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MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Thu 27-Nov-14 14:04:26

Guest post: 'Yes, private schools could do more to bridge the opportunity gap - but it's not as simple as it seems'

In a bid to improve equality of opportunity, shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt has called on private schools to 'do more' for the state sector if they want to keep their tax breaks - here, Master of Wellington College Dr. Anthony Seldon says it should be a two-way street

Dr Anthony Seldon

Master of Wellington College

Posted on: Thu 27-Nov-14 14:04:26

(142 comments )

Lead photo

'Many independent schools are already doing a great deal to build bridges with the state sector'

Tristram Hunt, the Labour shadow education secretary, has this week argued that independent schools need to be doing much more to form meaningful partnerships with state schools. If they don't do so, they will risk being stripped of up to £700 million in tax breaks, should Labour be elected in the general election next Spring. He said, ‘the next government will say to independent schools: step up and play your part. Earn your keep. Because the time when you could expect something for nothing is over’.

Hunt's comments have been predictably vilified by leaders of independent schools in a way that will confirm the impression - in the eyes of the world at large - that independent schools are out of touch. Independent schools are an easy target for everyone to attack. They have few friends in high places - no Prime Minister would dare to send their child to an independent school now, nor indeed any Education Secretary. National leaders in business, banking, the media, the church and military may have disproportionately attended independent schools, and indeed send their children to them, but it's very rare that any of them stand up and defend them.

In fact, most independent schools are not as privileged as people assume. They're not the Etons, Marlboroughs, Harrows or Wellingtons, of which I am head, with long waiting lists and priceless land and buildings. Many operate close to the financial edge, and have suffered significantly since 2008. Look beyond the South East, and it is unusual to find an independent school in rude financial health. Parents have found it harder to find full fees, while improving state schools - including new academies and free schools - prove ever more attractive. A national wave of new grammar schools would kill off many independent schools.

Hunt's rhetoric enforces the idea that it's independent schools which have everything to give, and that state schools have nothing – what about what they can offer pupils like the ones I teach?


Despite this, many independent schools are already doing a great deal to build bridges with the state sector and to try to boost social mobility. Some 90% of independent schools report that they are working with the local community and with state schools. What Hunt has failed to recognise is that they're not doing it because they've been threatened – they're doing it out of a sense of moral purpose, which many on the Left find it hard to believe is sincere.

Nevertheless, independent schools could be doing more to build bridges and engage with the state school sector, which educates 93% of children nationally. Our country is still too polarised, and it risks becoming more so. In my view, every independent school should join a ‘teaching school’ federation with neighbouring state schools. It wouldn't cost them anything, and it would materially improve both sectors. Every independent school could found an academy in association with a proven sponsor chain, which would provide the expertise that the independent school lacks.

Hunt's rhetoric enforces the idea that it's independent schools which have everything to give, and that state schools have nothing – what about what they can offer pupils like the ones I teach? The opportunity to mix with a more diverse range of children and teachers, for example. The emphasis shouldn't just be on independent schools reaching out – with extreme sanctions if they don't – it should be on both types of schools working together to benefit each other. Both have valuable things to offer.

Social integration and social mobility are vital to any flourishing society. Next year sees the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. The dream that came out of that war, as well as the Great War, was of a New Jerusalem - a far more socially cohesive nation where opportunities were available to all regardless of birth and privilege. Tristram Hunt has identified the right problem, but the state sector equally needs to reach out to the independent sector and government needs to provide more resources for such exchanges to happen. The dream of an excellent education for all and a socially just nation need not remain a dream any longer.

By Dr Anthony Seldon

Twitter: @AnthonySeldon

JaneAHersey Thu 27-Nov-14 16:47:16

Any chance of social integration and social mobility are being destroyed by this class obsessed Coalition Government as millions of children are plunged deeper into poverty, mental illness and desperation. Perhaps that is what Independent schools should be challenging.

StarlightMcKenzie Thu 27-Nov-14 18:18:35

Parents should pay luxury taxes for Independent school places, which will pay for the places required in state schools for those families who subsequently cannot afford to go. It should continue and continue until all schools are state schools and it suddenly becomes the priority of the rich that they are of high quality.

Same with Healthcare.

catellington Thu 27-Nov-14 18:50:19

People pay school fees out of their taxed income and they save resources in state school that those taxes pay for.

StarlightMcKenzie Thu 27-Nov-14 18:52:39

So what? People pay for champagne out of their taxed income and forfeit water.

