It’s time to phase out elitist education

The author of this piece, Steve Longden, is an experienced teacher and has worked as an Equality Policy manager in local government in Greater Manchester. He is a member of Altrincham and Sale CLP

A resolution based on this article will be debated at the SEA Annual Conference on 25th June. Details and booking arrangements can be found at

Any right predicated on wealth should not be allowed to supersede the right to equality of opportunity

Much has been said in recent years about increasing inequality in the UK and the crucial role that improving state education has in addressing this problem. Far less has been said about actively addressing the inequalities sustained by private and grammar schools.

I am an experienced teacher, new Labour Party and NUT member. I intend to submit a policy proposal to the party, explaining why I believe private and grammar schools should be phased out. Any Labour Party members who would like to support the proposal are welcome to join this policy campaign group:

The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s 2014 examination of who gets the top jobs in Britain today found ‘elitism so stark that it could be called ‘Social Engineering’’. Private schools, educating 7 per cent of the nation’s pupils, provide:

  • 71 per cent of senior judges
  • 62 per cent of senior armed forces officers
  • 55 per cent of permanent secretaries
  • 53 per cent of senior diplomats
  • 50 per cent of members of the House of Lords
  • 45 per cent of public body chairs
  • 44 per cent of the Sunday Times Rich List
  • 43 per cent of newspaper columnists
  • 36 per cent of the Cabinet
  • 35 per cent of the national rugby team
  • 33 per cent of MPs
  • 33 per cent of the England cricket team
  • 26 per cent of BBC executives and
  • 22 per cent of the Shadow Cabinet.

Furthermore, a disproportionate amount of UK government spending on schools goes to the private sector. For example, in 2009 the OECD revealed (through its routine statistical publications) that the UK diverted a larger share of government education spending (25.1 per cent) to a tiny proportion of privately educated children (7 per cent) than almost any other rich nation.

In the state sector, ‘less than 3 per cent of students attending grammar schools are eligible for free school meals, whereas the average proportion of pupils entitled to free school meals in selective areas is 18 per cent’.

This disparity is caused by wealthier parents pushing up house prices in the catchment areas of grammar schools, in an effort to increase the chances of their children gaining places. Grammar school head teachers point to the use of private tutors who coach children to pass entrance tests. Over four times as many children are admitted to grammar schools from the private school sector than children on free school meals.

In December 2015 the Commission reported that, ‘despite many welcome initiatives, the current policy response – by educators and employers as much as governments – falls well short of the political ambition. The gap between rhetoric and reality has to be closed’.

Unfortunately, by failing to address the inequity of private education in any of its policy recommendations the Commission has fallen short of addressing one of the greatest causes of social immobility and elitism in the nation.

Perhaps the British public’s love of ‘choice’ when deciding how to spend their hard earned money argues against the phasing out of private and grammar schools? These survey results suggest otherwise:

  • When asked in the 2010 British Social Attitudes Survey,’should the quality of education be the same for all children, or should parents who can afford it be able to pay for better education’, 61 per cent of respondents thought it should be the same for all children.
  • 2013 research by YouGov found that 78 per cent of the public in Great Britain thinks that ‘it should be the government’s job to ensure that rich and poor children have the same chances’.

The existence of private and grammar school social engineering is reason enough to phase them out. However, those who buy their services console themselves with arguments that help them to justify their continued use. The most common of these arguments are outlined and challenged here:

  • The state’s comprehensive system encourages mediocrity.
    Qualified teachers are fully aware of the importance of meeting the needs of each student in their classroom. The set of techniques employed by teachers to ensure this is called ‘differentiation’.  In order for a teacher in the state sector to be judged as ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ they must demonstrate their effective use, including stretching and challenging the most able students.
  • Abolishing private and grammar schools would mean the most affluent would simply create their own ‘elite’ within the state system.
    This very real phenomenon can be addressed by ensuring that any school judged ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted be required to reserve places equivalent to the percentage of students eligible for free school meals within their local authority. This would ensure that wealthier families moving into the catchment areas to access these schools would not prevent social mobility amongst the area’s poorest students.
  • What really matters is class size!
    In 2011 The Department for Education reported that the evidence base on the link between class size and attainment showed that a smaller class size did have a positive impact on attainment and behaviour in the early years of school. However, it also showed that this effect tends to be small, and diminishes after a few years. This finding is also supported by The Sutton Trust’s research on the effects of class size on pupil performance. Furthermore, Hattie (2009), Rivkin et al (2005) and Hanushek (2011) all argue that increasing teacher effectiveness creates much greater value for money than reducing class sizes.

After three decades of rising wealth inequalities and with clear evidence from the government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission about the negative impact private schools are having on social mobility, now is the time to expose the assumption that ‘choosing’ private education or using wealth to access schooling is a fundamental right.

I recommend that the Labour Party should adopt the following policies:

  • Turn all private and grammar schools into non-fee paying, non-selective state schools over a period of five to 10 years. This can be done gradually starting with each school’s youngest intake.
  • Within its first five-year term, increase government spending per child to at least the higher North West European average.
  • Any government funded school judged to be ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted should have a legal duty to reserve places equivalent to the percentage of students eligible for free school meals in the local authority, including such students residing outside the school’s catchment area.

Surely, any right predicated on wealth should not be allowed to supersede the right to equality of opportunity.