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Is it immoral to send your child to a private school?

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I appeared as a witness on the Moral Maze tonight; you can listen to it for a limited time period here. The central question was whether sending your child to private school is immoral, and whether private schools are immoral generally. On the panel, the Reverend Giles Fraser and Matthew Taylor of the RSA were sceptical about the benefits of private education, while libertarian pundit and ex-MP Michael Portillo and Daily Mail columnist Melanie Philips were fervent supporters of it. Four witnesses were called. The journalist Janet Murray was interviewed by Taylor and Fraser about her decision to send her child to a private prep school in Kent; her basic argument, which she has written for the Guardian about, was that she was doing the right thing for her child, and had to leave her social principles behind because state schools just didn’t cater for her unique needs. Dr Martin Stephen, the ex-head of St Pauls’ public school, defended the sector by effectively saying that it existed to compensate for the failings of the state sector. The crime writer and ex-teacher Dreda Say Mitchell was possibly the most socialist of the witnesses, saying that private schools should be banned in order to create a more equal society.

The whole process of being interviewed was quite nerve-wracking; the five “regulars” were crowded around you in the Broadcasting House studio, listening to your every word. It was a bit like a really tense job interview. I was nervous about being grilled by Melanie Philips. However, although I found her quite firm with me, she did look me in the eye and would let me more or less finish what I had to say. She had some sympathy with my story of pulling out my child from a private school and putting him into an inner-city state school. She accepted that I’d found the experience illuminating and that it had been positive for my child. Michael Portillo was more difficult. He didn’t look me in the eye, and was very keen to show that I was a flip-flopping flibbertigibbet who wasn’t making sense, making huge generalisations out of my own personal story. I countered by saying there were two things: my own personal story of seeing how beneficial the state system was for my child, and a larger argument about what we should do with a schooling system which was set-up by the Victorians to enhance our class system, where public schools exist to educate the ruling class. What’s amazing is that this piece of social engineering has lasted to this day: as Brian Simon says in his brilliant History of English Education, although there’s been huge amounts of legislation about schools, none of it has really swept away the hierarchy put in place by the Victorians between 1850-1870. There is a strong case for dismantling them in order to end the social segregation that they create, with the richest children being helicoptered away from their local communities. The pro-private school lobby argue that the schools are needed in order to bring high standards to the school system, but recently with the massive improvements that have happened with many state schools, this argument has fallen apart; my son’s local school, Bethnal Green Academy, is a brilliant school, and yet it doesn’t really reflect (yet) its local community with many wealthy parents migrating their children out of the area to selective and independent schools. This is despite the fact that it’s a great school, judged outstanding in all categories recently by Ofsted; these parents’ choice to go private is nothing to do with the quality of the school, it’s more a judgement on the school’s “social cache”; they perceive that because it has over 50% of children on Free School Meals that somehow it is not good enough for their children. As Dreda said these parents are more concerned with inveigling their children into the wealthy and powerful networks that exist in the private sector. Attending a school like St Paul’s is not just about getting a good academic education, it’s about getting connected with the “right sort of people”.

However, I said that I wouldn’t say it was immoral for parents to send their child to a private school; I don’t think making blanket judgments about people and their personal circumstances is helpful. It’s more important to keep an eye on the bigger picture.

One major topic we all missed was that of addressing whether private schools should have charitable status. I had been meaning to bring this up, but it’s very difficult to articulate your views and ideas fully when you’re grilled quite aggressively by two people very well versed in “turning people over”. The best conversation I had about the issue today was actually with Fiona Millar on the phone before the programme, when we went through all the terrible problems that our private sector bequeaths the state sector: bestowing unfair advantages on children who are already doing well; sucking good pupils out of the state sector; enjoying the massive financial benefits that having charitable status brings without ever looking like charities at all; and justifying themselves by constantly attacking the state sector as being “rubbish” and failing.


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  1. Patrick Hadley says:

    We will never get anywhere with a campaign to abolish private schools. Politically it is a non-starter. It would be very difficult to argue that schools which do an excellent job for their students should be closed, and arguments on the ground of freedom of choice could not be ignored.

    It would be much wiser to argue that we should reform the private sector so that a much wider section of society can benefit from our “wonderful public schools” with at least half of the places in each private school going to non-fee paying pupils. I am not suggesting a return to the assisted places scheme, which involved selecting some very able pupils who would be a very small minority in a public school, but instead sending each school 50% of a proper comprehensive intake from the local area and also pupils from further away who would particularly benefit from boarding because of their family circumstances. If the private schools are so good then let them work their magic on typical children, not just those who come from very privileged families.

  2. I agree that a campaign to abolish private schools is unrealistic, but I think the charitable status issue is still a valid issue. I’m not sure creaming more bright children out of the state sector will help things either though.

