‘In a society where everything is for sale, life is harder for those of modest means. The more money can buy, the more affluence (or lack of it) matters…as money comes to buy more and more – political influence, good medical care, a home in a safe neighbourhood rather than a crime-ridden one, access to elite schools rather than failing ones, the distribution of income and wealth looms larger than ever.’ Michael Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets

I was intrigued to read the essay ‘The 7% Problem’ by the Kynastons in the New Statesman a few weeks ago because not only do I work in an independent school but I am a child of the comprehensive system in London. In the article, the Kynastons identify a weakness of the Left to deal with what they term the ’7% Problem’. Independent schools educate 7% of the population yet their former students occupy at least 50% of the places at Oxbridge and their students have an enormous impact on public life. They identify two reasons for the Left’s unwillingness to grapple with independent schools. The first is that to concentrate on private schools with their ‘superior’ academic results is to implicitly denigrate state schools. The second reason is that many on the left went to private schools or send their children to them and feel inhibited in using their powers of critique.

I find the first of these reasons hard to accept because asking meaningful questions about the society we live in and how we can improve it does not automatically imply that the critique is unfair. I find this puzzling because many of the excellent institutions that are funded by government are already asked to do this every single year through a development plan and by the visits of the school inspectorate. However, it is the second explanation that demands more of an investigation because it points to something wider and more fundamental than attending an independent school.

Clause Four as a symptom

As a student of political change, I find the revision of Labour’s Clause Four in 1995 to be fascinating. For those not aware, Clause Four was part of the original Labour Party constitution and set out the aims of the party. In its original form in 1918, it stated:

To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.

The latest version amended in 2005 states:

A DYNAMIC ECONOMY, serving the public interest, in which the enterprise of the market and the rigour of competition are joined with the forces of partnership and co-operation to produce the wealth the nation needs and the opportunity for all to work and prosper with a thriving private sector and high-quality public services where those undertakings essential to the common good are either owned by the public or accountable to them.

The shift to the ‘Third Way’, built on the legacy of Thatcherism and accepted, for all intents and purposes, the logic of capitalism including the reality that there are always losers. In one sense, this is not really surprising because to be a successful political party in an era dominated by capitalism, it would be political suicide to suggest anything else (see the Labour Party manifesto of 1983). The successful acceptance of the market marks a shift from, as Sandel points out, having a market economy to being a market society. The effect is profound because a ‘market society is a way of life in which market values seep into every aspect of human endeavour’. Market based thinking does not pass judgement on the preferences its satisfies. As a result it has, according to Sandel, ‘drained public discourse of moral and civic energy’.

Why is this relevant to the debate about private schools and solving the ’7% problem’ for the Left? It shows that the even a party supposedly dedicated to social justice has become liberal in its approach to the market and accepts that inequality is an existing condition. It is accepted because the market brings social goods and the easiest way to demonstrate this is by looking at house prices/locations and access to schools. Take Fortismere School for example. It is is a very successful school based in Muswell Hill, London. It is funded by the government yet its intake reveals how far we have become a market based society by endorsing the unequal access to common resources by owning a home and making a profit through selling. An article from 2008 indicates that housing within the catchment area of the school had a 30% premium compared to those outside it. Unfortunately, this particular trend is not limited to this particular area of North London. Figures from Lloyds Bank indicate that:

The average house price of £303,902 in the postal districts of the 30 best performing state schools is almost nine (8.9) times average gross annual earnings. This is significantly higher than the average across England (£236,321) of 6.9 times average gross annual earnings. http://www.lloydsbankinggroup.com/media1/press_releases/2012_press_release_brands/ltsb/1009_state.asp

Access to these high performing schools is not equal by any means but to question this in the name of fairness would raise the spectre of the defeat of 1983 and the thorny issue of equality of outcome. The Kynastons suggest that:

Education is not just another item or service to be bought or sold. It is the most formative part part of any child’s upbringing and simultaneously the most powerful engine of cohesion we have. In a society in danger of being torn apart by rapidly increasing divisions of wealth and privilege, education is the one place where all parents and children can be brought together with a common purpose.