The fact that richer people can buy themselves out of the state system means that they don't give a shit that it isn't funded properly.

MehsMum Thu 27-Nov-14 19:40:12

Starlight, the complexities of real families might surprise you: I know a fair few where the children have attended a mix of state and private (I can think of five without any effort at all. Oh, and some more). Well-off parents don't just 'buy themselves out of the state system' and they DO 'give a shit' that it's poorly funded.

NB I attended a mix of state and private: went to a very posh sixth form on an Assisted Place.

StarlightMcKenzie Thu 27-Nov-14 19:46:13

MY LA doesn't have enough school places. Nor will it ever. It simply allocates a bunch of kids to the local sink school and the majority then pay privately.

Problem solved - apparently. I don't know but suspect they keep that school as a sink school on purpose for this reason.

I am not surprised about the complexities of families. I don't know that many peoples are far simpler than mine. My own children have attended a mixture of educational settings. Real life is what happens as a consequence of the system we are required to live in.

oddcommentator Thu 27-Nov-14 19:47:36

Nice one starlight. Best run along back to yer collective.

The "rich" do pay luxury taxes. 50% of their income is taxed at source. They then pay the fees. The 50% income tax helps funds the state schools they dont use and probably the healthcare they dont access and the benefits that arent drawn.

Your posts stink of spite and envy. Call it for what it is - small minded envy.

Perhaps people shouldnt chose where to spend their money? Is this what you advocate? All food from state controlled food shops perhaps? All cars the state allocated maximum for your family size? Perhaps their salary should be controlled by the state?

Anything else you want to tell us with your laser like socio-political insight or is your 4th form politics assignment overdue?

oddcommentator Thu 27-Nov-14 19:51:47

Dr Seldon - dont expect much sympathy here I am afraid - a brutal mix of hopeless ideological optimism, coupled with levels of state interventionism that only the guardian reader would swallow. Add a dash of desperate economic illiteracy with a hint of holier than thou envy.

Good luck.

Tristram Hunt - Berkley Hun. Nuff said

StarlightMcKenzie Thu 27-Nov-14 19:57:03

50% isn't a luxury tax. It doesn't come near and you have to remember that the 'not rich' pay proportionality MORE tax overall in terms of the percentage left over after essentials for living are bought.

Luxury tax is what is added to items considered non-essential, and private education is in that bracket as is healthcare as we have both available free.

Wanting compassion, fairness, resources shared for the benefit of all of society including voluntary time, school governance and for all children to have equal opportunities does not make one a communist but a decent human being.

tobeabat Thu 27-Nov-14 20:40:13

A national wave of new grammar schools would kill off many independent schools.

Would it? Based on what evidence? Not sure what your point is here, but, by the way, have you seen the recent research indicating more social polarisation in areas that have grammar schools?

Our country is still too polarised, and it risks becoming more so. In my view, every independent school should join a ‘teaching school’ federation with neighbouring state schools. It wouldn't cost them anything, and it would materially improve both sectors. Every independent school could found an academy in association with a proven sponsor chain, which would provide the expertise that the independent school lacks.

What exactly do you think the independent schools would contribute to this, given that teachers in independent schools are less often qualified than state school teachers, and given that the 'better' academic results in independent schools can be attributed to the self-selected, motivated and privileged intake, the enhanced resources and school environment, and possibly the smaller class sizes?

...the idea that it's independent schools which have everything to give, and that state schools have nothing – what about what they can offer pupils like the ones I teach? The opportunity to mix with a more diverse range of children and teachers, for example

How exactly do you envisage this provision of 'diverse' pupils to the independent sector taking place??? And what on earth is this 'diversity' among staff?

tobeabat Thu 27-Nov-14 20:41:52

ioelondonblog.wordpress.com/2014/06/05/why-do-grammar-school-systems-increase-inequality/

Ref for research cited in previous post

sunshine75 Thu 27-Nov-14 20:44:50

Well said Starlight. Wish there were more like you.

Hotapplepie Thu 27-Nov-14 21:12:30

I agree with Starlight also! I was allocated a local sink school for my son as the local school was too full. Because we care, we decided to place him in a private institution. My younger one will in no doubt be allocated in the same sink school, but I have no choice but to place them both in private. My husband has to work abroad to keep up the expenses of the schooling and our daily expenses. Otherwise he would have worked in the Uk if they didn't tax so much of his wage.

