In a bizarre – but sadly all too predictable – move, Corbyn’s Labour has launched a grassroots campaign to “abolish private schools”. The argument (not a new one) goes that 7% of children in this country have unfair access to exclusive schools that enable them to dominate the top professions, and therefore the way to tackle structural inequalities in England is to phase them out. The Guardian, a handful of far-Left MPs, and a few high profile teachers have thrown their weight behind the movement, and it is now expected that the motion, which pledges to “include in the next Labour Party general election manifesto a commitment to integrate all private schools into the state sector” will be passed by conference.
It is, of course, deeply unfair that the upper echelons of power are five times more likely to be populated by the privately educated than by those who went to state schools. But abolishing private schools is – very obviously – not the way to solve the problem.
For a start, such a programme would face significant legal obstacles, and the proposals – which are designed to tie in with Old Etonian Boris Johnson arriving in Number 10 – make no mention of the hundreds of private schools catering to pupils with special needs or alternative provision, with none of the resources enjoyed by top prestigious schools.
What’s more, as Guido Fawkes pointed out on Monday, private education accounts for 7% of all school pupils, and more than double that for pupils over the age of 16. That means that were Labour to abolish private schools, the state would suddenly have to start paying for 630,000 extra pupils, at a per pupil cost of £5,870 – spending commitment of £3.7 billion, nearly double the social care funding Labour promised in 2017 (which came in at a whopping £2.8bn) .
But even if you put all that aside, there’s a fundamental problem at the heart of the proposal: rich parents keen to give their children the best chance in life will stop at nothing to find loopholes in the law.
As someone lucky enough to have gone to one of the best comprehensive schools in the country (a Catholic academy in West London), I know exactly where these loopholes are – and just how damaging they can be. Although the majority of the pupils in my year came from religious, hard-working, not particularly well off families, a sizeable minority were the children of champagne socialists. These rich, left-leaning parents couldn’t quite bring themselves to abandon their principles entirely and go private, so chose instead to milk the state for all it was worth, and top it up with private tuition on the side.
If they’d chosen simply to embrace the hypocrisy and circumvent the state system altogether (like Shadow Cabinet members Diane Abbott and Shami Chakrabarti) the places offered to their children at my highly oversubscribed school could have gone to poorer pupils. Any qualms they may have felt about this, though, they managed to quash. While they donated generously to the PTA and offered exciting work experience/trips in summer raffles, they were, in their own eyes, an asset to the school.
To an extent, of course, they were right. The trip to Parliament, courtesy of a Labour MP parent, was memorable and valuable. But overall, their impact on my school was hardly benign.
Thanks to private tuition, the rich kids were always miles ahead in class, meaning overworked teachers had to prepare them separate work. In a class of 33, it was normal to see 27 pupils quietly working their way through Textbook 1, while in the corner, the remaining six were given a private lesson from Textbook 2. And though the teachers tried to be fair with their time, few dared to risk the wrath of lawyer parents unhappy with the educational services provided for their little Tabitha.
If Labour somehow managed to fulfil its aim of abolishing private schools, hundreds of thousands of top teachers would be out of a job – and it wouldn’t take too long for them to link up with the hundreds of thousands of parents desperate to throw money at their children’s education.
Instead of an educational utopia, Labour risks creating a black market of private tutors – and making teachers the servants of the pushiest of the pushy middle classes.