Debate: Private schools shouldn’t be abolished

For many on the left, private education is indisputably negative. Without question, the existence of private schools contradicts social justice. They afford some children access to better education by virtue of their parent’s income, bastions of privilege that work to perpetuate social inequality. As someone who is broadly leftwing, I do not wish to dispute these claims but instead ask whether it makes sense for Labour to pursue their abolition right now. Abolishing private schools would not only be costly but represents an ineffective use of state resources to reduce educational inequality. Furthermore, the complete removal of private education by the state is unlikely to play well in an election. Fortunately, Labour already has a policy on private education, the imposition of VAT on school fees, which is popular among the electorate. This measure would generate income that could be used to improve state education, in ways that would better create equality of opportunity. It appears evident that Labour ought to pursue this policy, something I hope to convince you of by the end of this piece.

At first glance, the disparities between private and state pupils demand instantaneous action. Despite making up only 7% of the population, privately-educated pupils make up 40% of Oxbridge’s intake, and are three times more likely than state-school pupils to attend a Russell Group university. Such figures betray gross inequality, but I would invite you to consider whether private education itself is the force behind them. Importantly, many recent American studies have found that the most important ages determining educational success are between three and seven, whereas the average private school pupil begins their education at the age of eight. Furthermore, when predicting the future earnings of children, the most influential factor is the income of their parents, not the school they attend. In fact, controlling for parental income and other social factors, private education only accounts for a 0.6% improvement in results at GCSE. The role of parents in the education of their children is huge, and even if private schools were abolished, parents so inclined would still find means to give their children an unearned advantage. Such behaviour is evinced by the recent private-tuition boom.

Now is a good time to turn to a key point in this debate, whether abolishing private schools aids their state counterparts. Arguably, if pupils from education-centric households attend state schools, then the culture at the school will be improved, both through pupils encouraging educational attainment and parents raising the standards for teachers. Proponents point to the example of Finland’s increase in social mobility following its abolition of private schools. Recent studies of the reform, however, casts great doubt over the long-term effects of the change. One of the most significant reasons why was that middle-class parents simply began to monopolize the best schools. This phenomena is rather unsurprising, reflected in the amount of sharp-nosed Chesire parents who suddenly decide they would like to move right before their child’s tenth birthday. The example of Finland suggests that economic inequality will continue to perpetuate itself.

Surely it makes more sense to improve schools for state pupils, rather than lower the quality of education available to wealthy children who likely receive other advantages anyway?

Of course, some would argue that such an abolition is symbolic, designed to give the establishment a bloody nose. Yet, we should consider the financial costs of such a plan, which will have to cover incorporating the 675,000 privately educated pupils into the state system. This comes with a price tag of £7.5 billion. Labour claims this will be covered by expropriating the assets of private schools, though it has provided scant information in support of this. Furthermore, there are also concerns about legality, such as whether the measure would counteract the 1998 Human Rights Act, which includes a provision guaranteeing the right for parents to educate their children in accordance with their religious and political beliefs. All of these may be avoided by simply opting to impose VAT on private school fees instead, a measure that would raise £1.5 billion for the treasury. This money could then be spent on improving state facilities, rather than incorporating wealthy pupils into an already overcrowded system. Our aim is to reduce educational inequality. Surely it makes more sense to improve schools for state pupils, rather than lower the quality of education available to wealthy children who likely receive other advantages anyway?

If anyone remains unconvinced, I would point to the political cost for Labour of including the policy in an election manifesto. Only 12% of voters say they would vote for a party supporting abolition compared to 21% who say they would not. The same pollsters also found that 68% of voters believe parents should be free to choose where their children are educated. Furthermore, such a policy would allow Labour to be painted as an overbearing party. The Conservatives will accuse Labour of using the state to impinge upon the property and freedom, of ordinary, decent, middle-class people. Compare this to the policy of adding VAT to private school fees, supported only by arguing for the charitable status of schools such as Eton, something I doubt most of the British public will buy. Clearly, a policy of outright abolition would be politically costly for Labour in an election.

In light of all this, I would urge people to pause for a second, and consider the practicalities of such a proposal. I believe that a moment’s thought on the realities involved will lead to the conclusion that whilst abolition would certainly be nice, it makes no sense for Labour to pursue it now.

The counter argument to this article can be found here.

Image Credit: Juan Salmoral