Seldon's proposals for school reform are fundamentally flawed

The British education system reflects long-standing social division. A recent Social Market Foundation paper proposes reforms  combining variations of previous attempts with radical marketisation of state education. Is a better functioning market the way to improve access to good schools, or will it only entrench the status quo?

Peter Johnson
10 February 2014

Eton. Image: Flickr/GriffinStar7

Britain's education system has long been polarised between private schools charging fees for places and selecting their students and state-funded schools that are not allowed to charge fees or select socially or academically. Whilst arguably this polarisation has never been sharper than today, it has troubled policy makers for a hundred years, yet nothing successful and lasting has been done about it.

Private schools provide an education that costs three or four times that offered in state schools and almost always select their students. The outcomes for those students, measured in terms of breadth of opportunity in school, exam results, university access, social connection, and later employment are overwhelmingly better than those who attend non-selective state schools. The figures for university access are particularly striking: around 90% of private school pupils go to university, whereas for state school pupils the figure is around 50%, with just 8% going to a Russell Group University and only 1% to Oxford or Cambridge.

These figures are evidence that lack of social mobility has a lot to do with our education system. But if policy makers are troubled, why has nothing changed?  What can be done?

There is a long history here, and in a pamphlet published last month entitled Schools United: Ending the divide between independent and state, Dr Anthony Seldon, Principal of Wellington College, sets some of it out. During the Victorian period huge numbers of private schools were founded and by the end of the 19th century had alumni in positions of power throughout government and society.

With the Great War, however, attitudes changed and by 1919 some private school heads advocated a return to their founding mission to provide a good education to everyone. The route to this would be for the state to subsidise places for poor young men (as it then almost always was) to attend private schools.

No serious reform took place. Just as the Elementary Education Acts 1870 to 1893 introduced compulsory primary education for children up to the age of 13 but ducked the question of the role of the Church of England in public schooling, so it proved impossible to persuade less enlightened private schools and government that this was worth doing and worth paying for.

In 1940 Winston Churchill told his old school, Harrow, that “it must be one of our aims to work to establish a state of society where the advantages and privileges which hitherto have been enjoyed by only the few shall be far more widely shared by the many, and by the youth of the nation as a whole.” And in 1944 the Fleming Commission, set up by the president of the Board of Education, RA Butler, in 1942, reported that private schools “were, in fact, called into being to meet the demands of a society already deeply divided,” and concluded that “nothing could have been better devised to perpetuate them [class distinctions] than this educational development.”

In response, the Education Act 1944, nicknamed the “Butler Act”, created direct grant schools – independent schools that received a grant directly from central government to pay for places for able students who could not afford the fees. The Butler Act also instituted the tripartite system of secondary education, with academically selective grammar schools for the brightest and secondary modern and secondary technical colleges for the others. The core of this system persists today.

Direct grant schools were abolished by the Wilson government in 1975. The next attempt to open up a private education to poorer members of society fared no better: the assisted places scheme was launched in 1980 but abolished in 1997. At that time it supported 34,000 students with generally good outcomes. It remained unclear whether it addressed the needs of the poorest in society or became a channel mostly for the middle classes.

Meanwhile, from 1943 to 1997 the Labour party talked about abolishing private schools altogether, but never did anything. In government after 1997, Labour took the line that dwindling public support of private schools (for example by removing the assisted places scheme) would cause them to wither away without specific legislation. It didn't. Indeed, the party's actions in twice removing subsidised schemes can only have reinforced the status of private schools and reduced social mobility.

There are various reasons behind this continuing failure to reform the education sector in a socially just and educationally effective way: an unwillingness to commit public money; the resilience of private schools; misconceived reforms; vested interests; and insufficient political will.

The social divisions that so appalled Lord Fleming in 1944 therefore remain entrenched in British education, though today it's less a question of class as of money. Private schools, which charge in the region of £15,000 a year for primary places and at least £20,000 at secondary level, are beyond the reach of most of the population. Grammar schools, though state-funded, are fiercely competitive and generally accessible only to children whose parents can afford private tutoring for the entrance tests. In some areas good, non-selective state schools are in such demand that you need to live practically next door to secure a place or, depending on the school, attend the appropriate church to climb the priority ladder. These pressures have probably never been higher.

Common to the reform attempts to date are two key assumptions:

First, that the most desirable education is a private one and that reform should be aimed at making a private or private-like education available to poorer students. Seldon's contribution (and indeed the current Secretary of State for Education’s) largely takes this line;

Second, that the problem is the independent schools, and that they are what need reforming or removing. To be sure, the state sector has been too often reorganised over the years, but its objectives and overall proposition have not substantially changed. Seldon suggests radically varying the arrangements for state-funded school places.

