Private schools need phasing out – and here’s how it can be done

26 Jun 2019, 5:00

A packed event held in the House of Commons entitled ‘Phasing Out Private Schools’ sought to kick-start a long overdue debate.

Despite shadow schools minister Mike Kane attending, this received barely a whiff in the media – though it was the subject of sarcasm in a sketch by Jonathan Simons, formerly of right-leaning thinktank Policy Exchange.

It’s an important issue. The children who go to the fee-paying ones have a disproportionate chance of succeeding in life over those who attend school for free.

While only seven per cent of pupils in England are educated in private school, a new analysis by the Sutton Trust published today shows privately educated alumni made up 39 per cent of the cabinet in spring this year, 59 per cent of permanent secretaries in the civil service and two-thirds of senior judges.

Meanwhile both of the current two Conservative leadership contenders were privately educated. The children of many politicians attend an education system completely separate from the one they oversee.

This unfairness first struck the playwright Alan Bennett in 1951 when he arrived at Oxford University from his Leeds grammar school. He later recalled: “We all know that to educate not according to ability but according to the social situation of the parents is both wrong and a waste. Private education is not fair. Those who provide it know it. Those who pay for it know it. Those who have to sacrifice in order to purchase it know it. And those who receive it know it, or should.”

Since then the number of pupils going to fee-paying schools every year has doubled from 300,000 to more than 600,000 today. At the same time, private school fees have risen from about £9,500 a decade ago to about £14,300 a year, 19 per cent above the rate of inflation, according to an analysis by Lloyds last year using data from the Independent Schools Council.

No other country in Europe has a private school system quite like we do. We also know the UK is the fifth most unequal country for income in Europe, according to the Institute for Public Policy Research.

Of course, that inequality is not all to do with private schools – their impact is one of myriad issues that need to be addressed. But it does need addressing by an education secretary some day soon, and in my book Posh Boys I advocate a policy of slow and painless euthanasia.

First, remove the £200 million paid in government subsidies, which we know from figures released by the Ministry of Defence, Foreign Office and the Independent Schools Council. The state, through a number of government departments, subsidises fees under various schemes including for diplomats or military personnel.

Second, remove the schools’ charitable tax status and impose VAT on fees, because despite repeated promises they still only give free places to one per cent of their intake; also, doing some good works doesn’t make an organisation a charity: big business does corporate social responsibility but doesn’t expect to have charitable tax status.

Finally, restrict the number of privately educated entrants to Oxbridge and top public sector jobs, including parliament and Whitehall.

Those who oppose reform ask how we can afford to educate 600,000 additional pupils. But the final bill is not as big as critics make out; there would be no extra capital costs because private schools and their facilities would be subsumed into the state sector.

The private schools that couldn’t carry on trading and accepted the government offer to join the maintained sector would add no extra capital costs to the education of their pupils. And many would bring with them generous endowments. According to Eton College’s annual accounts in 2016-17, Eton now owns approaching 200 properties and has endowments and investments worth more than £400 million.

These reforms would be fairer on those working in state schools who are often made to feel “less than” the much better resourced private sector peers. We need to help all teachers have the greatest impact on the lives of poorer pupils – rather than have it potentially wasted in a system that is currently too rigged.

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  1. Tom Burkard

    I think that Mr Verkaik misses the point–this meeting of levellers was ignored by the media because it does no favours whatever to the equality and diversity agenda. It’s rather mean-spirited to punish parents who are making huge sacrifices for their children, and do nothing whatever about those who pull strings to get them into the best state schools–which are selective in all but name.

  2. Edward

    British public schools are an amazing export industry and the envy of the world. Banning excellence is a sure way to guarantee the acceleration of the decline in educational standards in the UK. Most public schools have an important social impact with bursaries and partnerships with the state sector. They raise the bar and constantly innovate, they attract and train talent. Don’t confuse excellence with privilege. In fact most parents (like myself) make huge sacrifices to pay for a top quality education. The focus and energy should NOT be on destroying excellence and averaging everyone down, but rather on averaging up. Investing in state schools, training teachers, attracting better talent to schools, raising the bar, using public schools as role models and examples of excellence. To deliver social mobility, you need a symbiosis of public and state sector. Two generations ago my Grandfather worked in the London docklands. Now both my sons are at top boarding schools – how? Through hard work and sacrifice and the search for excellence.

