How to make our private schools open to all
To look at David Cameron’s Cabinet is to see that Britain has a deep problem with social mobility. As in the Cabinet, the privately-educated are disproportionately represented in every sphere
of British life, from politics to pop music. Almost three-quarters of high court judges, more than half of leading news journalists and a third of our MPs were educated at independent schools,
which educated just 7 per cent of pupils. What is relatively new to Britain is that these elite independent schools should be the preserve of the rich.
A sprinkling of bursaries and scholarships (not means tested) exist to these schools but they make very little difference. It will take many years to discover whether Michael Gove’s expansion
of free schools and academies will work and, if it does, a generation to complete. We need to look for more immediate solutions. My organisation, the Sutton Trust, has a proposal which would get
tens of thousands of bright children from non-privileged backgrounds into the best independent schools and start a new golden age of social mobility. It just requires a bit of political courage.
Research conducted by the Sutton Trust showed that through the direct grant scheme and other local schemes 70 per cent of private day schools were mainly state-funded up until 1976. Oxbridge in
those days attracted talented youngsters from all backgrounds with two-thirds from state funded schools compared to just over half today. Today just five top independent schools achieve as many
entrants to Oxbridge as almost 2000 state schools — well over half the state secondary schools in the country. The old system, state funded pupils in independent schools, was the nearest
Britain ever got to being a genuinely mobile society.
It could happen again, and quickly. The Sutton Trust’s proposal is a scheme called ‘Open Access,’ whereby places at leading private day schools would be awarded on merit alone
irrespective of ability to pay. It would be a voluntary scheme, so schools could opt in — and opt out, if they chose. Parents would pay either nothing, a sliding scale of fees or full fees
according to their means. It has been proven at a pilot in the Belvedere School in Liverpool over a seven-year period. Under the initiative, the social mix of the school became much more diverse,
with 30 per cent of pupils on free places, 40 per cent paying partial fees and 30 per cent paying full fees. Academic standards soared and the school was a happy place.
And the cost? The Sutton Trust and the Girls’ Day School Trust were the sponsors, but the burden was shared with the parents of bright pupils able to contribute financially. So the cost per
place was less than the cost to the government of a state school place. It is a formula that can be applied nationwide. Open Access could be a new model, to which independent schools would opt in.
They would agree to choose pupils on merit alone, and the fees would be covered by the state, by the parents or by a mixture — depending on their income. It is a feasible, and proven model
that would revolutionise English education.
Open Access is far less divisive or elitist than the current system. All countries have elites; the question is whether they are open or closed, hereditary or democratic. Open Access would help
switch from a system of social elites to elites based on merit. Yes, it would be selective — but private schools already are. It would not increase the amount of academic selection it
would democratise it. Nor would it bring back grammar schools in a new guise. The old selective system sent one in four pupils to grammar schools. Open Access would see less than 1 per cent of the
most able going to independent schools so it would have minimal impact on state schools and, indeed, many very bright children get lost in the state system.
We cannot afford to continue to waste talent: not only is it manifestly unfair but work done for us by the Boston Consulting Group showed that improved social mobility would add a very
conservatively estimated 4 per cent to our GDP, which reflects the economic impact of a better educated workforce.
The most obvious objection to Open Access is that the private schools would never agree. Yet exactly the opposite is true. We have found extraordinary appetite among the country’s most
prestigious independent day schools to embrace such a scheme. Almost half, over 80 in all, have said they would adopt Open Access if state funding were available. That includes such well-known
schools as Westminster, City of London Boys’, King Edward’s Birmingham, Lady Eleanor Holles, Manchester Grammar, Leeds Grammar and Royal Grammar Newcastle.
Such schools are frustrated at being able to educate only well-off children when they have a tradition of educating the brightest, irrespective of parental income. The well-off parents of children
who failed to get in under the Open Access system would simply place their children in state schools or other, less academic, independent schools. But they would no longer guarantee their children
places at the best universities, or give them a leg up in their future careers, or prevent the most able children from having access to the best education.
Opening up these schools would result in over 30,000 children attending them based on merit who now cannot afford to do so. That is just the beginning — within a short space of time almost
all leading independent day schools would be Open Access. It would be truly revolutionary.
So the main obstacle to Open Access is not practical, but political. Selection is the stumbling block for Labour. This is a shame, because there is no increase in selection with Open Access —
just a democratisation of existing selection. For the Conservatives, memories of the political storm created by David Willetts’ criticism of grammar schools are still vivid and there is
nervousness that, given the privileged backgrounds of the current Cabinet, another class war might ignite.
England’s independent day schools are the best in the world. That is why increasing numbers of overseas parents pay for their children to go there. Is it fair that a national resource of this
quality and importance should be the de facto preserve of a small privileged section of society and of well-to-do foreigners? These schools have a long tradition of being open to all — until
the 1970s. The schools have produced generations of distinguished people: scientists, politicians, writers, business people, actresses, sportsmen. All the more reason to encourage them to do it
once again — but this time, for the whole nation, rather than a privileged segment of it.
Sir Peter Lampl is Chair of The Sutton Trust and Chair of the Education Endowment Foundation.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 31, 2012