Comment: It’s time to phase out elitist education

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.

Steven 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

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47 Responses to “Comment: It’s time to phase out elitist education”

  1. Mike B

    Our state school system, where it has been allowed, has made great progress over the last few years. The London Challenge has shown that cross school cooperation pays off. It is worth noting that supporters of the private and grammar system are basing many of their arguments on self interest rather than education practice. The original data for grammar schools was falsely reported by Cyril Burt and is now discredited. A ‘golden age’ is supposed to have happened where grammar school students were receiving the best of education and the rest were given proper alternatives. This never happened but unfortunately time dulls the real accounts of the system as it was. Private schools (public?) hide behind a false charitable status. A joke really. There is plenty of need for improvement in the school system but the grammar and private sectors are not part of the solution they are a factor of the problem.

  2. Bradley B.

    Problem is, power is with the fee payers and your arguments will simply get nowhere. Being right is not enough.

  3. Steven Longden

    Your right. That’s why policy, followed by legislation is needed. It was managed in Finland and their system is held up as an international success. Let’s follow best practice.

  4. Bradley B.

    Finland was a republic with a highly successful state education system. We are a monarchy with an aristocracy and a large and very powerful upper-middle class and our state education system is mediocre.

    The left has ignored mass non-compliance for the last forty years. Research shows that teachers are spending around 30% of contact time dealing with control and classroom management issues.

    Since the introduction of the National Curriculum Labour has NEVER discussed investing in that curriculum and making it free online to schools. I have attended meetings at which Labour educators have not known what a fully described curriculum is. They are happy to spend £500 million on gigantic flat screens while having ZERO budget for software or programs to use with the hardware. Labour educational thinkers, policy-makers are generally clueless.

    In Finland you will find trades schools with entry requirements which include decent high school qualifications. Labour by contrast gives poor financial support to efforts to train young people for the building trades and has NO minimum entry qualifications because they want to use these initiatives as second chances for the semi-literate, non-compliant. Result – these efforts fail and we have forty years of building trades shortages.

    I worked as an educational consultant overseas and upon returning to settle I gave it up to renovate houses because the UK is simply an impossible place to get anything done.

    Oh god teacher training is so bad…

  5. uglyfatbloke

    Well said. Also, we should not assume that all private schools are even any good at what they do. I went to one for nearly five years and it was really dreadful.

  6. Steven Longden

    All of your points are valid: comparatively mediocre state education; significant levels of poor behaviour in some schools; red herring capital spend; no proper commitment to vocational/technical education; relatively poor teacher training and professional development.
    All of these issues need addressing by Labour in the future. I argue that it is also crucial that we level the playing field by phasing out wealth based education to ensure all children get a better shot at the top jobs and positions.
    Finland should be a leading model for us, something to strive towards: its teacher training is world renowned; teachers have great status in society; early years focuses on proper socialisation which results in better levels of cooperation and behaviour in later years; secondary schools focus on students actually learning how to learn; careers guidance is taught weekly from an early age; options (vocational or academic) don’t start until 16 years of age; AND there are no stressful external standardised exams until 18. And still, Finland manages to come out near the top of the international comparison tables on most indicators.
    I don’t care if Finland has a monarchy or not – I want some of this for the UK! 🙂

  7. Bradley B.

    You are quite right. They also have some of the best designed elementary and nursery schools in Europe. And also, as you may know, incredibly well-designed clothes for toddlers and infants!

  8. Mike Stallard

    Steven, allow me to agree wholeheartedly with your premise that the system is totally unfair. I have grandchildren in both expensive private and free state schools. The difference in their standards could not be more stark. I feel passionate about this. £37,000 a year gets you a place at a minor public school where you are weaned off drugs, taught how to behave towards women/men, shown your potential and made into a gentleman/lady. Free state schools? Taught that you have not got a hope, not to ask questions and then neglected. PS Do not on any account go to the toilet. PS Expect to get bullied.
    Not everyone is going to be an intellectual power house like you and me. Some people want to be chefs. Others want to be really good gardeners. They do not want to study much – literacy and numeracy is what they both need and want. University? Why?
    My grandson is very bright aged 12 at a state school. He is frustrated. He is desperate to learn things. He is being treated like the people who mess around and don’t want to be there. At a pay school, he could be developed and led – educated.
    Cutting out the good schools to make it fair is not going to help him. What he needs – just like the no-hopers in their special schools for ebd – is a special school.environment with the other nerds.

  9. Mike Stallard

    And Sweden? Free schools?
    Teaching is about just two very simple things:
    1. Teachers. You need people of both sexes who can love and look after their pupils. They need to be able to know how to develop their talents and spot trouble and potential. They need to be there and to be educated themselves to the standard which their pupils demand of them. No more, no less.
    2. Pupils. They need to be there to learn and to open themselves to being led forward into adulthood. They are all surprisingly different, all gifted in very different ways.

