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Educational elitism isn’t going away without a fight – so Labour must step up

The controversy over Stowe’s headmaster's comments this weekend highlight the longstanding elitism that damages the entire education system – and how the problem can’t be fixed merely by VAT tweaks.

Sol Gamsu
16 May 2019
Stowe school, where fees are £12,700 a term
Stowe school, where fees are £12,700 a term
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Alan Rolfe, alanrolfe.co.uk, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The headmaster of Stowe School knows how to create a controversy. When he argued in The Times on Saturday that the widening participation measures to raise the proportion of state school students were "social engineering", he stoked the flames of debate around elites and elitism in education.

‘Social engineering’ and the symbiosis of elite institutions

As many pointed out, the relationship between private schools and Oxbridge is social engineering. The connection between the two, and between them and other institutions of power, has always been symbiotic, as sociologists and historians have been documenting for decades. David Cameron once described the Houses of Parliament as looking “half like a school”. And indeed, the architects who designed elite public schools were the same as those who built Oxbridge Colleges and major buildings of state in the late 19th century. Thomas Graham Jackson designed parts of Eton and Uppingham schools, as well as parts of Brasenose, Trinity, Hertford and Somerville Colleges in Oxford. Reginald Blomfield built schools like Haileybury, Sherborne and St. Edmunds, parts of several Oxbridge Colleges, buildings on Regent Street and several gentlemen’s clubs in London. But the links between these elite sites of power are not just architectural or historical. They also share the same administrators. At 20 of the 75 Oxbridge Colleges and Halls, one or more members of the trustee board are also trustees of a private school.

The relationships here are systematic but the political response to them does not seek to challenge or dismantle this system. At best there have been half-baked attempts to widen access to these schools, without challenging the notion of elites and the elitist educational culture that they protect. Labour must not repeat the old mistakes of shying away from radical reform.

‘Top’ private schools, like our elite universities, are a system of elite reproduction. They are instruments of class power and provide an elitist form of education and culture which no amount of ‘access’ can put right. But in government, Labour has systematically failed to address the problem of how elite educational culture dominates our educational values. This was true in 1945, in the 1960s and after 1997, when Labour effectively encouraged private schools to allow the public and local state schools to use their swimming pools in exchange for retaining charitable status.

At heart of this is a deep structural failing to understand what is at stake. Education is the site of class struggle – struggles over which institutions have prominence, and over the educational culture we want. The Conservatives know this – how else can we explain the neglect of further education, adult education and the cuts to school budgets we have seen over the last nine years?

A legacy of radical political arguments

There is a legacy of radical political arguments in the labour movement about elite education. Mary Bridges Adams was one of the first women to hold elected office as a member of the London School Board. A member of the Independent Labour Party, she argued against the idea that the left should try and replicate or recreate Oxford University in seeking to develop education for working-class people. She instead proposed the development of independent forms of working-class education. Alongside other figures and organizations on the left in the early twentieth century, she argued that the wealthy endowments of Oxford, Cambridge and “other endowed seats of learning [i.e. the private schools], were the rightful inheritance of the people”.

Unfortunately, this tradition of radical thinking about what education is and who it really belongs to was lost over the twentieth century. Relatively well-remembered figures like R.H. Tawney were actually quite ambivalent about elitism in education. Tawney, who himself attended Rugby School and Balliol College Oxford, couldn’t bring himself to argue for full closure, suggesting it would be “wasteful”. Instead he argued that elite schools could be retained but they should become free and ‘needs blind’. It’s a prescription similar to that set out by Francis Green and David Kynaston in a disappointing conclusion to their recent and empirically valuable book about Britain’s private school system.

Why tax and quota tweaks aren’t enough

Some within Labour argue we should be ‘fairly’ taxing private schools as a possible solution. The party’s 2017 manifesto committed to abolishing the VAT exemption on private school fees, and others have mooted removing their charitable status and/or making them pay local council tax. But what would any of this actually achieve? To understand the problem with this we need to understand how the hierarchy of private schools actually works. There are perhaps 20-50 very wealthy schools with significant to very large endowments (Eton College is worth over £400 million) as well as healthy student intakes and thus fee incomes. A reform of private school tax privileges would weaken the position of lesser private schools that lack the financial resources of the most wealthy schools. It would leave the most elite institutions secure. Put it this way, if you wanted to make the Premier League fairer, you would not create a reform which hit the finances of the middle and bottom teams whilst leaving the top four essentially untouched.

In terms of other possible reforms, quotas or other forms of radically widening access for students at elite universities are important as a transition to a more egalitarian society, but our aim cannot simply be to have a more representative elite. Our aim is a society which radically curtails and ultimately does away with ruling class power and the educational culture they create, and are created by. We can and must be pragmatic about the reforms we suggest but they must always be transformative and non-reformist. This will involve cultural and social conflict over education. But as the comments of Stowe’s headteacher show, this would only be bringing to the surface what is already there. We must seek to build the society we want, not simply ameliorate the conditions in the one we have.

“Isn’t it strange? They used to educate all their Prime Ministers here”

So what would a radical policy on private schools look like? Integration and abolition would not be a straightforward process. It would also not automatically involve the closure of all private schools – special schools and schools in isolated rural areas that are key local educational and economic institutions could be retained, though not in the current form they are now. Full comprehensivisation, an end to setting and streaming and the nationalisation of any endowment funds would be a necessity for any school that was integrated. Adult and further education as well as our primary and secondary schools are in desperate need of better facilities. Why not turn some of these schools into further education colleges? Why not turn their libraries into public libraries which in many places have been sold off? There is no reason why these places would necessarily have to cease to be educational institutions.

We must also emphasise that institutional transformation of private schools is not enough on its own. This requires a broader cultural shift about the role and value of education. We are not only opposed to elite private schools but to elitism and selection within the state sector and within society more broadly. For state schools that means the remaining grammar schools and comprehensives that adopt elitist educational values and forms of de facto selection would also need to be challenged and changed. This is part of a much deeper and broader shift but our policy must seek to lay the foundations for these changes.

A friend of mine once suggested that Eton could be turned into a museum, something like Versailles. Future generations could visit and ponder – “Isn’t it strange? They used to educate all their Prime Ministers here.” We need a politics of education which will take us there, however long that road may be. These are not utopian demands or desires – they are a necessity if we are to face the social, economic and environmental crises that we face. Education is a tool for hegemony and it’s our turn to build our own.

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