John Harris

Journalist & Author

What exactly can private schools teach the state sector? | John Harris

As the head of an independent school puts forward plans to tackle educational inequality by blurring public and private, he can’t avoid the fact his sector is at the heart of the problem

Another day, another questionable intervention about state education. Early in the new year Michael Gove made those comments about Blackadder. The week after that, Ofsted chief Michael Wilshaw proved that his talent for motivating teachers was undimmed when he warned them about being seen as “serial complainers”. Meanwhile, Labour’s Tristram Hunt was dancing to Gove-ish tunes with his proposals for licensing teachers via their own Royal College. Now there comes the latest contribution from Anthony Seldon, the prolific political biographer and master of the fee-paying Wellington College.

This week will see the publication of a report he has written for the Social Market Foundation, titled Schools United, and strap-lined “ending the divide between independent and state” (sectors, that is). As he sees it, there are strong continuities between the approach to education pioneered by such New Labour high-ups as Andrew Adonis and the policies of the current government, and it’s now time for the “Adonis-Gove agenda to be completed fully”.

Subdue any sense of panic, if only for a moment. Seldon says he wants policy that “enhances social mobility, ends the divide between state and independent schools, engages parents far more fully … and ensures all young people have much richer opportunities, regardless of family background.” Among other things, he’s guilty of the usual establishment habit of suggesting that responsibility for dealing with the symptoms of an increasingly unequal economy and society should be loaded on to its schools – which is presumably why some of his policy prescriptions have come out looking so odd. The report has been trailed by headlines suggesting that affluent parents at “popular” state schools should be charged fees of up to £20,000: a baffling idea that would not just lead to a huge middle-class revolt – “we’ve paid our taxes”, they would shout, and they’d be right – but also create yet another tier in the English school system, and push plenty of schools even further towards the margins (his idea that cash-strapped middle-class parents would take their exclusion on the chin and crowd into less “popular” schools is touchingly naive). But let’s move on: these things are much less important than the broad themes of what Seldon says, and how much they chime with the more objectionable aspects of long-standing education policy.

Two misplaced beliefs have been hanging around Whitehall for more than 15 years: that state schools have a lot to learn from fee-paying places; and that their independent counterparts might want to involve themselves in the management of public-sector institutions, so as to finally justify their charitable status. This slightly patronising dream began with a New Labour wheeze called the independent/state school partnership scheme, and it has never gone away.

Though championed even more enthusiastically by David Cameron and Gove, the drive for a rebirth of educational noblesse oblige is still not going swimmingly. Despite long pushing for private schools to get involved in state education, Adonis himself has bemoaned their reluctance. Wilshaw recently accused the independent sector of offering “crumbs … leading more to famine than feast”. Quite why institutions that exist to shore up their pupils’ advantages should bother with the lower orders is a question apparently too impolite to ask, but a couple of recent news stories highlight what a mess this branch of policy is becoming.

Dulwich College has just pulled out of its role as the sponsor of a somewhat challenging academy in Kent, with the latter’s governors acknowledging that “you need people who have a lot of maintained sector experience to actually come and work on the Isle of Sheppey” (funny, that). Meanwhile, the academy sponsored by Seldon’s own Wellington College has been the focus of coverage about nosediving GCSE results (in 2013, 37% of students got A to Cs in subjects including English and maths, as against 48% the previous year), and Seldon’s role as its executive head. According to reports last October, he reacted to noise at one assembly for 12- and 13-year-olds by “going bonkers”. You never know: if you plunge people from the private sector into state schools, they may be simply out of their depth.

Besides, beyond smaller class sizes and the comparative ease of teaching students who know that their schooling is costing a fortune and are therefore minded to behave, what exactly are the secrets that private schools can pass on? Is there really anything to be gained from the embrace of the Combined Cadet Force, boarding and old-school discipline? And if, as suggested by Seldon’s report and the educational charity the Sutton Trust, we were to push high-achieving state pupils into independent schools via some turbo-charged version of the old assisted places scheme, what exactly would it do to them?

Put another way, is the current dominion of public schoolboys going so well that it is time to widen its reach? On this score, I always think of a letter sent by an alumnus of an unnamed private school to the Guardian in 2011. “As a escapee from one such institution,” he wrote, “my experience is that the ethos … instilled largely consists of overweening arrogance, a total inability to admit errors and a feeling of innate superiority to the rest of the population, leading to such joyous public-school-led adventures as the Iraq war and the banking crisis.” Recent studies, let’s not forget, have conclusively proved that if you compare state-educated university students to their privately schooled counterparts with similar A-levels and GCSEs, the former outperform the latter. That seems to torpedo the Seldon-Gove-Cameron consensus, but there we are.

As evidenced by recent headlines sparked by John Major, there is a fashionable establishment habit of decrying the gap between the state and independent sectors, while never willing the means to effectively end it. Yes, the distant leftie dream of abolishing private schools is a non-starter; but in addition to finally ending their charitable status, other moves might just as well tackle the basic problem.

Russell Group universities might divide up their places up according to the national ratio of pupils in the private and public sectors so that at least 93% of them would go to state school applicants, with no more than 7% to people from fee-paying institutions.

At the same time, as Alan Milburn has suggested in his somewhat oxymoronic role as the government’s “social mobility tsar”, internships might be made subject to same rules as the wider labour market – or, going further, we could establish a catch-all national internship service, so work experience was not just divided much more equitably, but also seen to be so. There would be squeals from the rightwing press and the private-school lobby, but so what? Any Labour fainthearts might recall that even Tony Blair used to talk about the many rather than the few.

You may have noticed one development that goes straight to the heart of all this. By way of underlining their interest in the great unwashed, independent schools have been hugely increasing fees, to the point that even affluent middle-class parents can’t afford them. The average boarding school now charges £27,600 a year. Therein, amid a great cloud of self-serving cant, lies proof of what too few people will admit: private education is part of the problem, not the solution.

• The standfirst of this article was amended on 20 January to more accurately reflect the views expressed by the writer © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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