The Universal Panacea? The number one shift in UK education I wish to see in my lifetime

The number one shift in UK education I wish to see in my lifetime is the demolition of private schooling.

Let me explain. I don’t just mean the existence of schools that you have to pay to attend. I also mean the social prejudice that believes a private school education is somehow superior to a state one. This is one of the many prejudices, it seems to me, upon which Michael Gove is modelling his reforms to the state education system: the curriculum reform heralded by the English Baccalaureate and subsequent EBCs emulates the perceived curriculum of preference for independent schools; the obsession with testing and examination does the same. If we are truly to continue to provide a world-class education for our children, this shall not pass.

Let’s start with the practicalities. My proposal is the nationalisation of all private schools. Bring all of the 25,245 schools in England into the state sector, and run them properly so every family has a great, local, state-funded school.

Here is some very dubious maths: according to this article from April 2012, 505,000 children are in private schools. Their parents are paying an average of £3903 per term at day schools and £8780 at boarding schools. I don’t know what the proportion of day to boarding is, but let’s say that’s an average of £19,000 a year (they mean old terms, right? a three term year?). 505,000 children paying £19,000 per annum means £9,607,372,500 being paid for a service which is free at the point of use in this country. Nine point six billion pounds. I realise that there are massive flaws in the calculations I’ve just done, but I’m really not worried about the figures, only the point that half a million children’s parents are paying for a service that they could be getting for free. Why is this? And what is the impact on the education system in this country?

The main reasons given for “opting out” of the state sector are:

  • Independent schools can offer better sports and extra-curricular opportunities
  • Behaviour is better / discipline is stronger
  • Private schools get better results
  • Private schools are better able to cater for my child’s needs

The reasons more rarely given but perhaps most powerful are:

  • Going to an independent school confers a social advantage on my child
  • They’ll mix with the right sort of people at a private school

Enough has been written about the hegemony of the independently educated. It is the poison of social division that I think my panacea will treat. John O’Farrell wrote brilliantly in the Guardian last summer about why he sent his children to his local state school, Lambeth Academy:

My kids rubbed along with classmates of all races and classes. They know the other people in their community, they are not frightened when they walk down the high street after dark, they have gained an understanding of how society works that you could never get in an institution from which most of society is excluded.

I know exactly what he means. I was privately educated and had no idea about the real world until I started teaching – you can read all about that in my post The Past Feeds The Present. Until we have a properly comprehensive system where children from all social backgrounds are educated together, ignorance will breed social division. We can’t blame David Cameron, George Osborne and the like for not understanding what it’s like to live in an inner city – they have never had the opportunity to coexist with people who do.

I have been really inspired by a fantastic post by Emma Mulqueeny called “Are the school fees worth it?” – I don’t want to spoil the pleasure of reading it for yourself, but I do want to refer you to her superb “Myth Busting” section at the very end of it which addresses many of my bullet points above. She put her children into private school, transferred them to state school, and honestly and insightfully compares the two. She highlights the kinds of problems that having an independent sector in education creates for parents who just want the best for their children. Read it.

We all want what’s best for our children. What’s best for our children is not educating them in a social vacuum. Putting children into independent schools is like putting them voluntarily into a bell jar and sucking out the air so the real world continues all around them but they can’t hear it, can’t touch it, can’t feel it – it all seems so distant and unreal.

To say that standards of behaviour and attainment are better in private schools is a spurious argument. Children from advantaged backgrounds go to private schools, so of course they behave better and achieve academically; they come from families who invest in education. Children whose parents make an investment of time, care and attention instead of money and send their children to state schools provide them with a similarly advantaged background and – guess what? – their children also behave well and achieve highly.

There is also a misapprehension that “comprehensive” means “the same for everyone”. As anyone who works in a good comprehensive knows, education is tailored to the most and least able on a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute basis throughout the land. Educational needs are met. The brightest are stretched. The most troubled supported. All for free. It’s no wonder that we already have the sixth best education system in the world.

So, what would be the benefits of my fully nationalised education system? Social harmony. Greater understanding between people of all backgrounds. Fairer distribution of funding, facilities, and opportunities. Maybe, just maybe, we could have the best education system in the world .

Of course, at the moment, that honour belongs to Finland. Finland has a completely nationalised education system. Students don’t sit any compulsory exams until they are at least 17. There are no inspections. There are no such things as school league tables – instead, investment is made in local schools to ensure consistency of quality. Adam Lopez summarises: “Finland’s Ministry of Education’s philosophy has been to trust the professionals, parents and communities to guide their own policy.”

In Finland teaching is one of the most respected professions. In Finland, local schools are fully autonomous with the freedom to implement the curriculum that best suits their context. That sounds like an independent school I’d want to work at.

This post is a response to the #blogsync topic for January suggested by Edutronic here:

UPDATE: Emma has helpfully gathered all her “Myth Busting” points into one new post: Myth-busting State Schools vs Private Schools. Go!

18 thoughts on “The Universal Panacea? The number one shift in UK education I wish to see in my lifetime

  1. Pingback: Myth-busting State schools vs Private schools | Emma Mulqueeny

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  3. A really valid point! However, in the absence of a general policy for the removal of private education, I wonder, how can we begin to make those parents who would never think of a state education for their children to begin to see the value of it? How do we drag them in and show them what is on offer for free?!

    • I know – this is a “never gonna happen” scenario. So winning the hearts and minds of parents to show them what a good state school will do, one at a time, is the only way to chip away at the prejudices. Teaching well, succeeding, and enriching student experiences is our only defence. Our Deputy PM could set a fine example by showing his faith the state sector for his own children’s education. Wonder if he will?

  4. Playing devil’s advocate for a moment, but a couple of points:
    • I think you are massively overestimating the proportion of boarders in private schools, so the amount spent will be considerably lower than £9.6bn.
    • so large sums of money are being spent on private education, which you want to see removed … that means that the state will need to pick up the tab. No, it won’t cost as much when funded by the state, because staffing and resources will be cut to the level of existing state schools, but that nevertheless leaves a significant shortfall that needs to be found from the public coffers – something in the region of £2-3bn, assuming parents will still have to pay for the boarding element.
    • Behaviour is better in private schools, so parents want to send their kids there NOT so that they learn to be better behaved, but SO THAT they can learn without all their lessons being interrupted by unruly kids.

    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like to see the apartheid between state and private schooling any more than you do, but in economically difficult times it is impossible to even contemplate, and the fact that most of our political lords and masters went to private school will unfortunately colour the debate.

    • You’re quite right – my maths is way off and I hadn’t costed the model at all. It certainly isn’t a practical solution to nationalise the private sector and it is a system so ingrained in out national identity that it is unlikely every to be on the agenda. In that sense the Finnish model could never take root here, as their model is successful because it is predicated on a set of social attitudes and conditions particular to Finnish culture which are fundamentally different to our own. I’ll concede all that!
      I also take the point about parents wanting to remove their children from bad behaviour by putting them in the private sector. This is certainly true. Unfortunately, the more parents take their well-behaved, well-supported children out of the sector, the worse it gets – a vicious cycle. My point (impractical as it is) is that the addition of half a million of those children back into the state sector would actually help to prevent the kinds of problems that caused them to be taken out in the first place.

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