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It’s time to phase out elitist education

It’s time to phase out elitist education

Phasing out private and grammar schools in the UK is vital if the increasingly cross party call for ‘equality of opportunity for all’ is serious.  The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission's 2014 examination of who gets the top jobs in Britain today found "elitism so stark that it could be called ‘Social Engineering’" .  Private schools, educating 7% of the nation's pupils, provide 71% of senior judges, 62 % of senior armed forces officers, 53% of senior diplomats, 50% of members of the House of Lords, 45% of public body chairs, 44% of the Sunday Times Rich List, 43% of newspaper columnists and 36% of the Cabinet.

In the state sector “less than 3% of students attending grammar schools are eligible for free school meals, whereas the average proportion of pupils entitled to free school meals in selective areas is 18%” . This disparity is caused by wealthier parents pushing up house prices in the catchment areas of grammar schools  whose head teachers also point to the use of private tutors to pass entrance tests. Over four times as many children attend grammar schools from private feeder schools than children on free school meals (read more:

In December 2015 the Commission reported that, "despite many welcome initiatives, the current policy response – by educators and employers as much as governments – falls well short of the political ambition. The gap between rhetoric and reality has to be closed" .  Yet the Commission goes quiet on private and grammar school reform.

Perhaps the public's love of 'choice' when deciding how to spend their hard earned money argues against phasing out of private and grammar schools? These survey results suggest otherwise :

  • When asked in the 2010 British Social Attitudes Survey, “should the quality of education be the same for all children, or should parents who can afford it be able to pay for better education?” 61% of respondents thought it should be the same;
  • 2013 research by YouGov found that 78 per cent of the public in Great Britain thinks that “it should be the government’s job to ensure that rich and poor children have the same chances”.

Those who buy private and grammar services console themselves with arguments that help them to justify their continued use. The most common of these arguments are outlined and challenged here:

  • The state’s comprehensive system encourages mediocrity

Qualified teachers are required to effectively differentiate work for each student in their classroom.  In order for a teacher in the state sector to be judged as 'good' or 'outstanding' they must demonstrate this, including stretching and challenging the most able students.

  • Phasing out private and grammar schools would mean the most affluent would simply create their own "elite" within the state system

This phenomenon can be addressed by ensuring that any school judged ‘good’ or 'outstanding' by Ofsted be required to reserve places equivalent to the percentage of students eligible for free school meals within their local authority.

  • What really matters is class size

Department for Education evidence shows that a smaller class size does have a positive impact on attainment and behaviour in the early years of school but that this effect tends to be small and diminishes after a few years . 

After three decades of rising wealth inequalities and with clear evidence from the government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission about the negative impact private schools are having on social mobility, now is the time to expose the assumption that ‘choosing’ private education or using wealth to access schooling is a fundamental right.

Adopting specific policies could help tackle current inequalities, for example:

  • Turning private and grammar schools into non-fee paying, non-selective state schools over a period of five to 10 years. This can be done gradually starting with each school’s youngest intake;
  • Within its first five-year term, increase government spending per child to at least the higher North West European average;
  • Any government funded school judged to be ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted should have a legal duty to reserve places equivalent to the percentage of students eligible for free school meals in the local authority, including such students residing outside the school’s catchment area.

Surely, any right predicated on wealth should not be allowed to supersede the right to equality of opportunity.

A version of this blog first appeared on the Left Foot Forward website.

Tags: education.