils and parents alike.