I agree with the sentiment yet the figures prove that education is a good that can be bought and sold via your house.

The point of raising this issue is that privilege, easily tacked onto the independent sector, is thriving in the maintained sector and if we aim to be serious about providing the best formative environment for children, some tough questions must be asked. The easy way out is to point to independent schools. There is unequal access to great schools and this is not acceptable (through house price or fees). As a teacher, I want the best for all students including the ones outside my immediate care. It is not right that only a few are able to access the education provided by fees or house prices and get the benefit of:

  • Weekly talks are given to sixth formers by people from all walks of life to open their minds about the variety of possibilities;
  •  Organised debates between the teaching staff about issues such as globalisation so students can see that their teachers are passionate, knowledgeable and are able to disagree with each other in a most agreeable way;
  •  Play a variety of sports with (and against) their friends at an appropriate level so they able to experience the joys of winning, the pain of defeat and learn the capacity to keep striving;
  •  Experience the arts (drama, music, art and design technology in all its forms) and choose one through to GCSE so they have an education for life in all its forms;
  • Teachers to be more than subject teachers by coaching sports or taking co-curricular activities;
  • Young people experiencing the managed risk of outdoor activities to help their appreciation of the physical spaces around them (through activities such as rock climbing or learning to acquire a powerboat licence when you are in Year 11 and not able to drive).
  • Taking part in activities where they are part of the community such as providing support for many of the elderly and the very young.

Although these examples are taken from my current place of work they also occur in many other maintained schools. Where does the ‘Berlin Wall’ exist in these areas? A more complicated question would be why the most successful maintained schools can do this and others do not.

Possible solutions?

If the Left is indeed hampered by market values, what can be done in the interim? Andrew Adonis suggests that one way forward is for independent schools to become academies. This already happens yet I fear that with a relentless focus on ‘schooling’ (spurious league tables of examination results) and not on ‘education’, this will not seem attractive to many unless they are in dire financial circumstances. His other suggestion is for independent schools to sponsor academies. The school I am currently part of sponsors of the Wren Academy in Barnet and I am looking forward to teaching at the Wren for a week once our summer holiday begins. However, this is just a start and more must be done.

Laura McInerney offers a more involved solution in her response to the original piece by the Kynastons. She suggests that following India, the government should make independent schools accept 25% of their intake from a poor area. In principle, I would have no issue with this and look forward to the model also being extended to schools where house prices exclude the majority of the population because privileged access to education is not limited to those who pay school fees.  What I am more cautious about is the wholesale adoption of an idea that if not carefully removed from its historical and concrete environment and cultivated sensitively in relation to its new destination, it will wither and cause a huge drain on time and resources.

My personal view is that if the government, or the Left, are serious about removing educational equality across our society, they should move toward the following policies:

  • Increase school funding levels to match the levels of average fees for private (day) schools;
  • Remove education policy from the hands of political parties that are more interested in seeking election (and once there, retaining power) and place it under the stewardship of an independent body;
  • Move away from the narrow focus on examination results in the league tables (Schooling) to Key Performance Indicators that include exam results and other issues such as the number of students taking part in drama/art/sports, numbers taking the DoE Award, CPD activities undertaken by teachers and how many students are involved in the local community (Education).

This list is not exhaustive by any means but it would show that by removing the current strictures, there would be very little excuse to point to the supposed structural inequalities that exist between the maintained and independent sectors. Yet this would only get us part of the way.

Stuart Hall commentated that in striving for a new way of looking at the world through Cultural Studies, he and his colleagues hoped to model their work on Gramsci’s notion of ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’.  That is not a terrible way to approach this issue because when framed as a polarising debate instead of a situation where there is a great deal of fluidity between maintained and independent schools in terms of privilege, we are likely to stay exactly where we are.

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