We Need Our Public Schools: Old Labour Dreamt of Abolishing Private Education. It Is Time to Rethink

Article excerpt

It is time for new Labour to break another taboo: we must reopen the debate on private schools. A government committed to raising educational standards for all and aspiring to create a socially cohesive society cannot ignore the role of the private educational sector.

One of the first acts of the new Labour government was to scrap the Assisted Places Scheme and use the money to reduce class sizes for five, six and seven year olds.

This was welcomed by old and new Labour alike. But it is not good enough now to turn our backs on private schools. We cannot dismiss them by claiming that only 7 per cent of the school population attends them. That statistic belies the truth.

More important, according to the Financial Times league table on A-level performance, 22 of the top 200 schools are in the state sector. In places such as Bristol, two-thirds of pupils taking two or more A-levels are in private or grammar schools. More than half of Oxbridge students went to independent schools.

So a private education is more likely to guarantee high levels of academic achievement, access to the best in the tertiary sector and opportunities to the leading jobs in town. We must confront this entrenched apartheid if we are to create opportunity for all.

The Conservative government favoured the private sector over the state sector. They reinforced the central problem that plagues education in Britain: our best children do as well as any of their international counterparts, but we have a long tail of underachievement. That underachievement is partly caused by the divisions between private and public in our schools.

Old Labour wanted to abolish private schools, always an unrealistic goal which placed envy before excellence. When it became clear that it would be educationally absurd and politically suicidal to destroy the independent sector, the temptation was merely to sit on our hands. Indeed, there are still those who argue that if we focus on improving standards in our state schools the private sector will wither away. In my view, that underestimates the strength and influence of the traditional institutional divide in our schools.

We need to find a third, new, way, which breaks down the class divide and builds on the excellence that some private schools provide for the benefit of all. The former Conservative MP George Walden suggested we could achieve this by "buying back" into public ownership the old direct-grant schools. This is not a practical option at a time when we are desperately short of money for our primary and secondary schools. We need a fresh approach. We need to harness the self-interest of private schools for the benefit of all children. It is time to build bridges between private and state schools so that co-operation not competition, partnership not conflict, become the norm.

There are examples of good practice where private and state schools work together, but they are exceptional. Indeed the latest Independent Schools' Information Survey found that fewer than one in ten private schools share educational facilities with state counterparts. Fewer than a third share sports facilities.

The resistance to working together comes from both sides of the divide. Private schools may wish to guard their market advantage, but local education authorities and state schools also allow local jealousies and ideology to stymie cooperation. …