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Abolishing private schools: socially responsible or an infringement on individual rights?

At the Labour Party Conference in Brighton last week, the party launched the controversial motion to integrate private schools into the state sector should they come into power at the next general election.

The move would involve the removal of the charitable status currently held by schools in the independent sector and the loss of tax benefits. Labour delegates confirmed that this would be included in the next general election manifesto, which has already been described as “socialist ideology” by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Labour approved a motion calling for the resources and properties owned by independent schools to be “redistributed democratically and fairly” to other schools. Having attended a school that struggled to afford books and even teachers for core subjects such as English Literature A-level, I think there does need to be some level of redistribution of the excessive amount of resources used by a mere 7% of the population.

Labour approved a motion calling for the resources and properties owned by independent schools to be “redistributed democratically and fairly” to other schools

Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner said Labour would scrap tax loopholes for private schools in their first budget. Rayner is an MP that has come under fire for her lack of private education and decision to leave school at the age of 16. She spoke to the Labour conference and discussed her plans to ensure the Social Mobility Commission (renamed the Social Justice Commission) will be “making the education system fairer.”

Part of this move includes Labour’s plans for universities to admit the same proportion of private school students as those in the wider population, currently at 7%. It is undoubtable that private school students are overrepresented at elite universities like Oxford, Cambridge and the other twenty-two members of the Russell Group. Warwick is no exception with 23% of pupils attending non-state schools. This access to the best standard of university education has consequences for the kinds of jobs that people can get, and it is clear that pupils in state schools have a reduced chance of gaining this access.

The plan of integration into the state sector would have positive effects on reducing inequality in the top professions. Social mobility charity Sutton Trust argues that Britain has a very old problem with privately educated families keeping control of the top jobs. 2/3 of senior judges have been privately educated. This would create issues if the motion ever went to court as these judges are likely to defend the institutions that allowed them to access these positions. Having analysed the background of 5000 people in top jobs, the Sutton Trust found that influential people were five times more likely to be privately educated than the average population. 52% of junior ministers and 44% of news columnists were educated at private schools. These figures are remarkable and highlight a serious systemic problem with educational inequality in the UK.

52% of junior ministers and 44% of news columnists were educated at private schools

The Headmaster of Eton College, one of the most expensive private schools in the UK, charging up to £40,000 in fees, Simon Henderson said that Eton has changed a lot since it produced people like Boris Johnson. This insistence on the changing nature of the institution alludes to his acknowledgement of the issues with attitudes of entitlement and privileged debauchery that private institutions such as Eton encourage.

Whilst these attitudes might be changing, Sutton Trust chairman Sir Peter Lampl, warns of our “increasingly divided society.” Private schools encourage a division between those who can afford to buy their position into power at the top and those who cannot access social mobility opportunities at the bottom. Angela Rayner warns that the continued existence of the “old boys’ network” is holding back people from less privileged backgrounds.

An argument put forward by some is the economic benefit of integrating independent schools into the state sector. Shadow chancellor John McDonnell insisted that scrapping private school fees could boost the wider economy as people spending money on education can spend this money elsewhere. Although this is an interesting addition to the debate, I am not convinced how far this argument works and this is also not how parents who are concerned about the future of their children’s education will see this move.

The biggest benefit, I believe, for the abolition of private schools is making the education system, and therefore people’s ability to progress later in life, a lot fairer. Steven Longden, state school teacher and co-ordinator of Labour Against Private Schools acknowledges that private schools won’t give in without a long legal fight but something needs to be done as they cannot be trusted to become more “socially just” if left to their own devices. Andrew Harrop, general secretary of the Fabian Society, agreed that “private schools entrench inequality.” I can’t help but to agree with him, feeling as though fee-paying schools put people at a different footing for life from an early age, meaning that some children are given a better chance and better opportunities which just isn’t fair. Scholarships given to a small minority of pupils simply don’t make up for the large levels of inequality and those left behind by the education system.

Chairman of Sutton Trust says private schools encourage a division between those who can afford to buy their position into power at the top and those who cannot access social mobility opportunities at the bottom

When it comes to public opinion, polls found that 50% opposed the integration of private schools, 22% were in favour and 28% were unsure. I have to question the methodological reliability of this survey, as this is an issue that people who are invested in private schools are more likely to be passionate about and thus vote on. Ordinary people may not see the direct impact that private schools have on educational inequality and wider social inequality in their daily lives. It is important, nonetheless, to take into consideration public opinion and the election of Labour with this issue on their manifesto would show its popularity.

The move has met a great deal of opposition, as would be expected, from those who are involved in the running of private schools. Eton headmaster Simon Henderson slams the plan, saying it will not have any benefit and warns Labour to prepare for a “battle” to ensure the future of private education. He believes they must make their case for why they should survive, by demonstrating how they are a “positive force for good.” Henderson acknowledged the inequality in the education system but I find it hard to understand how he can see this inequality whilst also contributing to it. He said that “abolishing excellence” is not the way to improve the educational inequality but I take fault with the suggestion that private schools encourage excellence as the brightest pupils don’t go to independent schools, the richest ones do.

Former Eton College pupil Boris Johnson condemned the plan as a “measure from the 1970s” and suggested that his education Eton helped him get to Downing Street. This, sadly, is the problem. If people can’t get into positions of power based on merit then we are not getting the best people for the job, only those that have attended the elitist institutions. Henderson suggested that Eton was already playing its part in making such institutions more accessible by offering scholarships that currently ensure more than 90 out of 1300 boys pay no fees at all. Comparatively, this is a very small number and a few people getting through the net does not raise aspiration and achievements for all.

Eton headmaster Simon Henderson has slammed the plan, saying it will not have any benefit and warns Labour to prepare for a “battle” to ensure the future of private education

A concern among those in defence of private schools is that the move would breach the individual rights of parents to choose where to educate their children. This is completely understandable, and parents should indeed have the right where to send their children to school. However, if the money invested in private schools could be used to improve our state education system, parents would not feel the need to send their children to private schools. The Independent Schools Council, representing 1350 private schools in the UK, warns that abolishing independent schools would breach the European Convention on Human Rights. This is an outrageous argument and legal professionals have asserted that this only applies to children deprived of education.

The complicated ownership of independent schools, with roots in religious groups, businesses, charities, and organisations in the UK and abroad that may wish to launch legal action against the UK government means the move would be incredibly radical and perhaps a long process.

Whether the integration of private schools into the state sector would be an economically possible move is something that needs to be considered. Simon Henderson has said that independent schools save the state school system £3.5 billion a year, contributing £13.7 billion to the economy and providing around 303,000 jobs. This is an incredible amount and shifting the load onto the already saturated state school system might have negative consequences. Geoff Barton, leader of the headteachers’ union ASCL, warned the state sector would struggle to take on so many new pupils and would “shift billions of pounds of additional cost onto taxpayers.” It would mean 600,000 more pupils entering the state system. However, this is not impossible as there has been an increase in pupils of over 700,000 in the past decades and are, we really going to allow social inequality to continue for the sake of allowing what is essentially outsourcing?

Labour’s motion is most certainly one of the most controversial and radical aspects of their upcoming manifesto. It is an issue that will require a great deal of consideration, particularly regarding the economic feasibility of the move and effects on individual choice. Nonetheless, as someone who believes in educational equality for everyone, regardless of parental wealth, I feel that integrating private schools into the state sector would have important benefits for social inequality and educational achievement. This is not a move that could happen overnight, and improvements need to be made to the failing state education system before parents are expected to lose their decision to send their children elsewhere.

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