1 June 2023
By Robert Kilconner
Biff, Bang, Wallop, Thrash. Dickens’s anti-hero Wackford Squeers certainly had his theories of education. Rachel Reeves follows the same model but in her case the biffing, banging, walloping and thrashing is of the private educational sector rather than of the pupils. Still, there is a similarity. It is all about punishment, in this case the pain being imposed through the VAT system. In the Alice in Wonderland parlance of the Left that is the blocking of an unjustified tax loophole. In reality, of course, it is the imposition of a consumer tax in a sector which is normally exempt from such taxes, and in which in the EU is largely excluded from them by the VAT directive. To describe the failure to impose a tax on a sector as a loophole is about as sensible as saying that people who dig their own potatoes and eat them are making use of a loophole because the government does not levy a consumption tax on them. Still, talking about loopholes gains political points among the stupider Guardian readers and, after all, the party needs their votes.
But behind the political point scoring there are some serious questions. Can it be right that there is such a difference between the education received by children whose families can afford to pay fees and children whose families cannot? Surely not. It is hardly fair. Should resources be more evenly spread? Yes, provided that that lifts the general standard. Most people would agree with all this but to approach the subject through fairness is to come at it from the wrong end. The real question is one of product. How do we improve the educational profile of the nation in a way which makes us a world leader in ideas? If we do not do that we can forget about having a high-value economy. If we do not do that we will become less and less able to feed ourselves and the poor will die in the gutter, tolerance for immigrants and the less fortunate will disappear, and the aged will be pushed aside in the rat run to get access to the few resources available. Not too pleasant even for Guardian readers. Well, we had better start thinking about how we can avoid it, hadn’t we?
So let us look at it scientifically. How do we maximise the educational stock of the nation? Currently we have some 10% of children going through the private sector and, unless a lot of people are wasting a lot of money, receiving on average (and it is only “on average” because there are many excellent schools in the state sector) a better education than their fellows. Is that a good system in terms of national educational output? The answer to that is both “no” and “yes”. “No” because the talent of those who would flourish in a better educational environment is being wasted. “Yes” because if private education was wound down without a corresponding increase in the standard of state provision there would be a net overall loss. The trick then is to gradually create a merged system under which any dilution in the quality of private education is compensated by an improvement in the state provision.
There is nothing new about this thinking. Back in 1964 when Harold Wilson became the leader of the new Labour government, I was a pupil at Malvern College, a well-known west country public school. There was some anxiety as to what the change of government would mean for the independent sector and the headmaster, Donald Lindsay, summoned the school to the main assembly hall and explained his hope that gradually the public and state sectors would merge, drawing on the expertise of the former to nourish the latter and producing a system which would spread opportunity to everyone capable of making use of it. But it didn’t happen exactly like that, did it? And the reason why it didn’t is the old mistake of focusing on fairness rather than product.
When I was at university many of the undergraduates came through the grammar school system and I think it is right to say that their education was often a good as, and sometimes better than, that available in the private sector. In product terms they provided a route through which an able child could receive top-class tuition regardless of family background. That was a clear efficiency. In fairness terms they scored less well because those children who failed the 11+ were sent to secondary moderns and thus “excluded” from the elite. The abolition of grammar schools (or at least the abolition of most of them because a few survive) was no doubt seen as politically wise but really represented a gain in perceived fairness at the cost of a less educated nation. Many of the best grammar schools turned feepaying on the basis of that was the only way in which they could perpetuate the standards in which they believed.
So here we are again. A new Labour government in the offing and the party wittering on about loopholes and fairness rather than how to maximise the nation’s skills. The right question is how we can take the two parts of our education system and enable them to merge or cooperate in a way which gives us an output better than what we actually have. Obvious really, but biffing, bashing walloping and thrashing is hardly the best route.
Let us approach it from a different angle by asking why people think their child will get a better education in the private sector. Is it the facilities, state-of-the-art theatres and lecture halls, Olympic size swimming pools, that sort of thing? I doubt it very much. Many private schools have ludicrously expensive facilities, often given by old boys who want something named after them, but how much difference does it really make? When I was at school, plays were produced in the gymnasium with Heath Robinson lighting and ad hoc props. Nowadays no doubt there is a superbly fitted out theatre but does that make them more fun or up their educational value? I do not suppose so for a minute.
All right, teaching. Do private schools spend more on their teachers than their state equivalents? Rather surprisingly the answer, according to research published in the Guardian, seems to be that there is little in it, with teachers putting in a similar amount of time for similar remuneration. If some teachers prefer the private sector it seems to be because they feel that they can achieve more there, much the same reason as persuaded the grammar schools to go private rather than become comprehensives in the state system.
If then facilities are relatively unimportant and the amount spent on teaching roughly the same, why do families think it worth spending a large portion of their after-tax income in sending little Alfie or little Sarah to a school in the private sector? Why is it better? The answer to that is probably the fact that the education does not come free. Parents who pay fees will be keen that their child attends regularly and does the homework and if all parents share that attitude it will tend to create a premium on academic achievement. The same logic applies to selective state schools. There it is often the child that has put in the effort and a school where all the pupils have done this has a natural advantage over one where they have not. Give the education free and remove entrance qualifications and you make it harder for the teaching staff to create a constructive ethos. Make the pupils feel that they are lucky to be there and you are already on your way.
How then to build bridges between the two systems? One obvious route is to set up schools where parents make a financial contribution but an affordable one, the rest being paid by the state. There is already a model for this with state boarding schools where the state pays the cost of tuition and the parent the boarding fees. Other divisions could be made. The second is to have more schools with entry tests. That does not mean going back to the 11+ with its once and for all grading. Later year entry cohorts should be constructed to avoid that. But selective state schools should be an engine of the nation’s educational performance and we eschew them at our peril. Then communities should be encouraged to promote their local schools by charitable contribution in much the way that they are encouraged to promote their local theatres. People who give money care about performance.
So much for extending the bridge from the public side with a view to making the two systems closer; but what about the private side? What is their contribution to the party? An increase in the scholarship system is an obvious start, and it may be that charitable exemptions should be refocused to encourage scholarships rather than capital projects. Joint sixth forms with state schools is clearly another way forward. The more of this sort of thing there is, the less the division between the two systems will become.
Not everything written above will be right and much thought and experimentation is needed, but with a clear focus on the better education of the nation as a whole. Biffing, banging, walloping and thrashing the private sector in pursuit of some populist crusade against “loopholes” is not the answer, however. From Rachel Reeves who aspires to become Chancellor of the Exchequer we are entitled to expect better.