War on class sizes or class war? Abolishing private schools is not the answer to the social justice question

Voice is opposed to the abolition of independent schools

By Deborah Lawson, General Secretary, Voice

Voice cannot endorse the proposals announced at the Labour Party conference.

Background

At their 2019 party conference, Labour Party members voted to commit the party to integrate private schools into the state sector, with a motion calling for funds and properties held by private schools to be "redistributed democratically and fairly" to other schools.

Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner said that "tax loopholes" that benefit private schools would be scrapped by a Labour government in its first Budget, with the money saved used to "improve the lives of all children". That would include the withdrawal of charitable status, other public subsidies and tax privileges.

Ms Rayner said she would task the Social Mobility Commission – which the party would rename the Social Justice Commission – with "integrating private schools".

Concerns

It is clear from the volume of calls Voice has received from members in independent schools that they are alarmed by all this – but should they be worried?

Before any of this could happen, Labour would have to win the next General Election – whenever that is – and the charged rhetoric and aspirations of conference speeches would then have to be turned into hard policy. We do not know at this stage if the policy will be in the Labour election manifesto.

There seems to have been some pulling away from suggestions of seizing private school assets. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has said that 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.

“Everything will be done on the basis of consultation – and often this isn't about seizing property, it's about having access to services and facilities," he said.

Update 4 October 2019: According to TES

“When asked about the idea… Angela Rayner, shadow education secretary, chose to emphasise her support for a ‘comprehensive state education system’ and ending subsidies for private schools rather than talking about abolishing them and redistributing their assets. The party would ‘obviously act within the law’, she said.

“… Labour’s proposals remain contradictory and unclear… a source close to shadow education ministers admitted to Tes that the party’s conference motion ‘doesn’t make any sense’.

“For example, it calls for measures such as a 7 per cent cap on private school students in university admissions, while at the same time calling for the sector’s complete abolition. But how would one cap admissions from schools that no longer exist?”

However, there is still a commitment to removing charitable status and tax advantages, with some in the party arguing that fee-charging schools should "pay their taxes like the rest of us".

Voice’s view

While we agree it is essential to improve the lives of all children, we question if what appears to be a blunt ideological tool is the right means to succeed in a very worthy quest.

Voice would proactively engage and consult with any government about how independent schools can work with state schools in terms of sharing resources and facilities and the benefits they gain from charitable status, but Voice cannot endorse the proposals as announced at the Labour Party conference.

Voice has always supported members in whatever type of school they work – including many in independent schools – so we are very concerned about these plans, as they have been reported, and would work to oppose them if they were proposed by any future government.

The desire for a ‘a more cohesive and equal society’ is laudable, but perhaps we need to turn the question of how we achieve that on its head.

Instead of saying let’s abolish private schools because only a few can afford them, we should be asking why those parents pay for that privilege and how we can create a more level playing field so that state schools can share in those advantages.

We would rather see a long-term plan of increased and substantial investment in state schools to enable them to have more staff, improved facilities and smaller classes – the advantages that private schools can offer.

There is a danger that Labour’s policy could be seen as a class war rather than a war on class sizes.

State schools have long been used as a political football, with successive governments tinkering with the system, piling on layers of accountability, throwing academies and free schools into the mix, and then pulling back in the face of crises in teacher workload and recruitment and retention. Now, it seems, private schools are in for a kicking.

In a 2017 policy response, we made the point that:

“To varying degrees, all independent schools make positive contributions:

  • every child taking up a place at a fee-paying school saves the Government about £5,000 per year… lessening the public tax bill by up to £4 billion per year;
  • independent schools contribute around £270 million of VAT annually, out-weighing the estimated £100 million saved by such schools in tax concessions; and
  • many independent schools provide free or subsidised access to playing fields and other facilities.

“Nevertheless, private schools are far better funded than state schools, enabling them to run smaller classes and offer a wider variety of extra-curricular activities. It is very difficult for these relatively exclusive advantages to be replicated in the state sector.”

To do so would be difficult – but not impossible with enough political will and funding.

Practicalities

Rhetoric aside, there would be enormous practical difficulties in taking this policy forwards.

Abolishing private schools would mean around 600,000 pupils – more than the school population of Wales – entering the state system, with a massive increase in costs and disruption for both the taxpayer and schools.

Some have estimated that, with average per-pupil-spending at about £6,000 per year, around £3.6 billion would be added to the annual cost of running the school system.

‘Redistributing’ private schools’ funds and properties would be a legal minefield, including:

  • the difficulty of taking privately owned property into public ownership; and
  • where property was gifted with legal caveats that it should be used for charitable and/or education purposes.

The Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, which represents private schools has warned that the policy would be "tested in the courts for years to come", and in doing so, divert funding that could be used to invest in the state education system.

Is choice a privilege?

Then there is the question of parental choice. In a democratic society, can we deny people the right to operate private schools or send their children to them? 

Both education and choice are rights, not privileges. The Independent Schools Council has suggested that Labour’s proposals could breach human rights legislation.

The proposals would presumably cover England only, so parents could continue to send their children to private schools in other parts of the UK or overseas.

The independent sector isn’t all about the children of the wealthy attending the anachronistically-named ‘public schools’ like Eton and Harrow. There are many smaller private schools, including those receiving public money to educate and care for those with special educational needs. Less wealthy parents can benefit from scholarships and bursaries for their children.

Would ending the tax breaks and charitable status that facilitate those scholarships and bursaries be putting "people before privilege", as the Labour Party claims it wants to do, if doing so took away the choice of working class parents who had scrimped and saved and given up holidays or downsized their house to be able to send their child to a private school?

Surely 'freedom' includes freedom of choice and the rights of individuals to make their own decisions – even if others disagree with them – free from the arbitrary power of the state or political ideology. 

Some parents choose to educate their children themselves or have them educated outside the state system because they disagree with the ideologically and test-driven curriculum and Ofsted-centric accountability regime that Labour has criticised.  

Surely, for all schools to work everywhere, for all pupils, the system should be working towards, and putting resource into, ensuring that parental choice is not about choosing between an 'outstanding' or 'failing' school, but between which outstanding school best meets the learning needs and aspirations of their children.

Labour should be careful about throwing out the baby with the bath water – creating more problems in its haste to solve others.

Your views

Do let us know your views.

 

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