Abolishing private schools: the road to a fairer society?

17 Nov 2019

This year’s Labour Party Conference unveiled plans for numerous socialist-leaning policies, such as a pledge to move the nation to a 32-hour working week, to provide free personal care for over-65s, as well as scrapping prescription charges. Yet there was one policy which provoked the most controversy: a plan to ‘integrate’ private schools, and their immense assets, into the state sector - in essence to abolish all fee-paying schools.


Party leader Jeremy Corbyn claimed that “the ongoing existence of private schools is incompatible with Labour’s pledge to promote social justice”. In an attempt to relieve British politics of the infamous ‘old boys network’, the party proposes to redistribute private school assets, remove their questionable charitable status, and place a 7% cap on the university intake of privately educated students. If Labour gain victory at the next election, this will undoubtedly be the most radical educational policy for decades, an immense form of phased nationalism, forcing our oldest private institutions into the hands of the state.


The axing of Britain’s prestigious public schools (such as Eton, Harrow and Charterhouse) would certainly be met with extensive backlash. This would undeniably threaten the policy’s success. The Independent Schools’ Council has already criticised the proposal for being an “ideological distraction from dealing with the problems of education,'' while Prime Minister Boris Johnson has accused the party of pushing for a “long-buried socialist ideology”.


It is hardly surprising that those who have and continue to benefit from privatised education are the first to slam Labour with accusations of mere ideological motivation. Despite the obvious lean towards socialism, Labour must be given credit for offering a bold solution to the frightening level of educational inequality in the UK.


However, Labour would still be left with a plethora of foreseeable impracticalities. Most notably, the huge influx of 600,000 pupils that would supposedly move across to state schools, a strain which would cost an extra £3.5 billion a year for such schools. This could lead to unpopular tax rises for the wealthy, a move which could cost them an election. In fact, recent polls have shown just how unelectable this policy is, with 50% opposed to the idea.

 

Even if Labour did manage to get the electorate on their side, complexities regarding the ‘redistribution’ of assets for independent schools would certainly arise, a reality which could see legal battles over ownership and rights lasting years. Lastly, universities are expected to feel uneasy about the proposed 7% cap, which undeniably threatens their autonomy from the state. All of these obstacles threaten the likelihood that the proposal will be put into practice in its entirety.


On the other hand, perhaps Labour need to implement policies like this if they are to have any chance of tackling the widespread elitism in our society - a reality afforded by private school privilege. The statistics shine a light on the desperate state of the UK’s social mobility: only 10% of employees in elite occupations (finance, law and areas of media) are from working class backgrounds, and those who make it to this level will, on average, earn 16% less than their privately educated colleagues.


Removing these socially exclusive institutions could be a monumental step towards greater social mobility, but perhaps a step that could simply be too jarring for many traditionalist Britons. Instead, it could be suggested that Labour should place greater emphasis on more ‘electable’ ways to alleviate education inequality, such as providing free childcare, giving universities and employers higher quotas for low income applicants, and of course, pumping our failing state schools with the funds they have been so deprived of by consecutive Tory governments. It is these achievable policies that should surely be at the foreground of ridding our society of private school elitism. 

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