Public good, private better

The figures are clear: the attainment of pupils at private schools exceeds that of pupils at non-selective state schools. The attainment of grammar school pupils is often equivalent to that of private pupils, despite the much lower funding levels of grammar schools.

There are many reasons for this: academic selection, funding levels, and possibly more important than these, de facto social selection and self-selection, educational aspiration, expectations, and material parental support. There are the long-standing ethos, tradition, and asset base of many private schools, from endowments, buildings, facilities and patrons to uniform, curriculum, school anthems and modes of address. Private schools recruit more teachers with doctorates than state schools but fewer with teaching qualifications. These factors together help private schools design broad, stimulating, sometime unconventional teaching programmes for their students. Does that mean state schools should emulate them?

Seldon thinks so. His first proposal is that state schools should adopt features of the best independent schools. These include apple-pie such as a broad, holistic curriculum and emphasis on character development, and move pragmatically through a longer school day that includes sport or music activities, supervised homework, and careers advice. They also include some of the totems of private schools – Combined Cadet Forces (teenagers marching around dressed as soldiers), boarding, and uniform generally. Maybe I have a jaundiced view: whilst I was lucky enough to benefit from the dying embers of the direct grant scheme, my parents refused to allow me to join the CCF. And there are enough countries around the world with fine secondary education sectors that don't have uniform or play at soldiers for it to be strange to suggest that these things are essential to learning. But British private schools have traditionally trained young men destined for the army, the professions, the Church, or public life, all of which have strong and often archaic dress codes. It is hardly surprising that we love a uniform and indeed most state schools insist on a uniform anyway.

Seldon's comments on boarding are noteworthy. He observes that boarding saves transport time and helps build a core school community. He also suggests that looked-after children – who are or have been in local authority care – would benefit from boarding. This can only apply in exceptional cases. The vast majority of children in care come from broken families, often with a history of physical, verbal or substance abuse and crime. They often exhibit serious behavioural problems during their school years and may be in and out of Pupil Referral Units or other specialist provision. Many need continuous supervision. Private schools are not set up to deal with this kind of student and the idea that they can be put into a boarding house without a huge investment in specialist staff is, to say the least, optimistic.

And this brings out the key issue: by and large private schools do a great job for pupils who don't need a great job. The really tough work – with looked-after children, disabled children, children with learning or behavioural difficulties, children from families without a strong base in English language or British society, or simply children with no money – is done by non-selective state schools. In the wrong hands, the argument that state schools should mimic private schools could easily become an argument that state schools should put aside their mission and obligation to provide for the most vulnerable in society.

Seldon's second recommendation is along similar intellectual lines. He argues for private schools to be more active in creating and supporting state schools, whether by sponsoring an academy or a free school, or by partnering with an existing state school. A number of private schools, including Wellington College, have already taken steps in this direction. If one accepts that private schools will remain, then these initiatives are to be encouraged, provided they further the independent school's charitable objects, improve the overall quality of provision, and really integrate the school populations.

Seldon's third proposal is that private schools should be required to offer one quarter of their places to those “from the least affluent quartile in the country.” These places would be paid for by the state up to 150% of the equivalent state school cost – less than half of a private school's fees. This is a return to something like the assisted places scheme, but this time open only to the 25% least well off in society. If the school is oversubscribed for these reserved places, academic selection would be used.

The idea has merit. As Seldon argues, poorer young people would have a chance of a better education than they might otherwise hope for, private schools would experience a level of social integration they haven't seen in a century, and social mobility would be improved. How much and where is impossible to predict, since the family income profiles of state schools vary enormously, from almost entirely fourth quartile to almost no fourth quartile.

But there are several aspects where it doesn't work in its basic form. First, the competitive tests that private schools use to select pupils can't necessarily be applied to 10 year olds at primary schools in deprived areas. Tests would have to align with the national curriculum rather than that of the typical preparatory school. Maybe the existing Key Stage 2 tests (taken at age 11) or an assessment of progress towards them are a better way to filter pupils.

Good state primary schools can and do put their brightest pupils into competitive secondary school tests. But if this starts to apply to a large proportion of pupils, it will distract teachers, distort priorities, and harm the less able, particularly when outcomes in terms of secondary placement are important markers of a primary school's success.

More fundamentally, if this proposal is about opportunity, it may be better for these subsidised private school places to be subject to no academic selection. After all, if a private school education is as superior as we are led to believe, a place should benefit every child, whatever his or her previous attainment.

This issue will be even more acute at primary entrance, where private schools select amongst 3-year-olds. In short, Seldon has assumed that a competitive entrance test is desirable and possible: the policy would surely be more compelling if there were no such test.