  3. John Edward

    As ever, talking of Britain and the UK but referencing England and English statistics specifically.

    Administration of education has been devolved for decades, politically so for 20 years.

    Fee levels lower in Scotland; fee rise % lower in Scotland; most Scottish independent schools are for urban day pupils; Scottish independent schools work to support state inspections, examinations and curriculum design; and, most importantly, a unique specific public benefit test requires means-tested fee assistance to widen access, as well as other community benefits:
    None of which is even considered or recognised.

  4. Manuel

    Wouldn’t this just tie the quality of education to catchment areas and house prices. Creating a new form of unfair advantage based on individual parents ability to buy homes near to high performing state schools.

  5. Janet Rose

    Mr Verkaik shows utter contempt for military families and military personnel when he blithely states that fee subsidies for military families should be scrapped. It is clear that he is totally without understanding of military life or military families.

    Military families are often obliged to move home multiple times, with no choice of location, no choice on the timing, and no regard to the children’s schooling. Children can attend multiple schools: always the new kid, always trying to fit in, make new friends and catch up with the curriculum. They can even be obliged to move right before their exams.

    The subsidy is there to give military children stability and a decent education by boarding at a good school. That way, when the family moves around, the children stay safe, secure and happy at the same school, following the same curriculum and with the same friends. Yes, the children go to independent schools, but the fees are subsidised – not free. Further, unless it has changed from my day, if a family owned their own home they were not entitled to the subsidy – it was only for those who were in rented quarters and obliged to move when ordered to do so.

  6. Peter John

    This article and the meeting are very prescient. I went to a state school but have spent much of my working life surrounded by the privately educated. Most are very confident in their abilities, even if at times it is misplaced. It is a sad truth that wealth and/or privilege has led them to lead lives very different from most of society; insulated and free to climb the ladder, coast or take risks all safe in the knowledge that negative consequences will not touch them.
    And as in the comment above, they view everything through the wrong end of the telescope. Every attempt to open up opportunity to the majority is attacked as a challenge their own primacy. Private schools sadly reinforce old, discredited notions of class. The comment above talks of ‘parents who are making huge sacrifices for their children’ by paying large sums of money for their education. Low income parents love their children just as much as the middle and upper classes, low income parents make just as many sacrifices. To equate money spent to love, dedication or sacrifice is just another negative by-product of an anachronistic education system.

  7. Imran

    I work in a state school and have two young children. When they get to secondary school stage, I will seriously think about sending them to a private school. Just for the rich learning environment where they will be valued as actual people and not be forgotten about in a class of 30 students, or worse treated like cogs in an exam factory. I speak from experience unfortunately.

    Surely, rather than getting rid of private schools, why not get state schools at the same standard before thinking about getting rid of them. I envy the fact that private schools are not as precious about league tables, and can actually provide a rich curriculum for their students.

    • Absolutely. If you want to destroy private schools, cause parents think twice about sending their kids there by making the state schools just as good!

  8. John Hayes

    You will need to add another 3 Billion to the budget, apparently what private school fee payers save the state by paying for their children’s education whilst still paying tax for the parents who either can’t afford it, are too selfish to pay the fee even though they know it will help their child become the best they can be or those who are completely ignorant to it.

    There is nothing wrong with success, wealth of good education. Those who think there is are left wing socialists. As MT once said of the socialist left, they would rather the poor got poorer provided the rich didn’t get richer. Go ahead and close private schools and leave the tax payer picking the bill for accommodating a 7% additional load on the state school system. You would have to build another two thousand schools.
    Socialist sour grapes, designed to comfort people who are selfish or lament the fact their parents never bothered with them. Pathetic.

