Labour has declared war on independent education. But the “Abolish Eton” group, which shadow chancellor John McDonnell has thrown his weight behind, is not only seeking to close every private school in the country (rather than solely Eton, as its name suggests). It also wants to abolish the freedom of parents to choose the school their child is educated in, contrary to the UN Declaration of Human Rights.
Most of all, it seeks to punish parents for being aspirational, despite the clear evidence that lack of aspiration is what condemns so many schools, and children, to mediocrity.
Evidence, however, rarely seems to matter to ideologues. Never mind that abolition would cost a cash-starved state sector £416 million or that independent schools save the country £3.5 billion a year. Abolishing independent schools would not improve under-performing state schools. Aspirational parents with money would buy houses in the catchment areas of good state schools.
The good schools would no doubt get better. The weaker ones would stay exactly the same. Or is Labour’s plan to bus the children of suburban parents into challenging inner-city schools? Meanwhile, less wealthy but equally aspirational parents would be denied bursaries and scholarships at independent schools.
Furthermore, using Eton as a four-letter word is misleading on two counts. For hundreds of years Eton has been a bastion of privilege, but it spends disproportionate amounts of money on bursaries, and is miles away from the type of independent school that is the sector’s bread and butter: the solid local school serving its community with not a boater in sight.
Even more importantly, Eton has done huge good for the state sector, most notably in its sponsorship of the high achieving state 6th form college The London Academy of Excellence, along with five other independent schools.
Perhaps the problem is that many independent schools are an unwanted reminder to failing state schools of how it can be done, and in particular how to be aspirational. My most recent experience of the weakness in some state schools is the bright student advised not to apply for medicine because it was “too difficult”, the deputy head who said, “We don’t have any bright children here; they’re all from the estate down the road”, and the girl who was eventually to get a good science degree from Oxford, who when she broached her ambition to her school was told to “chill out”.
Ironically, this is where independent schools could make a real difference, as when at Manchester Grammar School we threw open our Oxbridge preparation classes to the local state school – and that was 19 years ago.
Independent schools have made a vital contribution to the success of this country, and not only through the vast numbers of parents overseas who, rather than abolish Eton, would sell their souls to get their children in to it. Independent schools have carried the flag for Physics, Chemistry, advanced Maths, Modern Languages and a host of other subjects.
They have fought the cause of art, drama, music and sport in the curriculum – witness the dominance of former public school pupils among leading actors and actresses, and successful Olympians. These apparently unthinkingly Right-wing establishments educated two successful Labour Prime Ministers in Clement Attlee and Tony Blair, and one of Jeremy Corbyn’s closest and most Left-wing advisers.
The truth is that independent schools are akin to a natural resource that can and should be used for the benefit of the wider community, not eaten alive by the dogs of class warfare. There is a long history of independent schools seeking to integrate more closely with the state sector, including on a number of occasions being willing to accept pupils for the same money as the Government pays state schools, making up the difference themselves.
Our independent schools are recognised as some of the best in the world. You do not improve a country’s education system by destroying some of its best schools. Labour should be concentrating not on taking away opportunities for children but making them more widely available.
Dr Martin Stephen is a former High Master of The Manchester Grammar School and St Paul’s School