Image Credit: Martin Kraft
Delegates at the 2019 Labour conference have voted to strip private schools of their charitable status, and redistribute their estates to the public sector, in a move that has already been called an attempt to “abolish” the private schooling system altogether. If Labour were to win the next election, it would also seek to impose a seven per cent cap on private school pupils entering university. This is a change that would undoubtedly dim the appeal of independent schools for Britain’s parents.
According to Nouse research, this would effectively halve the number of offers given to private school pupils by York. The University gave 15 per cent of its total 20,483 offers last year to pupils with private school backgrounds. That proportion was even higher for the 2017/18 academic year, although it typically fluctuates around the 15 per cent threshold. This proportion means that private schools are around twice as well-represented at York as they are among the general population. Under a Labour government, the University would likely undergo a substantial cultural change: as would almost all top-tier universities across the UK.
The plan has received mixed reception. A snap poll of 3000 teachers across the UK found that 46 per cent supported the manifesto change, while 31 per cent opposed it. Speaking to the party conference, Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner lauded the closure of “tax loopholes” used by private schools. She said the money saved using new taxation would “improve the lives of all children.” The plan also received an enthusiastic reception among anti-private school campaigners: the Abolish Eton campaign called it “a really big victory for the left.”
Elsewhere, some political commentators were upbeat about the policy. Guardian journalist Owen Jones heralded the closure of “lifelong networks for the powerful”, adding that ancient institutions like Winchester and Eton “promote a toxic sense of social superiority.” Private schools often charge attendees upwards of £30,000 a year, which critics say excludes entry to the disadvantaged, and stifles social mobility. This pattern is most visible among Britain’s elite politicians: Boris Johnson is the most recent of 20 British Prime Ministers to have attended Eton.
That said, the proposals have also drawn criticism from private school bosses. The Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, representing a group of independent schools, has already promised a court battle that would wage “for years to come”. The Independent Schools Council has gone further, branding Labour’s promise a “possible breach of the European Convention on Human Rights”, which requires a right to choose one’s education.
Labour also faces criticism for the potential cost of entry of 600,000 students into the already-strained state system. Such a proposal would be equal to adding the entire school population of Wales, and some estimates place the bill at around £3.5bn. The cost may necessarily lead to cut-backs in other areas of state education, such as increasing class sizes, or decreasing funding for support for children with special needs.
Whatever the final shape of the policy, it is likely that any attempt to change the system will result in huge backlash from independent schools and their alumni. The battle to publicise private education is likely to continue for years to come.