  9. Chris Lipscomb

    My wife and I live in a terraced house in a small town in North Devon and have one car. We are far from rich but we use whatever money we have to educate our daughter privately. Most families have two cars, a bigger house and spend their money on other things. Some buy the services of private tutors or move to areas where they have outstanding state schools. This article also fails to mention that Jeremy Corbyn, a true Marxist, was privately educated as was Tony Blair and many others in the Labour party. Education for all should be appropriately funded but by us not taking up a place in the state sector for our daughter, we are effectively paying twice. Eton and Harrow are not a representative demographic of most who send their children to private schools. The politics of envy and a misguided view of equality that does not exist anyway misses a key point. Those who pay for their children’s education care deeply about their children’s education and behaviour and invest a lot of their own time as well as money to make sure that they become useful members of society. There is ultimately no such thing as absolute fairness anyway even in the state sector and as we cannot afford to live in an affluent part of the country,I will do what is best for my daughter and if that means educating her privately,I will and no one will stop me.

    • Sarah Bennett

      Such a shame so many commenters here have completely missed the point of this article in talking about how much they love their children and value education, and that’s why they sacrifice their money to private fees. Your love or value is no greater than millions of parents with talented and highly academic children but for most of these, no amount of saving or sacrifice could touch the fees these schools charge. You are buying privilege, advance and connections over the heads of the children in the state sector, so own it instead of trying to justify it. I am a teacher in the state sector and see children who are probably smarter and more talented than a great percentage of private school students (you only need wealth to attend and it doesn’t necessarily come with brains) yet these children, as bright and capable as they are, will not walk with the confidence, no, arrogance of private school graduates who have a misplaced sense of superiority instilled in them just through going to one of these schools l. Private schools stamp a certificate of elitism, connections and open doors in an old boys network that the state school children will never have access to, regardless of their talent or abilities. That, and precisely that, is why private schools DO need to be phased out – and they will be in time when the collective majority actually wake up to this societal scourge.

      • Children of the wealthy will have these privaliges whether they go to a private school or not. Do you think that if you phase out private schools they will not just form state school enclaves with crazy house prices, which has already happened in parts of the country, or private tution (and private sports clubs ) will not sky rocket. The wealthy will just find a way around it. Private schools are not the problem, state eductaion is the problem.

  10. Mark Watson

    What a ridiculous article.
    So many issues it’s hard to know where to start, but let’s give it a go.
    I’m sorry the author didn’t think the meeting achieved the massive media impact it deserved. I assume the fact that he was one of the speakers and was presumably put out by the fact his name wasn’t front and centre has nothing to do with it. (Funny he didn’t mention that he’s hardly independent). Never mind, at least he got to plug his book in this article. And the ones in the Guardian. And the I. And TES. Hmmm, am I seeing a pattern here, in that more media exposure might have helped sales?
    And yes, Mike Kane did attend. But despite the meeting being held in their workplace not a single member of Shadow Cabinet attended. Not the Shadow Secretary of State for Education. And certainly not the Shadow Home Secretary or Shadow Attorney General, but then as they both send their children to private school that’s probably not surprising. You did get two MPs, but 2 out of 650 doesn’t show that politicians are that interested. So in reality not exactly a gathering of the big-hitters, worthy of prime-time.
    I find it really amusing that in trying to bolster his argument against private schools the author seems to be campaigning for a return to nationwide grammar schools. Not sure that’s going to sit well with your fellow campaigners.
    And what a wonderful country we would live in if privately owned assets could be “subsumed into the state sector” with no compensation paid to the owners. Presumably the author is imagining a Robert Mugabe land-grab. Nice. The land and buildings used by private schools are almost all owned by individuals, companies, or charities. There is no possible way that the Government could simply appropriate them. Other than negotiating an acceptable price with the owners the only route is compulsory purchase orders which would (a) take years, and (b) end up costing the UK taxpayer billions.
    And no, Eton isn’t simply going to give everything to the public sector with a cheery wave bye-bye.
    Another interesting idea is that rather than advocating for the best people to be appointed to important jobs, regardless of background, the author supports active discrimination. He doesn’t say so above, but elsewhere he’s proposed that not more than 7% of “top jobs” go to those who were privately educated. Not sure if this would cover people who went to private school their whole lives, or everyone who spend a day in one. What about those from disadvantaged backgrounds who attended under a fully paid bursary? Are they to be discriminated against? Still, who needs details when you’re dog-whistling to the faithful. Not exactly a fair and open utopia though is it.