    All the rest is frills.

  10. Mike Stallard

    Since becoming an Academy, both our local comps are no longer a crying scandal. There are school uniforms worn with pride. Vandalism is almost disappeared. But I am not at all sure what is being learned.

  11. Gerwynimo

    My close friend had 3 grandsons in private schools. My three daughters were all state educated. Mine trounced the others in GCSE’s and ‘A’ Levels and have had a stable family life throughout. Not sure private education is that great…

  12. uglyfatbloke

    Mine had uniform like you would n’t believe, but it was rubbish academically -. A few very good teachers, but a lot of really useless ones.

  13. madasafish

    If you want the State education system to work properly you need to tackle rubbish teachers and bolshie unions..

    I have met and seen teachers at work whose attitudes to work and results merited immediate dismissal.. and years later they are still there. We had no holidays for 12 years and made numerous sacrifices to pay for private education as local state schools were abysmal.. (since improved). No aims for kids and really serious problems with disruption…

  14. Jacko

    Two words: Diane Abbott.

  15. Bradley B.

    You really believe that? And I suppose for law and order all we need is people who comply with the law and all the rest is frills.

    Thirty per cent of children are to some degree non-compliant and badly parented. Deal with that.
    The UK curriculum is out of date. Deal with that.

    And so on ….

  16. Steven Longden

    It’s sounds like we both agree that there are good and bad state and private schools. The solution is to phase out the private schools to remove the gross unfairness they lead to in access to universities, jobs, positions of power, etc AND ensure that state schools are continually improving. The evidence suggests that state schools have improved in the last couple of decades, overall! If the talents and skills or middle and wealthy parents were invested in state rather than grammar and private schools then the standards would rise even more quickly.

  17. Steven Longden

    There are good and bad state and private schools. The problem with private schools in particular are the unfair access their alumni networks afford them in to top universities and, more importantly top careers and positions of influence, as the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission has made absolutely clear. Unfortunately, the Commission does not appear to have the guts to call for the phasing out of these schools.

  18. Steven Longden

    I have met and worked with poor teachers during my career, state and grammar schools. However, the majority were good or better. Those who were not did not last long.

    Unions are a force for good in society, including schools. I have also had the misfortune to work with senior teachers, including headteachers who were bullies. Most Union reps I’ve worked with are sensible people who stand up for what is right but don’t pander to unprofessional colleagues.

  19. Steven Longden

    In 2003, she said, as a Labour MP, sending her son to a private school was indefensible. Anyone with enough wealth is open to this temptation when it comes to their own children. If we give in to these temptations then we end up propping an unfair system (the same could be said of Labour Members who accept Lordships or Honours). That’s why we need policy and legislation to phase out these unfair systems.

    Both my sons attend grammar school. Through personal research and professional experience I have come to realise this is not fair and I don’t want this to continue for the next generation, my grandchildren. I want the kind of equal and high quality education systems that have been achieved in Finland. We won’t achieve this if the likes of me are not prepared to start advocating education systems that benefit all children, not just my own.

  20. Mike Stallard

    Phasing out the good is not going to improve the bad.
    The State schools are badly run by a massive bureaucracy. Teachers are second raters who are trammelled in so tightly that the job is both boring and very unpleasant. If you have not stood in front of a class that doesn’t like you, you will not understand.
    When you get into trouble – and one word from one “student” is quite enough even if it is a lie – the bureaucracy suddenly isn’t there.
    Teaching – especially for men – is dangerous. You can be suspended for absolutely nothing at all. You can even be black listed for nothing at all. That is why the Primary Schools are almost stripped of male teachers.
    And then there are the meetings…

  21. Sam I Am

    If we drag all education down to the lowest common denominator, then the next generation will be too thick to vote for anything other than Labour.

    Ha Ha Ha !

  22. Richard MacKinnon

    Exactly Jacko. She epitomises the Labour Party as it is and why it is unelectable.

  23. Richard MacKinnon

    “Turn all private and grammar schools into non-fee paying, non-selective state schools over a period of five to 10 years”. How you going to do that Steven? Compensate or just take them into state control? Pass a law and abolish private ownership?
    I cannot believe the level of debate that must circulate at Labour CLPs these days.

  24. Richard MacKinnon

    The thinking behind this article is flawed. Steven Longden’s solution to the unfairness in our education system is not to improve the state sector it is to abolish the private sector.

  25. Richard MacKinnon

    There are two things politicians could do to improve state schools. The first is give individual schools autonomy to make their own decisions without interference. The other is change the law so it is no longer compulsory for schools and parents to educate children. In other words allow schools to expel children that dont want to be there, as is the case with private schools.

