Why should the state bail out failing private schools?

More than a hundred private schools are predicted to make the move in the state sector in the next decade according to former schools minister Lord Adonis. Should we be delighted, or dismayed?

Most people would probably think any reduction in the number of “fee charging” schools in our highly stratified education system is a good thing. Latest figures from the Independent Schools Council suggest that average annual day school fees are now running at around £15,000; that figure shoots up to over £30,000 in boarding schools. Their exclusivity is such that even some private heads despair of middle class parents being priced out of the market.

Why don’t we just ban them? I am often asked this question but outright abolition would be difficult politically and legally. It is hard to think of a bigger red rag to the British establishment and attempts to restrict the ability of parents to pay for their children’s education would probably result in a plausible human rights challenge.

One of the few countries that successfully eradicated private and selective schools is Finland. A process of gradual integration, with fees outlawed, from the 1970s onwards led to a fully state run comprehensive system, with stunning results in international performance tables like PISA. But attempts to portray a few free school converts as the start of an English “Berlin Wall” style unification are overblown and should be viewed sceptically for now.

Nearly all the schools choosing to opt in are failing according to the market principles by which state education is now governed. They can’t get enough pupils. Tough on them, but why should the state step in to reward failure? It has been a principle of successive governments that undersubscribed state schools should wither on the vine, so why not apply the same principles to the private sector? Or say that private schools will be considered for integration only if there is a shortage of places in their area, which they provide the most efficient means of filling.

Perhaps more troubling is the risk that this experiment simply reinforces stratification within the state sector, fuelled by our tortuous admissions system. All the private school converts are coming in as free or academy schools. They negotiate their “contracts” with the Secretary of State, outside any sort of local democratic process.

Defenders will argue that they are bound into the Admissions Code, but this is a loose obligation. Academies can negotiate opt-outs and as the RSA Academies Commission found, some schools are already making the most of these freedoms. Without strong local oversight the potential for sharp practices and backdoor selection is huge.

A quick look through the admissions criteria of those that have already converted reveals remarkably similar features; priority given to feeder nurseries or prep schools which have also become academies but retain their more affluent intakes; aptitude selection followed by further banding by ability (effectively guaranteeing a third of pupils in a top ability stream); carefully drawn catchments; priority given to children of staff; supplementary forms asking for addresses, primary schools and parental titles. One form asked the applicant parents to state whether they were Mr, Mrs, Dr or Professor.

As siblings also get priority for these lower schools it is easy to see how a self-perpetuating virtuous circle of aspirant, affluent pupils may sustain league table positions for years to come. When and if the benefits of this privileged early intake get washed out, it will be too late. A new type of elite school, funded by taxpayer, will have taken root.

And if you doubt that, take a look at the most fawned over convert, the Belvedere Academy in Liverpool, which came into the state sector almost ten years ago. Bizarrely it was given permission to continue prioritizing applications from pupils at its fee-paying Junior School.

That arrangement comes to an end next year. But job done as far as the school is concerned. Although nominally an “all ability” school, according to this year’s DFE performance tables almost 100% of Belvedere’s pupils are in the middle to high prior attainment band, with far fewer FSM pupils than the surrounding area. Maybe not surprisingly it is massively oversubscribed.

So if we are to have integration, not this way please. Schools should be needed by the state, not needing a state subsidy. And if they are to take public money the quid pro quo should be an absolute commitment to the education of all children and real community admissions not arrangements that allow them to become a pale copy of their former selves.

This article first appeared in the Guardian




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