HurlyBurghley Thu 27-Nov-14 22:10:42

"Because we care"? " Are you seriously suggesting that the children at the 'sink school' are there because their parents don't care?

HurlyBurghley Thu 27-Nov-14 22:14:17

Dr Seddon, please could you explain why so many private schools have extortionately priced uniforms, like the picture above? I can swallow many of the pro-independent arguments but these uniforms (some of which look frankly ridiculous) do rather emphasise the gulf rather than aiming to break down barriers.

TheBogQueen Thu 27-Nov-14 22:14:55

The private sector accounts for such a tiny percentage of educational opportunities available that I can't really see anything wrong with taking away their tax breaks.
If some go out of business - well that's life isn't it.

Scarletbanner Thu 27-Nov-14 22:31:50

Pass me my teeny tiny violin to play a a sad sad song for all those struggling private schools teetering on the brink.

And as for the thought that grammar schools are the answer - that means that 75% of children are sent to secondary moderns and written off at age 11.

Not the sort of education system I want for my children.

LonnyVonnyWilsonFrickett Thu 27-Nov-14 22:41:22

Bless. I'm joining scarlet on the pity bench with the teeny-tiny violin.

If private schools don't earn their charity status - and some of them do - then they shouldn't have it. And if they cannot flourish as businesses without charity status then they will close. I find it hard to get emotionally attached to the fate of a paid-for service.

Oh and

The opportunity to mix with a more diverse range of children and teachers...

State schools are not petting zoos for the privileged. FFS.

Bluestocking Thu 27-Nov-14 22:55:32

I'm astonished that someone as (presumably) intelligent and well-educated as Dr Seldon would want to expose such a poorly thought out, illogical piece of writing to public scrutiny.
I have the world's tiniest cello here and will join Scarlet and Lonny; all we need is the viola and we'll be the world's smallest string quartet, playing sad, sad songs to cheer all those poor independent school boys and girls who don't get to patronise the rough kids from the estate.

Athrawes Fri 28-Nov-14 02:12:34

Not sending your child to a state school doesn't mean more money for state schooling. Schools are funded on a per head basis.

Opportunity comes in part from education but a child's lifelong achievement is more influenced by family and social factors than just education. A private education might cushion a crappy homelife, but a kid with a crappy homelife is less likely to succeed than one with great parenting.

So, to ensure equal access to opportunity for a great future for all of our kids we need to ensure that they all have a good start in life. This means well fed, warm, well clothed and with parents who have the life skills to care, to feed and to nurture.

We all know people who came from really poor backgrounds but who have done well in life, and others from similar backgrounds who have not done so well. The difference in the life's of these adults is, for the most part, in their parents. The poor parent who worked hard, made sure the kids were fed and listened to them read vs. the poor parent who blamed everyone else, said it was the teacher's fault Jonny couldn't read and sent him to school hungry.

Fund parenting skills courses. Make school meals free for anyone who wants them. Make people accountable for their benefits - if it is obvious that the money is not being spent on the kids, intervene and help that parent learn how to do a better job.

almostfullyfunctional Fri 28-Nov-14 05:19:21

I'd like to know what Hunt thinks the independent schools are going to do for us. I spent 6 years in the independent sector watching colleagues set page after page of textbook work instead of actually teaching. I got so fed up I went back to underprivileged schools where I work with people who actually know what they are doing. The experience taught me that when you pay for private education you pay for the other kids, not the teaching. We don't need patronising, we need adequate funding

meditrina Fri 28-Nov-14 06:16:02

"And if they cannot flourish as businesses without charity status then they will close."

I think this is a little bit misleading. Under current law, schools would have to close if they ceased being charities. There is no legal way to remove charitable status and the entity continue. It would have to be wound up immediately, and all assets disposed of according to the law regarding the closure of a charity.

I suspect many private schools would love to relinquish their charitable status and carry on without it (it's worth about £200 per pupil per term, isn't it?) but right now they cannot.

There are numerous examples of private schools trading as businesses with no apparent financial difficulties.

AuntieStella Fri 28-Nov-14 06:19:32

This is all very centred on what the private schools want to do.

I think that's the wrong starting point.

What do those within the state sector (or those working in organisations dealing with inequality and social mobility) say they want to improve education for all?

Does liaison with private schools, assuming there are any near them, feature on the wish list at all?

tobeabat Fri 28-Nov-14 08:13:17

I have a tiny viola and will be happy to complete the string quartet.

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