  26. Stay Puft

    I think we should get the expert opinion of Diane Abbott, who sent her son to the fee paying City of London School.

  27. Robert Jones

    The Abbott issue is a total red herring: if I had children, which happily for children I haven’t, and there were a choice of sending them to a good private school or a rotten state one, I’d choose the private school and would be a lousy parent if I didn’t, provided always that I could afford to; and that’s where the trouble lies; not so much in the existence of a private sector but in the fact that it’s prohibitively expensive for most people. For an MP, though, it is a bearable expense: if Abbott cared more about her child than political dogma, she was behaving like a good parent and not the kind of knee-jerking robotic clone some here would appreciate.

    You can’t blame people for adapting to the system in place when they have actually to make a decision: or you can – obviously – but you turn into a self-righteous set of prigs when you do.

  28. Steven Longden

    It’s been managed before Richard. Most grammar schools in the UK were turned into comprehensives in the 70s and 80s – my own school included. There are 160 left today, educating 3% of UK students.

    Sweden managed to bring its private and grammar schools in to the state sector within 10 years in the 70s and has consistently been at the top of international comparison tables for educational outcomes since OECD first started to produce the data in 2000.

    Private schools in the UK are not privately owned but registered charities. Certainly legislation would be needed to bring them in to the state sector, how else would you do it? We are only talking 4% of UK students. Quite manageable in 10 years.

  29. Steven Longden

    Clearly not Richard. Read some of my other responses to posts here. As a teacher in the state academy I am more than familiar with the needs to continually improve state education, which, by the way, has been improving in recent decades.

  30. Richard MacKinnon

    But this is exactly what you advocate in this article, abolish private schools by takeing them into the state sector I will quote you, it is your no.1 recommendation “Turn all private and grammar schools into non-fee paying, non-selective state schools over a period of five to 10 years”. So I ask you again Steven, how are going to achieve this?

  31. Richard MacKinnon

    You can bring failing, loss making businesses into the public sector its called nationalisation and it did happen to English Grammar shcools in the 50s and 60s, but if you want to nationalise a sucessful business or school, one that is profitable then it can only be done by paying compensation, otherwise its called theft.
    We agree on one thing private schools are not charities and should not enjoy tax breaks. And that is radical sensible vote winning education policy. But thats it.
    Tell me this, at the end of the hypothetical ten years, is it then illegal to open a private school? Are you advocating that the private education sector then becomes illegal?
    Try as I might Steven I just can’t get it: the idea of Jeremy Corbyn legislating for the privitisation of Eton.
    Thanks for taking the time to respond.

  32. Steven Longden

    Clearly my article advocates phasing out grammar and private schools. My response below this one answers your question of how this can be achieved, using the example of what has gone before in the UK and other countries like Finland.

    I have highlighted the importance of removing unequal outcomes, in terms of jobs, positions of influence and power that private and grammar schools perpetuate. Nowhere have I suggested there is not a significant job to still do in improving the quality of state education – indeed there is still much improvement that needs to be made. Yet, the fact remains, Finland managed to phase out, over a period of 10 years, unfair private education AND at the same time, by 2000 produce the best educational outcomes in world rankings (PISA) – certainly the best in Europe and significantly better than the UK’s mediocre performance.

    The fact is, the U.K., via private schools, delivers ‘jobs for the boys and girls’ based on wealth and internationally mediocre performance for the country via the overall education system. Personally, I’d prefer high quality AND equal, meritocratic outcomes of the kind consistently achieved by Finland.

  33. Steven Longden

    Private schools are charities, so there would be no one to compensate as there would be no loses. If anything, I suspect the state would end up bailing out a lot of private schools that are in the red, as part of the phase out. Any reserves would be simply kept on by the new state controlled school.

    As the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission has said, private schools are responsible for “elitism that is so stark it could be called Social Engineering”. I translate that as meaning that the hugely disproportionate number of privately educated people in the most senior and powerful careers and positions in the country cannot simply be explained by the good levels of education that are available in some/most private schools. The contention is, that it is more than likely, down to personal, informal and sometimes more formal connections between private schools, their alumni and the above mentioned professions and positions of power. This state of affairs is deeply unjust and discriminates against state educated students. If this contention is correct, then what would be the problem in legislating to phase out private education? The British Social Attitudes data suggests that the majority (61%) of the public would probably support it.

    Of course, a change in government might reintroduce private schools – “that’s democracy for you”, as Churchill said when the Labour government came in to power in 1945. The question is, will our elected representatives have the courage to take on the powerful vested interests (read ‘alumni’) that would decry any suggestion of saying goodbye to their ivory towers. Certainly, Atlee an Old Haileyburian, wouldn’t countenance it in 1944 and Blair, an old Fettesian, would have laughed it out of town, no doubt at the same time he was signing the bill to legislate tuition fees in 1997.

