Private Schools – the real agenda is more selection

England’s private schools have been back in the headlines of late. Anthony Seldon of Wellington College, offered us more of his thoughts on how the private sector can become more involved with the state sector and how this will help solve our lack of social mobility. Michael Gove then told us that he wants state schools to be so good that you won’t be able to tell them apart from the private sector.

Then in the New Statesman, David and George Kynaston rehearsed the miserable story of opportunities missed since the 1940’s to do something about this running sore in English education. They end though with the idea that there is an emerging consensus for some kind of change. The issue in their view is “not whether these schools should exist. We are where we are. The question is, are they educating the wrong children? And how do we end the divide to make them part of the common weal?

Much of Seldon’s and Gove’s nonsense has been comprehensively demolished already, notably by Peter Wilby in the Guardian. There is however a need to think about the underlying assumption that informs this debate.

The key proposal, which is gaining support in some surprising places, is that ways should be found to offer free or subsidised places at private schools to young people who couldn’t afford to go there otherwise.

Crucially this is about selection. It’s another variant on the belief that we need a system that will rescue a few of the deserving poor and allow them access to “the best universities” and all that follows from that. So we have the Sutton Trust proposals for a bigger version of the old assisted places scheme. Seldon too wants places at private schools to be made available to pupil from poorer families but on the basis of competitive entry so that the schools “will be guaranteed bright young people”. Here the really self- serving side of these proposals becomes apparent.

Seldon’s proposals for the most popular state schools to charge fees to those who can afford it would have the same effect. Those schools would be identified for all to see as the place to go and would rapidly (helped by additional fee income) become grammar schools in all but name.

Another example of the same approach can be seen in the so-called London College of Excellence which Gove chose as the venue for his recent speech. This college, promoted by Brighton College and Eton, is super-selective – entry criteria are higher than for any normal sixth form or college. The media, including those who really should know better, drool over this institution, amazed that half a dozen students from such a hot house got Oxbridge offers.

All proposals like these simply serve to reinforce the inequalities in our education system and indeed in our society as a whole. They will do nothing to challenge the dominance of the 1% who are seizing an ever greater proportion of wealth and power.

It has to be repeated over and over again that this kind of selection will not deliver higher standards nor will it provide real social mobility. International and national evidence is overwhelmingly clear that a more hierarchical and segregated school system delivers less not more.

It isn’t just that the schools and colleges that most young people go to will lose some of their brightest students. Nor that these other schools and colleges will be seen as low status institutions – and that the young people who go to them will have their aspirations capped through simply a more sophisticated and dishonest selection process whether it be at 11+, 13+ or 16+.

What is not properly recognised is that our private schools don’t actually do that well considering their massive advantages in resources and their ability to select only the young people they want. OECD research has concluded that UK state schools outperform UK private schools when socio-economic background is factored in. And it is now clear from a number of pieces of research that all other factors being held constant, students from independent schools do less well than students from comprehensive schools at university.

Social mobility is an aspiration that we can all sign on to in the abstract. But selection will always reinforce hierarchy even if it lets a few of the unwashed in to join the elite. Real social mobility requires a more equal society and one step towards that would be a more equal education system.


One Comment on “Private Schools – the real agenda is more selection”

  1. David Pavett says:

    Has Labour’s Tristram Hunt responded to Gove’s proposals for academic selection with an increased role for private schools?

    While 7% of children go to private school talk of a “one nation education policy” lacks all credibility. And that still leaves open the vexed question of faith schools. How can separating children into separate schools on the basis of their parents’ (1) ability to pay and (2) religious beliefs, be regarded as consistent with “one nation” schooling?

    The inability of Labour to even talk about this question, let alone provide a solution, is surely a mark of its lack of a radical educational perspective. The result is tinkering while the overall direction of travel is determined by the Tories who are not afraid of making structural changes to the education system.