Brexit, austerity, economic woe: it’s time to make private schools pay | Melissa Benn

A fresh conversation about a very old divide is back on the political agenda. Robert Verkaik’s book Posh Boys: How the English Public Schools Ruin Britain (note that linking verb) is currently making waves, with Andrew Marr confidently predicting that reform of private schools is “coming within a decade”.

Such calls will be bolstered by the publication, early in 2019, of Engines of Privilege: Britain’s Private School Problem by the acclaimed social historian David Kynaston and the economist Francis Green – a forensic analysis of the sector’s “extreme social exclusivity” and proposals to tackle it.

About time, too. Educational injustice has not faded over the past few decades so much as the political will to tackle it. The Labour party has offered no substantive critique of private education for well over 40 years, while the Tories have taken refuge in an ineffective policy of private school sponsorship of academies. Like the monarchy, it can sometimes feel as if private schools are bastions of privilege so deeply rooted in our national psyche that it verges on the unpatriotic even to challenge them.

But new initiatives might just emerge from our current economic troubles. Austerity has not just widened the divide between a straitened state system and an ever more luxurious private sector, it has illuminated the palpable injustice of public subsidy of these largely exclusive institutions.

In the spring of 2017 an independent councillor on Tory-controlled Taunton Deane council in Somerset proposed that four private schools donate 10% of their business rates relief, worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, to the community at a time when the council was having to close libraries and cut back on teaching assistants.

Predictably, the private schools fought back, claiming that they contributed to “public benefit” in other ways, and the council more or less climbed down. But Taunton Deane’s representatives were on to something important, as Jeremy Corbyn had recognised in his spring promise of that year to put VAT on private school fees to fund free meals for all primary age children.

The unfolding disaster of Brexit might also play its part, not least as we watch yet another bunch of entitled Tories push our nation to the cliff edge. More seriously: if the political right can so easily contemplate the entire redesign of our trade relationship to the rest of the world, how hard would it be for the political left to come up with a plan to refashion our education system in a more socially just form?

In short, it is time for a different kind of conversation – more honest, more determined – on the private/state divide. Not only does the resources gap between the two sectors now frequently verge on the obscene, but state education will never be considered first rate until all parents, including the pushiest, have a stake in a genuinely public system. If top-performing countries such as Finland, Japan and Canada can educate their children in a common system, why can’t we?

At the same time, a number of important reforms could form part of a plan for eventual integration. Such moves include the phasing out of charitable status and accompanying business rate relief – a move that the Scottish government announced late last year and was mooted under Ed Miliband’s leadership – a tax on school fees, and greater use of contextual admissions to universities.

Make no mistake: there would be massive resistance to all of the above, plus the usual media finger-pointing at those who were educated privately or now send their own children to private schools, especially if they are to be found on the left of Labour or, indeed, at the Guardian. But if we are to move this debate on, we have to learn to sidestep the discomfort of individuals, and the habitual tricks of a canny establishment, in order to sketch out the shape of a more encouraging, egalitarian landscape, and to keep radical alternatives alive. Do this, and we might be ready for that propitious moment in the future when, to quote the rightwing economist Milton Friedman, who knew a thing or two about radical change, “the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable”.

Melissa Benn is a founder of the Local Schools Network, and chair of Comprehensive Future


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