  11. What I find interesting about those chasing of political point of view they discounting or avoiding all reason.

    We know, as the BBC said so, it will cost £3.5 billion per year to educate all private school children in the state system. But the other proposal of closing tax loop holes, which actually means adding VAT to school fees wouldn’t work. Oh, don’t get me wrong those attending Harrow or Eaton would continue to pay, but would the rest? If you had two children at private school at some ~£26k per year the VAT would surely push this over £30k and this would be enough to close most schools.

    The VAT proposal
    – would raise very little
    – cost the best part of £3.5 billion
    – Not effect the top elites, certain not close Eaton or Harrow

    So if you truly wanted to get ride of private schools there are three simple actions.
    1. Improve state schools with a target class size of 18 to 20.
    2. Put a cap on school fees, yes that’s right it will limit how good private schools can be. Initially starting at say £20k per year, then bring down to the same as state which would hopefully rise to £10k per child.
    3. Allow transferable school vouchers, allowing the purchasing of places at private schools. This might start at 20% and raise to 100%.

    • Well the gist of this proposal has now been accepted by the Labour conference so I can only imagine that either, all the senior labour and union officers children have now completed their education or, they have a cunning plan to educated their children abroad.

      We put our three children through private education by a/ not taking holidays, b/ working three jobs between us and c/ borrowing against our house. We then found that the same people who had enjoyed free university decided that the country could no longer afford it so we carried on paying our taxes without burdening the state education system.

      Quite clearly the approach of people genuinely interested in the future of our country would be to improve the state system so that private education becomes redundant. We were close with the mix Grammer Schools but lacked the imagination to make the intake more fluid and avoid selection at 11 years old. It was of course the closure of Grammer Schools that added fuel to the need for private education.

  12. rupert sackville

    This proposal is pure and unalloyed communism. In effect it proposes the confiscation of the property of the private schools. The author has no understanding of economics. The schools woudl not be forced to join the state sector. What he proposes would simply mean the colonisation of private schools by Chinese businessmen and Russian oligarchs whilst excluding English families. His preposterous planning has no foundation in reality.

  13. Oliver Beedham

    The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money and excellence will always be sought out by the excellent and will always be regarded with jealousy by the masses.

  14. Nick Jamieson

    Another fascianting insight into the oddities of the British leftist mindset.

    No matter that private schools outside the grip of the government, like private healthcare, is entirely normal and largely uncontroversial in almost every other country in Europe. The ideological Left in Britain want rid and have got a stack of arguments, all of them insular, to back up their demand for statism.

    Like nationalising lots of industries (which left-wing governments in countries like Sweden and Norway have managed to avoid developing as a characteristic hang-up because it’s so obviously hugely economically damaging) this is just another of those weird Little Englander obsessions of this country’s Left which make them stand well outside European norms.

    They should get out more, look at what’s basically regarded as optimal in other civilised countries and stop trying to impose their oddball ideological eccentricities on England.

    • In countries like Sweden private schools are free for all in most cases. The private school receives what the cost of educating your child would be in the state system – you then pay the difference if there’s anything to pay.
      Britain is so backward it’s unbelievable. We are still in the dark ages in the UK – wake up!

  15. Flora Joseph

    I completely agree with this article. Private schools are not an option for most families therefore they benefit the wealthy minority. Creaming the wealthiest children from the education system leaves the state school sector with a higher proportion of children from impoverished families. These families have many challenges already, and often live in small houses, in less desirable areas, have more menial jobs, can not afford as many luxuries, have poorer diets, which all-in-all leads to reduced health measures. These compounding factors, which wealth underlies, contribute to a lack of engagement or motivation towards education and more disruptive behaviour. These are the children that need the educational investment. They are the ones that need the small class sizes, the extra input, exposure to opportunities that their parents cannot afford for them. The system is currently upside down with children who have been fortunate enough to have been born into a wealthy family, benefitting disproportionately from this. These wealthy children will already have multiple advantages awarded to them by their home life. Let’s try and level the playing field for children and let their own ability and effort be reflected in their life achievements, not the foot-ups they were given due to their parents success.