Caught in the class war crossfire

Independent schools stand to lose, whoever wins the general election


For many of us working in independent schools, the announcement at this year’s Labour party conference that it would abolish us, seize our assets, and redistribute “democratically and fairly” our redundant boaters and cassocks to bewildered teachers in the state sector did not come as a great surprise. Labour, now truly red in tooth and claw, has, after a brief Blairite hiatus, reverted to its old, sclerotic Croslandite position on selection. The class envy that once sought to “destroy every fucking grammar school” in the country is now the starting point even of party moderates exploring policy nuances around non-maintained schools. If the party’s 1983 manifesto was once decried as the longest suicide note in history, the 2019 version includes the added tortures of fashionable virtue signalling and liberal self-loathing.

Still, at least we know where we are with Corbyn’s Labour: they hate us, and always have. Crosland’s vicious verbal attack on grammar schools is well known. But ten years previously, in 1956, he wrote he “had never been able to understand why socialists have been so obsessed with the question of the grammar schools, and so indifferent to the more glaring injustice of the independent schools”. No doubt Old Wykehamist Seumas Milne would agree.

Labour has always struggled with the independent sector. The 1968 Public Schools Commission, set up by Harold Wilson to deal with the country’s two-tier system, is viewed as a failure for only recommending piecemeal legislation. Even Crosland eventually accepted the huge sums required to bring independent schools under government control could be better spent on failing state schools. Competing priorities ensured little real engagement or change for much of the 1960s and ’70s. They have promised abolition before (in 1972, for example), but they could never resolve the ongoing problem of how to square their urge to centralise with offering parents real choice. Under New Labour, the focus shifted away from confrontation towards cooperation between the sectors. Alan Lockey, former policy adviser to Tristram Hunt, points out that “the key difference with now … is that we didn’t want to raise revenue: it was an education- focused policy, not a fiscal one.” What innocent times they were. 

Supporters of momentum won’t struggle with the morality of destroying (or, to use the activists’ weasel word, “integrating”) around 2,600 schools, with all the displaced pupils, job losses and wrecked communities that will bring. Zealotry brings its own unique rewards of self-gratification. They may find attempting to abolish the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 26 (3) or the European Convention of Human Rights Protocol 2 Article 2 — both of which make it a basic right for parents to choose their child’s education — a little trickier. But that’s before that towering legal genius Richard Burgon gets to grips with it all, so who knows? It is more likely that this country’s first Marxist chancellor will increase VAT on fees, withdraw business-rate relief, and let the increased contributions schools have to make to the Teachers’ Pension Scheme (TPS) do the rest. For some small independents, a Corbyn-run Department for Education will look increasingly like an educational Dignitas. 

Where, in all this, are the Conservatives? You would think this latest outbreak of class war from Labour would be easily exploited by a cabinet that is two-thirds independently educated. At least they might have some understanding of the importance of the sector, not to mention the world-class education we provide to many hundreds of thousands of pupils from this country and overseas (including many of their own children). You would be wrong. Politically, we live in anti-Darwinian times because selection is now a sign of failure, and success has to be pushed backwards into the insatiable jaws of inclusivity. The reality is that the Tories are causing more damage than any of the opposition parties.

The reality is that the Conservatives are causing more damage than any of the opposition parties

Labour threaten us, but it’s the Tories who hurt us. For example, it is they who, in a brazen piece of fiscal smash-and-grab, have forced independent schools to increase employer contributions to the TPS by more than 43 per cent. This is calamitous. Already 62 schools have left the scheme, with many more in the process. Experienced teachers are leaving the profession and schools will close. Some schools, such as St Edward’s, Oxford, are seeing strike action. Meanwhile, this change is not being applied to state schools, where government funding of the TPS will continue. Even Theodore Agnew, the parliamentary under-secretary of state, called these changes “appalling”. He was ignored because a senior figure like Michael Gove proudly proclaims that he wants to get rid of independent schools and would like to get that process going by sticking 20 per cent on school fees. 

The current Conservative party’s attitude to independent schools is less honest, and certainly less politically consistent, than Labour’s. Worse, it has been formed not through debate but through guilt, shame and political opportunism. Watching cabinet ministers discussing schools, as they flip, but mostly flop, away from perceived privilege and towards meritocracy, is like listening to an old roué husband, ashamed of previous dalliances with affluent mistresses, pledging uxorious fidelity to his long-suffering first wife who keeps demanding more money to keep her happy. 

But the lipstick on the collar can still be found around the old haunts of Whitehall. The Treasury is happy to see the sector save the taxpayer £3.5 billion and to pocket £4.1 billion in tax revenues; the Department for Work and Pensions is not unaware of the 300,000 jobs the sector supports. The Foreign Office has probably registered that British schools such as Dulwich College, Wycombe Abbey and Wellington College have successfully opened nearly 60 campuses in China, south-east Asia and the Middle East, with many more being built. Last year alone saw a 23 per cent growth in this market with nearly 40,000 pupils now being educated by UK schools overseas. Can you think of another British industry which is seen as the market leader by much of the world being threatened with abolition by Her Majesty’s Opposition and is held in such contempt by the Conservatives that Gove can describe us as “welfare junkies”, a drain on the state?

You will have to look for a very long time before you find a high-profile Tory MP or minister standing up for the beaks of Eton. Pretty much all politicans hold their school photo-ops in state schools, even though more than 15 per cent of children aged over 16 attend independent schools. For politicians of right and left these schools resemble crime scenes, yellow-taped-off by strings of possible hashtags. When was the last time you saw a photograph of a secretary of state for education visiting an independent school, or even admitting that they gained a lot from being educated privately? In his recent autobiography David Cameron describes being sent away to boarding school as “brutal” and “bizarre”, and is keen to confess that he spent a lot of his time at Eton “off his head” on marijuana. Of course he did, poor thing: how else could he endure such a ghastly place? Experiences and perspectives which would once have excluded someone from holding high office are now used to self-validate because they have greater authenticity in a society that fetishises victimhood.

What of the future? Sir Anthony Seldon, biographer of many prime ministers and a former head of Wellington College, warns: “Any outcome of the general election looks worrying for independent schools. The Conservatives could become much more hostile still as they try to distance themselves from accusations of privilege, but also try to position themselves as defenders of both the NHS and state schools. A Labour victory will be worse. These schools have very few political friends left, and the climate is about to get much more challenging.”

A winter is coming. Staff, parents and governors of independent schools are at best resigned to these persistent attacks, or, worse, depressed by the increasing vitriol they experience in the media. But they are also worried because attacking a school is not like attacking any other institution. Feel free to criticise unions, universities, political parties and newspapers because they are staffed by adults who choose to be there. But behind those school gates are children, and if you look beyond those uniforms you will see boys and girls filled with all the complexities and vulnerabilities that go with being young. We used to take pride in protecting them, irrespective of background. When did we forget such a basic human obligation? It is time our politicians adopted a duty of care that all teachers, in state and independent schools, see as their primary purpose. Look elsewhere for the causes of inequality and recognise that society does not become fairer by destroying excellence.

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