    We all know private education is unfair and anti-meritocratic. For goodness sake, John Major is constantly on about it and even the quintessential Etonian, David Cameron, suddenly discovered the joys of equal opportunities in his Autumn conference speech. Though, it’s true, he hasn’t gone as far, as logic demands, to support my proposal.

    Who knows, perhaps the grammar school educated Corbyn, or his likely left wing successor, will be the man (or woman) to help Cameron to take his new found convictions to their logical conclusion and come to terms with his loss? I do hope so.

    I’ve enjoyed discussing this with you Richard.

  34. Richard MacKinnon

    and I rest the case for the prosecution.

  35. AlwaysIntegrity

    Pointless discussion, it is a fundamental human right for a parent to do whatever they think is best for their children. Your point on subsidies ignores the fact that those who pay for private education pay twice, so the state would have to substantially increase education expenditure. What would stop parents paying for their children to be educated abroad?

  36. AlwaysIntegrity

    70% of IQ is inherited. Parents with high IQ’s will on average be paid a lot more. So it is no surprise that private school pupils, on average, do better both at school, at university and in life. This is primarily what you are complaining about. Force the same children into the same system would do nothing much to change outcomes, it is social engineering at its worst.

  37. Tabman

    I hope you’ll also abolish all the so-called comprehensive schools that select by house price in catchment area and by religious affiliation.

    No, thought not. Just abolish the schools that actually offer an education rather than poorly delivered politically correct child minding.

  38. Tabman

    And as a resident of Altrincham you’ll also know that Trafford ‘s selective Sec Mods outperform the majority of so-called all ability comprehensives. Perhaps because they offer an education at well tailored to the pupils who attend them rather than “one size fits all” where the bright kids are bored and bullied, the least able struggle and are disruptive and the middle are ignored as long as they can attain 5 grade Cs .

  39. Tabman

    I’m sorry, but that’s rubbish. My other half is an academic in an oxbridge college and they bend over backwards to admit state school pupils. Their biggest problem is the poverty of ambition in that too few apply in the first place , too often told by ignorant or inversely snobbish teachers that oxbridge is not for them .

  40. Tabman

    In which case, rather than abolish the schools, make entry available to anyone who passes the entrance exam and get the state to pay the fees of those who do.

    We used to have this system before it was abolished (Direct Grant schools and the Assisted Places Scheme )

  41. Tabman

    If you want to remove wealth based education you need to return to selection by ability, not the current system of selection by house price. Evidence: Sutton Trust – the top 100 “non-selective” state schools are less socially diverse (using your measure of fsm) than the top 100 grammar schools.

  42. Tabman

    What’s the self interest in the grammar system? Who abolished the most grammars? Thatcher – because she knew that Tory voters were worried about their thick offspring being usurped by clever poor children. Far better for them the system we have now, where you can buy your way into a good school by moving to the expensive houses in the right catchment.

  43. Tabman

    Finland is also a monoethnic and monocultural society. What works in a country with a high degree of societal similarity and conformity is unlikely to succeed in one as diverse as ours

  44. Tabman

    You’re .

  45. Gerry Miller

    Alan Bennett sums it up quite nicely:
    “Those who pay for private education know that it is unfair. Those who teach in private schools know that it is unfair. Those who have been educated in private schools know that it is unfair, or they should do if they have received a decent education”. This is not a direct quote bu it is the gist of what he said. I was privately educated and the main thing I learned was that most of my fellow pupils had, and were encouraged by the teachers to have, a sense of superiority and entitlement to the best jobs. I taught in the state sector for 33 years and would never dream of sending my children to a private or grammar school.
    Unfortunately the whole British education system was built on elitism and the view that the children of privileged parents were inherently brighter than their poorer counterparts – as one of your correspondents wrongly states.
    When the comprehensive system was set up in the sixties and seventies, a great opportunity was missed to remove charitable status from the private sector, at the very least. I am not sure that you plan to phase out private and grammar school education over 5-10 years is feasible, but removing charitable status would be a start.

  46. snakeroot1

    I would suggest that you are proceeding in the wrong order. If you solve the problems you identify in the state schools then people who have a choice may be willing to send their children there.

    Diane Abbott said that if there had been a decent education available in Hackney she would have sent her son to a local comprehensive. I take her at her word. If someone as thoroughly on the Left as Abbott is not willing to sacrifice her child on the altar of equality, it will be hard to build political support for your project from among the less committed.

    I would also note that by school age, inequality has already set in. As I understand it children from poorer backgrounds arrive in school a year or two behind their more fortunate peers. So even if all schools are state schools, inheritance of class will persist.

    Also, would the Left be willing to make tradeoffs? For example, much more rigorous discipline in the schools (which might fall disproportionately on the poorer children). Banding (which might disproportionately benefit the wealthier children)?

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