Why Labour should stick with its plans to tax private education (and maybe go further)

Over the last couple of weeks there has been renewed debate about the UK’s private schools. The context for this is that the Labour Party has made a commitment to make people who pay for private education to pay some tax on school fees. As seems to be the case with all Labour policies under Kier Starmer, there has been some backsliding, with plans to end charitable status for private schools shelved. But the plan to do something about private schools still seems to be there in the planned Labour manifesto. I think that this is good and that it needs to stay there, and in fact, to be strengthened further.

I’ve written about private schools on this blog before and I often get a number of push backs. I am sometimes told to get back into my lane. Private schooling isn’t a career guidance issue and so why am I talking about it. To which I answer, firstly, it’s my blog and I’m free to talk about what I want on here, if you don’t like it, don’t read it, but secondly, why I am interested in career guidance in the first place is because it explicitly addresses how opportunity is allocated in our society. In a situation in which paid for education has proven itself to be one of the main gateways through which people can access opportunity, it is a bit difficult to ignore. Look at the latest Sutton Trust analysis of the cabinet and you will see that 63% of cabinet ministers went to private schools including the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary. To be frank it is going to take a lot of career guidance to overturn that kind of structural privilege (and it is worth remembering that private schools also have pretty good career guidance).

Secondly parents of children at private schools say that it is not fair to demonise them. Many of them are fleeing the state school sector which they have either found to be excessively exam focused (which is true) or where their children have been bullied, poorly educated or mistreated (to which we might answer, what do we do when this happens to our children?). But, OK, fine! I’m not a great believer in achieving change through appealing to the ethics of those who are benefiting from the current system. We need to achieve structural change here, so while you can, send your kids to private schools. You have correctly identified that it might give your kids some advantage over other kids, so go for it.

But, we have to remember that only about 6-7% of young people attend private schools. The reason the proportion is so small is not because everyone else is more ethical, nor because everyone is happy with everything in the state system, but simply because everyone else cannot afford to send their children. My local private school charges over £15,000 a year for a secondary education. This is money that is simply not available to most people, even those well above the median income, even if they scrimp and save.

Those educated privately receive more resources and achieve better exam results (although as I wrote in a previous post this school effect is probably smaller than most people who are paying for it imagine). But, private schools are not just about academic advantage, they are also about social and career advantage. They create social and cultural capital which can then be weaponised to advantage those who have passed through their gates (and therefore to disadvantage those who have not). The advantages that private schools buy inevitably come at the price of disadvantages for others. As someone who has been moderately successfully in my own way, I am frequently in the situation of being the only state schooled person in the room where decisions are made. And inevitably, I’m not the decision maker, just a useful technical adviser who can be shuffled aside when the real decisions are going to be taken.

I’ve gotten pretty good at recognising people who have been privately educated. It is not difficult, as most people above a certain level in academic and public life have been, and those who haven’t been generally let you know, or give it away pretty quickly. But, I’m 100% sure that those who have been privately educated never, ever, ever mistake me for one of them. They know the signs, know what to look for, and without even knowing it, put me (a white, cis, educated and relatively affluent, male) into an ‘other’ category as someone who is not marked out to be one of the leaders of society.

Ash Sarkar and Richard Beard, the author of Sad little men: Private schools and the ruin of England discuss this in depth on Downstream. They make a couple of points that are important when we think about the social value or potential damage that private schools can do. Firstly, that many young people who are educated in private schools, especially in their most extreme boarding school form, are damaged by it in a variety of ways, including their inability to understand the perspectives of those from other backgrounds. Secondly that the creation of a narrow elite who have received a very similar education may be a contributor to many of the problems that contemporary Britain experiences.

The problems of the UK’s private school system are not just about an inequality between rich and poor. They are also about the distancing of the top 7% of society from the bottom 93%. This top 7% doesn’t go to the same schools as the rest of us, they probably don’t use the same healthcare, they don’t socialise with us and so on. But, they do run our education system and our country in a very literal way. This doesn’t seem healthy for us, them or the UK.

It is important to be clear that this is weird way to organise an education system, particularly in a developed country. The highly elite nature of the UK’s private school system is more typical of a developing country without a strong public education system. Inevitably I’m going to talk about Finland here, which has one of the best education systems in the world and no fee paying schools.

So, what is to be done? Personally, I would be in favour of the abolition of private schools. Think of the benefits to schools and societies if rich people had to mix with the rest of us, if they saw the problems that ordinary schools and ordinary people face, if it was in their interest for the whole state school system to improve and if Britain wasn’t routinely divided into an elite who were there by virtue of the school that they attended and everyone else.

But, if we are too timid to abolish private, fee paying schools, then lets at least try and reduce their influence by making it more difficult to wield the cultural capital that they afford. School blind application process, contextual entries to universities, company level reporting on the proportion of people who were privately educated at different grades and so on. And let’s also make the rich pay tax to compensate for the advantages that they are receiving. So let’s end charitable status, tax school fees and generally make it a bit more difficult for the very rich to open up the chasm of opportunity between us and them.

Surely this kind of commitment to the levelling of opportunities and the redistribution of wealth should be at the centre of any future Labour manifesto. Kier Starmer and Bridget Phillipson stay the course. This is a battle worth fighting!

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