Christopher Snowdon

Labour should scrap state schools, not private ones

Labour should scrap state schools, not private ones
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Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner has promised that if Labour wins the next election it will use its first budget to ‘immediately close the tax loopholes used by elite private schools and use that money to improve the lives of all children.’ This slab of red meat went down well with the class warriors at the party’s conference in Brighton, where there were doubtless plenty of teachers in attendance, but it wasn’t enough. Labour conference not only voted to withdraw charitable status from private schools, but to abolish them altogether. This was described, rather euphemistically, as ‘integrating all private schools into the state sector’ by Holly Rigby of the not remotely euphemistic Abolish Eton campaign.

The objective of the first policy is plainly undermined by the second. There can be no redistribution from the tax-dodging toffs who are presumed to pay school fees if there are no fee-paying schools. Far from freeing up money to improve the state sector, Labour’s policy will put a further strain on the the education budget. All of a sudden, the government will have to find the resources to educate the seven per cent of British children who currently cost the Department of Education next to nothing. At around £6,000 per year, these 615,000 kids will require taxpayers to fork out something to the tune of £3.7 billion a year.

They will also have to find the money to provide hundreds of extra state schools. It is not clear whether Labour intends to force private schools to be sold off below cost, as it appears to want to do with rented homes, or whether it expects to build the new schools itself. Either way, it will be an expensive business, unless it expects to confiscate them outright, as it has suggested doing with vacant high street shops.

Forcing taxpayers to spend billions of pounds a year to give hundreds of thousands of children a worse education does not, on the face of it, seem wise. Laura Parker, Momentum’s National Coordinator, claims that the policy ‘is a huge step forward in dismantling the privilege of a tiny, Eton-educated elite who are running our country into the ground. Every child deserves a world class education, not only those who are able (to) pay for it.’

And yet the mechanism by which abolishing some of the best schools in the world will lead to all children having a world-class education is far from obvious.

Perhaps this is where Labour's proposed abolition of Ofsted comes in. Without an independent agency to inspect schools, the government could simply assert that every British school is world class. Who will be able to prove otherwise?

Unlike many Labour MPs, I do not have a dog in this fight. I didn’t go a private school and it is most unlikely that I will ever have the means to send my offspring to one, but as I am not consumed with bitter envy, I do not begrudge those who do. These schools are, in the main, sound institutions which provide a fine education. Many state schools, including free schools and grammar schools, also do a fine job, but parents wouldn’t pay large sums of money to the private sector if it wasn’t appreciably better.

The excellence of independent schools puts the state sector in the shade, and the state sector hates it. They show that a better way is possible. It is true that the private sector has more money per pupil, but the state sector has economies of scale, and much of the independent sector’s success comes from ignoring the batty ideas of progressive educationalists, which costs nothing. The state sector could learn from the independent sector. Instead, the uber-egalitarians of Momentum, Abolish Eton and – as of yesterday – the Labour party want to close the gap by chopping the tall poppies. In the name of equality, quality must be sacrificed.

Like most egalitarian projects, this wanton destruction will not actually lead to equality. Nothing can stop a parent employing a private tutor, even if the arrangement must be clandestine. In the absence of private schools, wealthy parents will follow the lead of so many nervous politicians who pay indirectly through higher house prices in areas which have exceptional comprehensives.

It is manifestly perverse to ban the sector that produces the best results. It would surely make more sense to get rid of the sector that produces the worst results. In other words, we should abolish state schools. Every child has the right to an education and the state has an obligation to pay for those who cannot afford the fees, but the principle of universal access does not imply that the state has to run the schools, employ the teachers or set the curriculum. Making it a crime to be educated by anyone but the state would be obscene, but there is no reason for the state to be involved in the provision of education at all. It should give parents school vouchers and let a thousand flowers bloom.