Why the pandemic is a turning point in the private school debate

The gulf in provision for private and state pupils has never been more stark. Who can doubt now that private schools entrench privilege? Frances Ryan explores

This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on The Guardian

Keir Starmer’s pledge to end the lucrative tax breaks given to private schools has, predictably, brought out the usual critics. The chief executive of the Independent Schools Council, Julie Robinson, told the Times it was wrong to “put politics before the interests of young people”. Presumably Robinson did not mean the interests of most young people – just the ones whose families can afford tens of thousands of pounds of school fees.

The ‘charitable status’ of private schools is an oxymoron of longstanding. These institutions hoard advantage for the wealthy – and are then rewarded for their ‘good work’ – and yet, the debate about that status rarely progresses. We have been stuck listening to the same old myths for years, from the idea that private schools deserve tax breaks because they provide bursaries to poorer children (in fact ‘financial assistance’ is considerably more likely to go to affluent middle-class families), to the claim that tax breaks let ordinary families buy an elite education (the average annual fee for independent schools is £15,191, by some estimates, half the average UK salary, before tax). It is a testament to the hold that class privilege has in this country that even such a modest attempt to keep private schools in check is repeatedly resisted.

There is a chance the pandemic could be the turning point. More than a year of unprecedented disruption to schooling has highlighted – and widened – the gap between young people in fee-paying schools and the state sector. Private school pupils were cherry-picked for higher A-level results, with independent schools in England giving 70% of pupils top grades compared to 39% for comprehensive pupils. Lockdown saw rich families hire governesses while the poorest struggled without lessons; research by UCL found that private school pupils were five times more likely to get near-full-time teaching online than those in the state sector. In an era when kids on free school meals have lost months of learning because they can’t even afford the internet, giving tax breaks to private school families feels particularly unjust.

The private school system is often spoken about by its proponents as if it were harmless, but advantage does not exist in a vacuum; whether it’s siphoning off bright classmates and influential parents from the state sector, or depriving the state of resources through tax breaks, every leg up that private schools enjoy erodes the life chances of less lucky pupils. That is, after all, the point of them. Starmer’s move to frame ending private schools’ annual £1.7bn tax break as a way to fund the state sector is a useful narrative; tackling unfair advantage will mean a better education for all children.

Starved of funding

Ending charitable status could be the beginning of a greater drive to tackle our two-tier education system; it will require more funding for struggling state schools, which have long been starved of resources, including catchup funds for working-class pupils who have fallen further behind during lockdown. It should also include help for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) who are facing ongoing cuts in support from underfunded local authorities. Parents of SEND children who can afford it are too often forced to the private sector as their only hope, while lower-income families with disabled kids are simply left without. However, reports this week that the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, will hit the education budget hardest in the spending review, including giving only ‘minimal’ support for children who have struggled through the pandemic, hardly bodes well.

Any attempt to make education fairer must also look at wider society and the growing gulf between wealthy and poorer families. Economic inequalities outside the classroom need to be addressed by reducing child poverty through higher wages and social security, and building affordable housing to stop children growing up in temporary, crowded homes. As long as some parents have enough income to pay Eton fees, while others can’t afford to buy nutritious food, children in this country will never have anywhere close to a fair shot at getting ahead.

None of this will happen easily. Even the slightest attempts to tilt the balance towards state school pupils are too often greeted with hysteria from private schools. Those who are used to having a near-monopoly on university places, top jobs and power will not loosen their grip willingly – but progress, slowly but surely, has a way of breaking through.

The pandemic has brought home the unfairness of circumstance that means some families have so much and others so little through nothing more than a quirk of birth. In a society where life is so often rigged by class, education should be an escape route, not a way of entrenching unfair advantage.

If there are sensible measures we can take to start treating pupils more fairly, they should surely be taken. You could call it the charitable thing to do.

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