Stories + Views
Is it time to force private schools to become free schools?
As Finnish education expert, Pasi Sahlberg, noted it was only when Finland abolished their private schools in the 1970s that the country was able to narrow the attainment gap between the poorest and the richest students. Well, here’s an idea for Mr Gove to chew upon, since we’ve got a free schools policy — which is flawed in many respects — why not make the best of it and insist that all our private schools become free schools? At the moment, we’ve got the ridiculous situation whereby private schools are sponsoring free schools and academies but effectively admitting that their state school counter-parts are “second best” and merely adjuncts to the real “elite” institution, the private school. Of course, they have to make sure that their state school counterparts are second-rate otherwise their fee-paying parents would be up in arms; they wouldn’t be happy about paying monstrously high fees if they knew the “sister” state school was delivering just as good education for no cost at all to the parents.
This situation might be solved if the private schools became free schools. Of course, this should mean that they wouldn’t be able to select their pupils by ability or interview — as they do at the moment — and that the schools should take their fair share of the local population. Perhaps a fair banding admissions system or lottery could be introduced. Then their wonderful resources would be shared around the country. The evidence from Finland is that when a country does something like this, something approaching equality can be achieved. As long as the private schools remain private, we will always have a socially segregated elite who grab all the resources and top jobs. Alan Milburn’s report on social mobility argues that employers should favour state-educated children but this clearly would be “tokenism”. If we are going to make our society more equal, we need much more radical solutions. Perhaps Mr Gove’s inherently conservative free schools policy could be turned on its head and used to addresss the rottenness at the heart of the English education system: the chronic unfairness of our private school system.
Wouldn’t be amazing if Eton admitted children from the local community who are both poor and have special educational needs? Wouldn’t be great if Westminster private school admitted some of the most challenging teenagers who live nearby in the borough? Wouldn’t be great if Bedales shared it’s amazing grounds with other people in the area?
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