Secondly, Seldon refers to the least affluent quartile in the country. Most of those people live in cities. Seldon does not consider whether local supply (25% of private school places) and likely local demand are in any kind of balance. Unless they are or beneficiary families move or send their children to board away from home, the policy can't be fulfilled.

Thirdly, the funding model he proposes is that the state pay one-and-a-half times the usual state school cost per place to the private school. Long term, this might be good value for the nation. But politicians don't always decide for the long term and even if they do, the extra money will have to come from another budget, almost certainly in the same department. The private school will anyway have to find over 50% of the cost from its own resources and in practical terms, the 50% top-up amounts to £2,500 or £3,000 a year, maybe another 12-15% of the cost. It would surely be better to transfer just the basic state cost to the private school and require it to make up the whole difference from its own resources or by increasing the private fees – a 'solidarity' fee, if you like.

Finally, Seldon's proposal would have the effect, in practice, of excluding a large proportion of the population, who cannot afford a private school place, from this scheme. He states that the top decile of households have an annual income of £80,000 or more. Between the bottom quartile and the top decile lie 65% of the population, who are unlikely to be able to afford private school fees. The objective of enhancing life chances for the poorest is laudable, but the anti-middle-income bias in the proposal is unfortunate.

Education Consumers and Markets

One of the great changes in the British education landscape over the last 25 years or so has been the emergence of the education consumer. The days when your choice of private school was often a matter of social or family habit and connection, and when you had no choice of state school, have largely gone. If you can afford it, your default is a private school and you research the options before deciding where to apply.

If you can't afford it, you use a different guidebook, but in urban areas with a wide variety of schools many parents – of all backgrounds – are no less consumer-like in pursuit of the best school for their children.

On balance, this is a good thing. Whilst some people hark back to the days when only your address determined your child's school, there is no reputable case for requiring people whose children's life chances are at stake to submit to a monopoly in school supply. And so long as choice in private schools persists, a position that those who can't afford a private education should have no choices would be perverse and unjust.

Now a market is a place that restricts access to goods on the basis of price. You may choose only what you can afford. Markets exclude people.

The market in school places is, of course, imperfect. There is no efficient price mechanism and, though as a parent you can buy a school place, you can't sell one, except perhaps by moving house. We could just muddle along as we are, but we know that the system is broken. Proposals to fix it generally take one of two lines: either that we should return to a beneficent state monopoly system, or that we should perfect the market.

The first is illusory: the idealised condition where no one needed choice because all schools were equally suitable never existed and never will. The diverse society we have become surely more than ever needs a diverse and flexible provision that the state cannot by itself deliver.

The second line requires us, since there is no 'natural' market in school places, to invent price mechanisms to achieve the basic aim of excluding would-be participants.

Which brings me to Seldon's final proposal, one he has been promoting for over 12 years. It is radical in that unlike the other three, which are about changes in the independent sector, it argues for a new disposition for state schools. He wants places at popular state schools to be means tested. Families with a combined income of over £80,000 (the top decile of UK households) would pay a top-up fee if they send their children to a popular state school. The top-up fee would rise with income and at £200,000 they would pay the full cost of the school place, around £5,500 on average. He further argues that for really popular state schools there would a demand multiplier such that the top-up fee could rise to the level of private school fees.

A quarter of the money collected would flow back to the school; the rest would go into the general pot for state education.

The most popular schools would also be required to take at least 25% of their intake from families that do not pay a top-up fee. Given that includes everyone outside the top decile of household income, that shouldn't be hard for most of them.

Seldon wants to break, as he puts it, “the middle-class stranglehold of top state schools.” I suspect he mainly has in mind the top grammar schools, which are overwhelmingly populated by children of relatively affluent families and thus failing their social purpose of providing a good education to able children of all backgrounds.

Whilst I share Seldon's objectives – to open up good education to all and to end the separation of the state and private sectors – there are several reasons why this proposal is unjust and impractical. Firstly, one effect of the policy would be to drive wealthier families into the private sector: why pay private sector prices for a public sector service? It effectively says wealthier people are not welcome in good state schools. Seldon is also vague about what he considers to be “relatively affluent” – is it the top decile, anyone above the bottom quartile?

Second. it is hard to think of a reliable measure of a school's popularity. Application numbers may be a proxy, but are volatile: they would be affected by the pricing structure and local social mix and fluctuate with results, inspection outcomes, staff movements, and external events such as the creation or removal of a competing school or wider demographic changes. Parent surveys or local reputation can be manipulated. It is even harder to see how popularity would be tracked over time.

