Paige Insalaco explores the Labour party’s controversial suggestion to abolish independent schools in Britain and discusses what the potential consequences of this move would be.
In recent months Labour has announced plans to back a movement that will result in all independent schools being brought into the state sector. There are an estimated 2000 independent schools in Britain and roughly 16% of students choose to go to a private sixth-form or college. This pledge from Labour has sparked a number of articles in newspapers such as the Guardian and the Telegraph, with some journalists arguing private schools “undermine the principles of equality and meritocracy,” and others stating the abolishment of private schools is an “attack on the rights of parents,” therefore highlighting the major split the Labour party would have to overcome in order to implement such a change.
A major issue many have with private schools is their charitable status, which allows them to avoid taxation. It is argued that independent schools don’t make enough of a contribution to local causes and the contribution they do make is insufficient given the amount of profit taken in. The Labour-backed move plans to introduce a tax on school fees which could see parents paying as much as 12% to 20% more and the nationalisation of such schools could also be on the cards.
With this, one has to question how labour plan to achieve such an ambitious goal. The charitable status of an institution is decided by the Charity Commission which has recently declared that independent schools are worthy of their status given their involvement with the public. If the government were to have more involvement with such an organisation, then it may be possible to demote independent schools, but what else would suffer in the process? If Labour were to alter the legislation in relation to the definition of a charitable organisation, then other organisations may be at risk of also losing that status. Additionally, how do Labour plan to stop new private schools appearing once the old ones are moved into the state sector? A solid definition of what a private school is would need to be decided, and even this has issues that come with it. For example, if a parent were to decide to home-school their child, and then paid for the priciest tutor they could get, would this count as a school? Is this not also giving certain children an advanced education due to privilege?
Furthermore, in order to implement such a movement, Labour would need to get universities to back it, something they’re less inclined to do given the autonomy they currently hold. The independent sector achieves around 30% of the country’s top A-Level grades which may cause issues for competitive courses such as Medicine and Law if universities have to lower offers, and in turn lower the standard of education to prevent a shortage of such professions. Along a similar line, universities would need to take in more students from state sector backgrounds, but to what extent would applicants be judged? 16% of students move to private schools for sixth form after having attended state schools for their entire education, so perhaps that 16% would now have less chance of getting accepted into university. Furthermore, if a child went to a private primary school, would they then be penalised even though they’d spent their secondary education in a state school? If the Labour party are to implement this movement then strong definitions and guidelines need to be set for universities and for applicants.
The Labour-backed move plans to introduce a tax on school fees which could see parents paying as much as 12% to 20% more and the nationalisation of such schools could also be on the cards.
When looking to make changes in the education system, most people, as well as the government, usually look towards Finland. Finland has repeatedly performed above the US and the UK in reading, numeracy and science. In Finland, education is viewed as a constitutional right and is offered free of charge to everyone. Pre-primary starts at age six, although it’s important to note that parents can pay to enrol their children earlier. Admittedly, this cost is heavily subsidised and calculated based on the earnings of the household, but it’s important when applying to the United Kingdom as this could prevent an apartheid education system whilst continuing to provide parents with their right to make decisions for their children. However, although the Finnish system is highly effective, it is important to not become culturally relative. The system in Finland works because teachers are not only required to earn Master’s degrees but, as a profession, are highly valued and respected in society. Furthermore, parents trust the teachers to set their child’s timetable and decide their entire general education themselves, a system which would require a long period of testing in the UK for parents to feel like they could trust the system. Not to mention, different families place different emphasis on different aspects of education: a child may be excelling at literature, maths and science but that doesn’t mean they’re well-rounded with the skills and experience employers in the UK are looking for. In this way, it’s easy to point to Finland and other countries who continuously perform well academically, but the implementation of such an education system in the UK would most certainly create a drop in the quality of education before teachers were trained enough and parents had enough trust to accept it. Therefore, it could be argued that the children who would be in school during this drop in quality would be unfairly receiving a sub-standard education due to their age, and is this any better than privileged children receiving a private education?
As such, although Labour have openly backed this plan, it will difficult if not impossible to implement it. If this plan were to be implemented it would cost the taxpayer roughly £7.5 billion each year as the transition of independent schools into the state sector takes place. Not only would this be an incredibly expensive move, but it would fail to benefit education as this move focuses on lowering all students to the same level rather than raising the standards for all students. Consequently, this announcement will most likely turn out to be another empty plan introduced by a party trying to obtain power.