For Theresa May: On Grammar Schools and Private Education

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I offer the following as a ‘what if?’ A little train of thought to add to the grammar schools debate currently raging through the veins of the educational world. I offer it to Theresa May as I think it solves many of her problems with the policy as currently envisaged, however it also opens up a whole lot of new ones…

Our most famous schools have been around for centuries, some are fictional like Hogwarts others exist in collective folklore like Rugby with William Webb Ellis and Tom Brown. Whether you like them or not the famous independent schools and not so famous ones have a culture that is recognisable throughout the world.

Our Independent schools, also famously, seem to provide a vast number of recruits to the ‘top jobs’ in the UK. Whilst educating a meagre 7% of the population these schools provide 71% of the top military officers, 74% of high court judges, 51% of ‘print’ journalists, 32% of MPs, 61% of ‘top’ doctors, the list goes on… as the chair of the Sutton Trust, Sir Peter Lampl puts it:

Our research shows that your chances of reaching the top in so many areas of British life are very much greater if you went to an independent school… The key to improving social mobility at the top is to open up independent schools to all pupils based on merit not money … as well as support for highly able students in state schools.

For Theresa May looking at setting up more grammar schools this might offer an interesting quandary, if we are to take her at her word that she wants the UK to be “the great meritocracy of the world,” does she intend to ignore the great bastions of paid for privilege that the Independent sector undoubtedly is?  Over the past 25 years fees in this sector have increased by 553% meaning that those who once felt able to pay for this type of education have effectively been priced out. Therefore those who attend these schools are more likely to be ultra privileged than those in the past and an increasing number are from abroad, including the sons and daughters of Chinese and Russian oligarchs. Is this tolerable in May’s great meritocracy of the world?

At the 1953 Labour Conference Hugh Gaitskell pointed out that having 4 to 5% of Independent School places free would bring scant rewards, instead he proposed 50% of the places should be free; maybe this is something Theresa could consider, in fact she could go one step further and instead of imposing grammar schools onto the public sector, she could in one fell swoop prove that she means it when she states that the UK should be the world’s great meritocracy by turning our private Independent schools into her beloved state grammar schools.

This extremely radical move would be a highly interesting one for it would succeed in addressing a central point of her speech on grammar schools that the country wants change. And her Government is going to deliver it:

Everything we do will be driven, not by the interests of the privileged few. Not by those with the loudest voices, the special interests, the greatest wealth or the access to influence. This Government’s priorities are those of ordinary, working class people…  

above all they want to believe that if they uphold their end of the deal – they do the right thing, they work hard, they pay their taxes – then tomorrow will be better than today and their children will have a fair chance in life, the chance to go as far as their talents will take them…  

I want Britain to be a place where advantage is based on merit not privilege; where it is your talent and hard work that matter not where you were born, who your parents are or what your accent sounds like.

Let us not underestimate what it will take to create that great meritocracy. It means taking on some big challenges, tackling some vested interests. Overcoming barriers that have been constructed over many years… there is no more important place to start than education… at the moment the school system works if you’re well off and can buy your way into the school you want, and it provides extra help and support if you’re from a disadvantaged family… I want to encourage more people, schools and institutions with something to offer to come forward and help… 

I want to encourage some of our biggest independent schools to bring their knowledge, expertise and resources to bear to help improve the quality and capacity of schools for those who cannot afford to pay.

This is entirely in keeping with the ethos that lies at the heart of many of these institutions. Most of the major public schools started out as the route by which poor boys could reach the professions. The nature of their intake may have changed today – indeed these schools have become more and more divorced from normal life. 

These are great schools with a lot to offer and I certainly don’t believe you solve the divide between the rich and the rest by abolishing or demolishing them. You do it by extending their reach and asking them to do more as a condition of their privileged position to help all children.  

If working class children find themselves, on merit, being educated in our ‘top’ schools instead of the wealthy then that would be a sign that Theresa May was being serious. If ‘extending the reach’ of the Independent sector meant that they stop just educating people of wealth with a small number of bursaries and assisted places for poorer children, she could go the full Gaitskell and ask that they educate the children of ‘ordinary working parents’ by merit through opening up 50% of their places or she could go the whole hog and do a double Gaitskell and in one fell swoop abolish fee paying in the independent sector and bring them fully into the state sector as Independent Grammar Schools with the full rights for self governance that academies currently have.

This would mean that Theresa can have her cake and eat it, it would show that she is  serious about creating a meritocracy in which: “advantage is based on merit not privilege,” whilst at the same time disarming many of those who are arguing against her green paper. How many on the left would need to pause to contemplate the ramifications of such a policy before they argued against her abolishing private education?

Now, I don’t pretend that there are no problems with this scenario, for a start many involved in the independent sector might object but if the Government promised to pay the same for each child that these schools currently receive it might go some way to alleviate these concerns, though I have no idea how much it would impact on the Government’s coffers. There is talk that some private schools would welcome the possibility of becoming a state grammar school but there would be an ideological problem if all schools had to operate under the auspices of the State. Other objections might be along the lines of those that currently bedevil this debate, how would the children be selected, is there such a thing as a ‘tutor-proof test’, should we have a segregated education system at all? None of my proposals here address these very real concerns and objections, though neither would keeping things as they are.

 

9 thoughts on “For Theresa May: On Grammar Schools and Private Education

  1. ad

    Over the past 25 years fees in this sector have increased by 553% meaning that those who once felt able to pay for this type of education have effectively been priced out.

    What does it say about the state sector, that people have become so much more desperate to escape from it?

    What does it say about the charitable sector, that supply has so little increased to meet demand?

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  2. fish64

    This is definitely an idea worth investigating. I’ve always thought that the grammar/comprehensive debate in the UK context needs to include independent schools. As you say, if Theresa May was serious about social mobility she would look at this issue in more detail.

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  3. J Rainer

    Martin, independent schools have never been about education, but about maintaning privilege for those with wealth and power. Doing what you suggest would rob them of their rationale and purpose.The Tories, of all people, would never do it. You don’t really buy May’s line on social mobility do you? Even if she means it, social mobility is about individual improvement. We should be seeking to reduce inequality so the majority have access to the kinds of things currently only accessible to the few.

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    1. ad

      Personally, I can find it easier to believe that May cares about social mobility than the Left does. As you said yourself, it is about individual achievement, not equality.

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  4. nancy

    I’m not convinced that a private (public?) education is necessarily about the excellence of the education as opposed to the friends you make – the social circles you move in.

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