Labour is right to target private school privilege – but abolition isn’t the only answer

Sep 24, 2019 by

Robert Verkaik

The desired effect on inequality could be achieved by clear, targeted measures, rather than banning private schools completely

Labour’s general election gambit of declaring a so-called “class war” on Britain’s private schools is partly intended to distract from its own internecine struggles and Brexit woes.

Delegates at the party’s annual conference in Brighton on Sunday voted to abolish fee-paying schools and redistribute their assets “democratically and fairly” for the benefit of all children.

The follow-up media coverage, a weighty mix of mostly outrage and exasperation, shows how effective it has been in diverting attention.

Driven by a grassroots campaign headed by Labour Against Private Schools (Laps), using the hashtag #abolisheton, the question now is whether Labour would be able, or even want, to deliver on such a radical policy.

Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, has thrown just about everything she can at the independent school sector, apart from the kitchen sink. She is promising the abolition of charitable status, public subsidies and tax privileges, a 7% cap on university admissions from private schools, and the redistribution of their endowments, properties or investments.

But such a jumbled cocktail of measures may mean Laps finds itself the victim of its own success. By visiting a nuclear winter of reforms on the schools, the policy has become unfocused. It is also contradictory. How can you impose a tax on a sector that has been abolished? And what is the point of quotas on private schools admissions to university if the schools from where these graduates have been educated have already been dismantled?

Resistant forces within the Labour hierarchy may seek to capitalise on an incoherent approach by using it to water down any future policy reform. Rayner had already said that she would task the Social Mobility Commission – which the party would rename the Social Justice Commission – with “integrating private schools”. And John McDonnell later promised every part of the policy would be carried out on a “consultation basis”, and that he could not see the use of “draconian measures” to enforce it.

But we have been here before. In 1965 Anthony Crosland, education secretary under Harold Wilson, also announced the establishment of an integration commission to tackle Britain’s private school problem a few weeks before the country went to the polls. Many of the schools thought the game was up and there were even reports of Eton considering becoming a comprehensive or relocating to Ireland. But the commission, which was packed with private school heads, took too long to deliver its proposals, by which time Labour had lost its enthusiasm for the reform. The party, just like today, was also crippled by conflicts of interest. Wilson and Jim Callaghan were just two members of the senior Labour leadership who sent their children to private schools.

It meant the private schools could carry on educating the rich and powerful largely unaffected. Having suffered such a serious scare, you might have thought they would have spent the ensuing years trying to protect themselves from future attacks by ensuring they were more relevant to their communities by opening up their classrooms to local disadvantaged children. Instead, they have entrenched their privilege. When the Charity Commission in 2008 intervened to make these schools fulfil their charitable obligations through the provision of more bursaries, the schools’ response was to instruct expensive counsel to take the commission to court.

Source: Labour is right to target private school privilege – but abolition isn’t the only answer | Robert Verkaik | Opinion | The Guardian

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