The Speaker
Wednesday, 17 July 2024 – 20:49

Denying the brightest and the best: a critique of Labour’s education proposals

NOTE: This is an opinion article – any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Speaker or any members of its team.

Labour’s conference recently proposed to abolish private schools and redistribute their assets. This is alongside an existing standing policy to remove their charitable status and imposing VAT on fees. They also proposed a cap on the percentage of private school students a university can admit, as well as abolishing Ofsted.

Disclaimer: I was privately educated, at great family sacrifice, from the start of Year 6. I am acutely aware of how lucky I am and the opportunities that I received.

             Firstly, let’s address the more radical elements of the proposals. If they were to seize the assets (including endowments) of private schools, this would be far beyond accepted compulsory purchase norms and be a major violation of property rights. Would they force the children in attendance to switch schools halfway through key points in their education, perhaps to schools where different exam boards are sat (or indeed where some subjects are not offered)? It’s worth noting that many private school students travel in or board, so there would not even necessarily be the numbers locally to fill the spaces, whilst overcrowding would happen at catchment schools nearer the home addresses of these children. Would they pay for the upkeep of historic buildings, such as Norwich Cathedral which costs £4000 per day to maintain, which many private schools currently help with? Furthermore, this would place an additional 615,000 students into the state system with a cost of £3.6bn according to the BBC. Those who pay the fees for private school children already pay taxes for education, and therefore this would mean budgets become more stretched (and likely standards worsen) as this relief to the system is destroyed. It is clear at this point that the policy is not about helping the less fortunate, but harming those who are financially better off.

            The scrapping of Ofsted is also a key issue. Angela Rayner says that the current inspection procedures lead to results-based not on the quality of teaching but on the socioeconomic makeup of pupils. This is completely false, from experience. For a start, a fair few of the teachers at private schools go there because they cannot control a more disruptive class. This was evidenced by the weakest teachers at my school often being put in charge of generally better behaved top sets. Rayner’s comments also imply that poorer pupils behave worse than those from more affluent backgrounds. I take umbrage with this generalisation, but I have seen cases where those who lack a supportive home life (which I have sadly often seen go hand in hand with a deprived economic background, as well as those with rich parents) become troublesome children. This by no means however leads to a conclusion that standards should be relaxed. Great Yarmouth secondary school, reknowned in Norfolk for it’s poor standards, has recently taken a more disciplined approach to pupil behaviour, and is seeing key signs of promise. A good teacher can adapt to the class — providing inspiration, discipline, and guidance. To change standards so that poor teaching is not punished would be failing some of the most disadvantaged in our society. It would also mean that those who are well behaved have their learning disrupted, when they should have every right to study and reach their full potential.

            To place an admittance cap of 7% within a university intake would also deny those who are truly academically gifted. Many private school students sit academic entrance exams, which become more stringent the later on you join the school. This means that the average private school student is naturally more academically gifted than the national average. Many already feel apprehension when ticking UCAS boxes such as “white, male, privately educated, both parents went to university”. This would further that to outright discrimination. Children are often educated privately without much decision on their own part, and this policy would deny those who are truly the brightest and the best the meritocratic right to a higher education that matches their abilities. It is also worth noting that many private schools cater for those with social educational needs (with fees funded by the council), or give bursaries in areas such as music which may not be catered for at private schools. There is no indication that these cases would be excluded from the policy. In reality, rich families are likely to increasingly turn to private tutoring, personal connections, and donations to get their children to university. It is logical that there would be a clear decrease in social mobility as a result.

            In reality, the element of the policy most likely to become law would be the removal of charitable status and imposition of VAT on fees. I was sent to a private school at great sacrifice not by my parents (there was no way they could afford it), but at great sacrifice by my grandparents. The vast majority of children at my school and many others up and down the country were in a similar position, or had parents who worked incredibly long hours to make it happen. Very few could afford an extra 20% on fees. Both my sister and I when in the state sector, as fairly academic and well-behaved students, were sat next to trouble makers to encourage them rather than being stretched ourselves. I remember one poorly behaved student even got a teaching assistant assigned just to him! One boy who joined our sixth form was told whilst taking his GCSE’s at the local state school that if he wanted more than a ‘C’ then he would have to teach himself. These are examples of what former teachers in my family have described as the “communist mentality” in the state sector. This is why I and many others were sent privately — a lack of grammar schools in our areas, and a well-founded fear that we would not be academically stretched. I make no pretence that this is the case for all private school pupils, but at the very least it is a sizeable minority. The imposition of VAT would lead to a mass exodus to the state system. Not only would this result in increased financial burden as discussed above, but it would also add to already-prevalent overcrowding. Throwing money at schools would not fix the problem either; it takes time to train teachers and build classrooms. It would also, as mentioned, disrupt these children’s education to by a massive amount. It would also mean that, with less money coming in, there would be fewer bursaries for the truly gifted, and fewer outreach programmes to help the local community (such as summer schools, hosted events, and use of sports facilities).

            In reality, there is no simple solution. In my opinion though, a good starting point would be the reintroduction of grammar schools nationwide. This would allow those who are academically gifted to be stretched, reducing the reliance on private schools. It would also give clear opportunities for those who it is obvious are never going to go to university to study an academic course, and instead let them learn key trades and skills. Many plumbers are currently earning far more than university graduates ever will, and I saw many cases where people were stuck in pointless academic learning when they wanted to be progressing in their chosen pathway, such as mechanics. Indeed, one might argue that less disillusioned children would lead to less disruption in class.

            Labour’s proposals are a clear sign of a shift to the hard left. They no longer really care about helping everyone, or indeed the least fortunate in society. Their ideas are increasingly formulated on a passion to hurt those who are fortunate in life, to the extent that it harms those who are not. These proposals are an affront to opportunity, ambition, social mobility, and meritocracy.

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