Third, this policy and the other proposals combined imply means testing vast numbers of people, richer and poorer. People who qualify for free school meals are encouraged to tell their school so that it may allocate them a subsidised meal and, importantly, claim the Pupil Premium (currently £900 per child per year). Some are embarrassed to do this, and schools lose out on income they would otherwise spend specifically for that child's benefit. We are faced with the prospect that schools end up knowing more or less what all their families' household income is. This would make anyone uncomfortable and it could be disastrous if the data leaked into the school population.

Fourth, there is a strong element here of “to them that have shall be given.” Part of the top-up fees generated by good state schools in affluent neighbourhoods would flow back to those schools and enable them – with their privileged cohort – to improve their provision even further. But Seldon's policy ignores the good and popular schools that serve poorer intakes. For example, the primary school in the London borough of Lambeth where I am a governor has a free school meal proportion of around 55% (higher than the local and significantly higher than the national averages). 96% of the children are of African or Caribbean heritage. The school is popular and in terms of pupil outcomes consistently near the top of the borough and well above national averages. It is recognised for catering well for children with learning difficulties. This outstanding school would not receive a penny from Seldon's proposal, which would only entrench the school's current social profile.

Fifth, Seldon believes that a pricing mechanism would encourage richer families to send their children to less popular state schools – so improving the quality of those schools by introducing better-off, articulate, and demanding parents. Quite aside from the crass implication that poorer people are not articulate or demanding, school places are not fungible in this way. The choice is complex, based on a mixture of hard and soft data about alternative schools, social conformism and comfort factors, ethical or religious considerations, the parents' appetite for risk or personal challenge, and their understanding of their child. We're education consumers only up to a point, and a web of highly personal considerations, many of which may be non-negotiable, simply cannot be priced. I do not expect that anyone with that level of income will choose what to them is a worse option for their children in order to save some money.

Sixth, Seldon also states that this plan “enhances social justice by stopping powerful parents dominating top state schools.” This is a strange statement from a headmaster of a school where nearly all the parents are by definition powerful. It almost seems that in Seldon's world the problem is not the schools but the middle classes, when they are not customers of private schools. And if you're lucky enough to be one of those parents required to pay three times the state's cost to send your child to a state school, you won't step back: you will make sure you get a bang for your buck.

I don't sense that Seldon is applying narrow self-interest here, rather that he's riding a bandwagon that blames parents for exercising influence – something he wants them to do when they move their children to less desirable schools. It's all very inconsistent and rather unpleasant.

Better than markets?

The problem is that the system encourages consumer-like behaviour that has bad social consequences. Anthony Seldon's solution is to create price mechanisms to cause certain people to exit the 'market' in state school places or pay the entrance ticket. But new price signals will only change the variables in the calculation, not the nature of the social interactions in this market. They won't stop people behaving like rational consumers.

I believe Seldon's proposal is unworkable and unfair to schools and families alike. It won't achieve its basic aim, which is to open up opportunities for poorer children to attend good schools. There is no reason to think that adding explicit prices to the already complex school places market would help. Indeed the extra complexity is more likely to work against rather than for social mobility.

We need a non-price approach. One simple example would be to tackle school admissions arrangements.

In most state schools, applications for places are dealt with in something like this order: children with statements of special educational or medical needs that name the school; looked-after children; siblings of children at the school; if applicable, children whose families have attended a relevant church; children who live nearest the school. At secondary level, there may be feed-in relationships with primary schools.

The first two of these are statutory. Whilst siblings can form a significant proportion of the intake and block out new entrants, it is fair and sensible to help families within the school community in this way. Church attendance and home address are the real issues here.

Use of the former by families, predominantly relatively affluent ones, whose only interest is to secure a school place they want is well known. The only way to stop it is to prohibit this kind of priority or limit it to a small proportion of the total intake.

Proximity is one of the badges of the 'community school' and is widely thought to be a good thing. But how good, when proximity to a desirable school can distort property prices, exclude needy children and reduce diversity? It is easy to fix. Schools could be required to allocate a proportion – maybe 50% – of their places randomly. This is not gameable and requires no state intervention and no cost to implement. A proportion of local families would ensure a core school community exists, and parents further away would largely self-regulate to avoid excessive travelling. It's not positive discrimination, but everyone beyond a certain narrow radius gets the same chance. The outcome of your application may be unpredictable, but the choice is real. The school's social mix will reflect that of its wider neighbourhood.

Above all, a change of this sort, far from perfecting a market, removes the market and all its perverse incentives, costs, and stresses, since no market power can be exercised to manipulate the outcome. That alone is surely worth the change.

The same could apply to grammar schools: some places subject to competitive selection if need be, the rest allocated at random. And for the private schools, something like Seldon's third proposal – targeted and subsidised access to the private sector with strong obligations on private schools – could be a way towards removing barriers to entry and integrating the two systems.

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