    I suddenly thought re the freedom issue that Portillo kept harking on about, it’s only freedom for those that can afford it. In this sense, everyone there, except possibly Dreda, was not representative, 95% of the pop can’t afford private education, we did have the choice but only because of our wealth. Just imagine if the panel was representative of the Brit population, and not the elite, so many questions would have been completely academic!

    Another point regarding Portillo’s abhorrence of the state “banning” things, perhaps we need to think of it in the light of something like the smoking ban. That ban has led to people being much healthier, including little children. Do we need to consider the collective psychological health of the nation, the common good as Giles Fraser said?

    • I agree very strongly about the charitable status issue. It is irrational to advocate ‘choice’ in an educational ‘market’, saying that you believe this will create the strongest educational outcome, and then rig the system in favour of one particular kind of institution.

  3. Disagree. We should have a campaign against private education. Private education is divisive and undermines the crucial principle that education is a shared public good. The issue isn’t whether calling for private schools to be banned is realistic or not. What counts as realistic depends on the balance of opinion, which is always open to change. The point is to get the political argument out and make the case for local, publicly funded education with confidence. The aim is to change the debate, not get hung up on spurious arguments about ‘freedom’. Re. the Moral Maze: Portillo is wrong. Defending local schools does not have to mean more power to the state. Rather, defending local schools could include a debate about how we also enhance local democratic / community participation in the running of schools.

    • Patrick Hadley says:

      I would love to see the end of the public schools, but the only way to achieve this in practice would be by nationalising them rather than abolishing them, and operating them for the good of all children not just for the few.

      That was what George Orwell advocated in his English Revolution in 1941. This could have been achieved by the Attlee government in 1945 – but it would have needed a Nye Bevan rather than Ellen Wilkinson. Interesting to hear that Orwell on Radio Four the other day that he also hoped that Labour would abolish all hereditary titles and the House of Lords. We are still waiting.

  4. Andy Jones says:

    I am no marxist, but I will borrow marxian concepts to make a clear point. The private school system, and in particular the top public schools, are the key institutions of ruling class hegemony. Not only do they reproduce the ruling ideologies in terms of curriculum, language, organisation and institutional practices, they reproduce and maintain elite professional and social networks for the communication of power amongst a privileged, wealthy few (the old school networks, clubs, nepotism etc.). The discussions about results, qualifications, curriculum, class sizes etc. are smoke and mirrors. Most of these schools would look miserable on a measure of value-added and the children who go there will succeed regardless of their outcomes. In addition, most private school parents are paying to keep their children away from the children of the working (and middle) classes for fear of what such ‘interactions’ may bring.

    To propose the end of the public schools or even the true democratisation of access, is to challenge the heart of hegemony and demand the end of the class system. Nothing short of civil war would enable such a move. In short… It ain’t gonna happen.

    • Rob Peutrell says:

      Thanks Andy. I sympathize with the thrust of your contribution. But, are you saying that because the private school system is a key institution of ‘ruling class hegemony’ in the UK that it is a necessary condition of this hegemony? How does this compare with Finland, say, or France or Germany? Private schools exist there but as I understand it are typically faith based and highly regulated. Despite this their respective ruling classes are fairly hegemonic.

      Would it require a civil war? Moot point, but in the meantime building a bold campaign which confidently asserts the principle of (democratic) publicly funded education seems worthwhile, and one that may well find resonance with other demands for equity and fairness. It won’t necessarily mean taking on the Eton Rifles, but will certainly shift the debate. I imagine that the widely supported proposal to introduce comprehensive education way back met with a similarly pessimistic view – the Hegemon won’t allow it.

  5. The OECD found* that the best-performing school systems in the world tend to be those which are most equitable – they don’t segregate children according to academy ability, wealth or by virtue of where they live.

    English private schools are perceived to be “better” than state ones but the OECD found that English state schools perform better than private ones when social background is factored in**.

    But it’s not a question of morality. Parents pay for private education for a variety of reasons including genuinely, but erroneously, thinking the private sector is superior. Sometimes it’s just snobbery.

    We are where we are in England – private schools exist and parents have the right to use them. However, what is unacceptable is when purchasing private education results in privileges not available to the 93% who are state educated. And neither is it acceptable for some private sector schools to rubbish the state sector in order to increase the number of fee-paying children.

    That said, there are some private schools which should become state-funded. These are schools which offer specialist education for particular children eg autistic. These should not have to rely on charitable giving but be fully-funded by the state.

    That’s why state education exists – to give the best possible education to ALL children.

