openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Elite educators have milked the system for long enough

As the pandemic deepens inequality between children, it’s vital to dismantle the system that gives state schools no chance against private peers

Sol Gamsu
10 September 2021, 3.03pm
St Paul’s for girls, formerly led by Clarissa Farr, is England’s richest day school
Jeff Gilbert / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

COVID-19 revealed the depth of economic, social and educational inequality in England. State schools had to deal with rising levels of child poverty and inadequate provision of laptops. In response, the government promised state school catch-up funding worth only £50 per pupil – which is pretty palty compared with the £12,866 per pupil average advantage enjoyed by private schools.

In 2017-18, state schools in England had a median income of only £5,782 per pupil, while the figure for private schools was nearly four times that – £18,648 – my recent report for the Common Wealth think tank found.

It’s little wonder then that throughout the pandemic, private schools had an advantage over their state sector peers. They were able to provide more online teaching than state schools – a gap that actually widened between the first and the second lockdown – and emerged the winners of two summers of chaotic exams.

Private schools claim to be “independent” from the state. But many of their sources of income are protected by the state, with favourable tax and regulatory regimes safeguarding their charitable status, business rates exemptions, tuition fee income, stock market investments, property rents and spin-off businesses.

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Meanwhile, state school spending per pupil is lower than it was in 2010, and will remain so despite increases announced in 2019 that will run to 2023, according to new figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

The crucial question is, not just why state school funding has fallen, but why are children in private schools always worth more, and protected more, than their state-educated peers?

As the pandemic increased educational inequalities, ministers and former private school heads told state schools to bridge the gap by working harder and taking shorter holidays

Over the last 150 years, acts of parliament and legal judgements have created a system that reinforces the financial advantage for schools of the elite and middle classes. The land and stocks that imbue private schools with much of their wealth and income were often donated with the intention of providing free education for local children. But legislation passed in the 1860s allowed schools to ignore the original charitable intentions of their founders and use the money for the education of the middle and upper classes.

The Social Democratic Federation argued that this wealth was “the rightful inheritance of the people” and should be used to build an education system for the majority. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the early trades union movement demanded the return of the economic wealth held by the likes of Eton and Harrow, as well as Oxford and Cambridge.

Given the woeful state of education that most children in this country are forced to endure, isn’t it time to return to these demands?

At the apex of the private school system rests organisations with simply astronomical levels of wealth. Thirty-seven private schools in my Common Wealth study enjoy incomes of more than £30,000 per pupil. Heading the list are Marlborough (£64,427 per pupil), Eton (£55,712), Christ’s Hospital (£49.765), Wellington (£49,405) and Winchester (£47,646). As my study shows, England’s largest gap between the private and public sector is in the wealthy rural shires.

Among the day schools that predominate in cities, the capital – particularly West London – has the wealthiest schools and thus the biggest inequalities, although inequalities in the provincial cities can still be significant. The country’s wealthiest day school is St Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith, with an income of £27,721 per pupil. Eight other day schools in the capital had incomes of more than £20,000 per pupil.

Faced with widening educational inequality due to the pandemic, ministers have floated the idea of state school pupils and teachers having shorter holidays and longer school days. Prominent former private school heads such as Antony Seldon backed the latter suggestion, saying it would help “bridge the gap” between the state and independent sectors.

But such claims are laughable. They serve only to distract attention from the huge economic inequalities between private and state schools that create these gaps, and that underpinned the different experience of privately educated pupils both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Why should state school teachers and pupils be made to work harder and longer to reduce inequalities that private schools create?

Rather than accepting these inequalities as inevitable, requiring harder work on the part of those already disadvantaged to “catch up”, or indeed “level up”, it’s time to lay out a roadmap to reduce these inequalities, in both education and throughout society at large.

Private schools, state support

The Common Wealth report that I wrote earlier this year does just that. (You can explore the full data from the report here.) As a practical first step, voluntary donations, in the form of payments towards business rates or donations to local state schools, could be campaigned for through local petitions or open letters signed by residents and politicians. The aim would be not only to win money but to build consciousness and debate towards a longer-term aim of wholesale integration of private schools into the state sector.

Another key proposal is using the investment and endowment income of private schools in England (upwards of £81m per year) to create a people’s educational endowment, in which pupils, education workers and parents could vote on how to distribute funds in their area, alongside a well-funded state system.

The original capital that many of the now elite schools benefited from was originally donated for free local educational provision. It has been used for the education of the elite and middle classes for long enough.

During the summer, the Department for Education enthusiastically supported suggestions for children to sing that they are “one Britain, one Nation… united in one great team”. But schools are not united, and no amount of appeals to a dystopian nationalism can disguise that.

The previous Labour leadership seemed serious about tackling educational inequalities, including the unfair advantages enjoyed by private schools. But maintaining the hope that many of us campaigners felt back in 2019 has been hard as the double blows of COVID-19 and the current government have worsened matters.

We need both optimism and a more practical strategy to engage, enthuse and keep our campaign for change alive, amid the day-to-day struggles in schools, colleges and universities. Education is the best way to give all children a fair start in life, and so our school system needs an urgent overhaul to tackle the increasing inequalities created by capitalism and COVID.

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