No thank you, Mr Hunt

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Bury Free Press, 5th December 2014

This is an extension of my column on 5th December for the Bury Free Press. It is around three times longer, and somewhat more inflammatory. The original will be posted here soon.

As a state-sector student in the throes of applying to a top university, I know what it feels like to be an underdog. The Harrows, Etons and Dulwich Colleges of this world have a long-held reputation for their monopoly on the golden tickets to high-end institutions, and last year 43% of successful applicants to my chosen university came from independent schools.

That’s not right.

It’s not right that by spending money, parents should be able to significantly increase their child’s chances of beating me to the offer letter. It’s not right that there is more time and knowledge given to the university applications of more wealthy students, who are therefore more likely to do well. At the point where there is a direct correlation between money expended by parents and success in the university admissions process, the education system has become the stooge of an establishment elite who perpetuate the cycle of their affluence with the use of expensive, prestigious, inequitable schools.

Something needs to be done about it.

Tristram Hunt, the Shadow Education Secretary, pointed out in a Guardian article last week that private schools were conceived in a time of meagre provision for the poor, “to educate the neediest”. It is clear that “too many independent schools have become barriers to British educational success.” Labour’s government in 2015, he says, will require these institutions to form “genuine and accountable partnerships” with state schools in order to keep the business rates tax relief, from which they currently benefit. Private schools need to start to have a “meaningful impact on state education”.

But private schools already have a meaningful impact on state education. It’s meaningful, to me, that the admissions process isn’t fair. When I travel to the city of the dreaming spires for an interview next week, I will be surrounded by opponents who – statistics tell me – are more likely to gain a place. It’s not that the playing field isn’t level; there are separate playing fields, and mine doesn’t have state-of-the-art facilities paid for by my parents and the parents of my friends.

So what message does Labour’s proposal send to fee-paying schools? It’s firstly a tacit acceptance that the private student is better then me, on the school’s churned up footy pitch, and it says that being better means that he has a responsibility to help me. It says, secondly, that the tax breaks that private schools currently receive are no longer purely conditional on the continuation of a system which erects huge class barriers, but also on the school’s ability to pretend to overlook them and help me, on the other side.

This is where Mr Hunt’s idea simply doesn’t make sense. The reason, we assume, that parents send their children to private school is to give them an advantage over the state-educated. So why would an elite institution, for whom the achievement divide is of huge financial benefit, be in any way motivated to help those it currently beats to the colleges of Oxbridge? More importantly, why would parents pay money for their child’s school to boost performance in the state schools they’ve overlooked? Isn’t the money that the private schools claw back from the taxman outweighed by the withdrawal of parents who can get a free ride by choosing the comprehensive down the road?

Yet even if people supported the scheme, there still wouldn’t a pound-for-pound benefit for state education. Fee-paying schools can currently claim up to 80% of their tax back, which means that they would have to spend more than that on partnership programmes for the government to not be directly funding private education. Given that the independent sector has, by definition, an incentive to spend more money on their own students, why would such a school want to prioritise the non-fee-payers somewhere else? Most likely, this leads to tax breaks continuing and the money not filtering down to state schools. Mr Hunt must believe that independent schools are better at administering state money than his prospective department.

The proposal is nonsense. It suggests that independent schools care more about tax relief than the success of their students, that parents of those students are happy to see their money spent in state schools instead, and that even with the business rates relief, private schools have an incentive to see that it is distributed fairly to disadvantaged students in state education. Yes, in the foundation of many of the prestigious schools, charity was the goal. But where the state has provided good quality, free education for all, the free market has morphed the private schools into institutions that thrive on inequality of opportunity. The question should not be of how we can make the independent sector work for its tax relief, but how quickly we can take the relief away and channel it into state schools that are struggling. Labour is trying to remould institutions that work against social mobility into machines of the people. Its tool? Money. The commodity of which they have so much already.

No thank you, Mr Hunt, I’d rather go it alone.

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