    *OECD Economic Survey UK 2011
    **OECD UK Through the Prism of PISA

  6. Have any countries other than totalitarian communist dictatorships (USSR, Maoist China etc.) banned private schools?

    • Rob Peutrell says:

      Good question. But perhaps a more enlightened, more civically minded, more publicly spirited UK could be the first liberal-democracy to affirm its unconditional commitment to democratic publicly funded education by socializing the resources of the independent sector. Both my kids did fine at the local school. Sometimes the timid middle-classes just need that extra bit of encouragement to do the right thing. It is OK for their kids to mix with the children of ordinary folk!

      Perhaps we could start by organizing stay-overs for private school kids to experience some of the benefits of socially diverse education, with suitably qualified, CAB-checked staff of course.

  7. ‘Socializing’ is, I suppose, a euphemism for nationalising or expropriating. I think a country which banned private/independent education would cease to be a liberal democracy.

    • Rob Peutrell says:

      Is private education so crucial for a liberal-democracy? We constrain free-choices in all kinds of ways from the banal (smoking bans) to the more serious – the tax system; recreational drug use; the age of consent and multiple marriage; the age at which people can start work, buy a drink or join the army; speed limits and so on. Why is private education such a shibboleth? My serious point, however, is this: we should be confident in making the pedagogic and civic argument for common schooling and not be put off by self-interested ‘arguments’ for ‘parental choice’ and ‘freedom’. We need to re-frame the argument in terms of equity and responsibility. Education should not be a mechanism by which a minority secure privileges for their children but a public good of benefit to all. ‘Socializing’, by the way, isn’t a euphemism for nationalizing, which has connotations of state control rather than of democratic management. But hey that’s a different debate.

      • I would like to see the state having less control over our lives, not more, but that is because I am liberal, not a socialist, and believe in the individual’s right to control his own life and make his own choices. Socialists think that self-styled ‘;experts’ no best, and the idea that they would be under so-called democratic management reminds me of certain totalitarian systems. I suppose next the state will decide where we live, what our job is, what we eat, where we take our holidays etc in the name of ‘the public good’. It has been tried and it failed: look at the USSR and the Eastern Block. If you have time, read “The Road to Serfdom” by von Hayek.
        Btw, the middle classes are ‘ordinary folk’ as well.

        • Rob Peutrell says:

          I certainly agree on the state having less control over our lives – hence local democratic control of schools. I’m not quite sure why this implies totalitarianism. The idea is participatory and municipalist rather than statist. But equally (contra Hayek), don’t we also want the market to have less control over our lives?

          Whatever the role of a competitive market in selling, say laptops or garden furniture, I don’t quite see how this it has a place in respect of social goods such as education. The arguments against an educational market have been well-stated on this site as elsewhere. At root, however, I do think that the sensitivity and special pleading of the private school lobby is driven by middle-class fears rather than a principled concern for education. But we disagree.

          I do though sympathise very much with your anti-totalitarian instincts – and assume that these extend to Hayek’s documented support for the Chilean free-marketeer and military dictator Augusto Pinochet, who was responsible for the detention and disappearance of many thousands. Cheers.

          • Rob – students in Chile have been protesting for over a year about Chile’s education system which was established during the Pinochet era. In particular, the students oppose the profit-making schools. They want a fully state-funded system.

  8. Rosie Fergusson says:

    I don’t have a problem with private schools ( apart from the few monied right-wing people one and one’s child would be exposed to ; you clearly have to put in place very strong counter measures at home – after all you don’t want to spend all that money and end up raising a conceited little arse with no social responsibility )

    My problem is with the people and parents who think they should get a private school education funded by the state at the expense of existing schools.

    Just because you want and can provide the best (at least as you see it) for your child doesn’t mean you can’t also want the best possible , given local resources and funding, for other children. Unfortunately this can’t be said to be true of the parents fighting to enlarge Grammar Schools and set up Free Schools at the expense of existing schools .

    • “The best (at least as you see it).” That is a very scary remark, as you clearly believe that parents should not do the best for their children, as they do not know what is best for them. Leave it to the state. Welcome to fascism and communist dictatorship via LSN!

      • Rosie Fergusson says:

        Dear Fj Murphy, Bit baffled as to your interpretation of my remark…. ..perhaps if you reread it my post you might actually understand it ( maybe read it aloud to yourself slowly a few times eh??? perhaps after your cage has stopped rattling ????) . Perhaps best if I elaborate i.e. if you feel that private school is the best for your child and you can afford it then you should do so. However I’m not prepared to proclaim that private education is best ( as you appear to want me to write).

  9. I’m not sure that purely the closure of Independent schools is the opposite of the social engineering that the private sector provides. Surely it would be the allocation of an equal number of students of equal IQ to each establishment. (Not that I’m advocating that). It would be a really positive thing for the country though if students, parents, and members of the community would rally round and support their local school. Oh! look at the trajectory of that pork!

  10. Rosie Fergusson says:

    Just read the link that 3arnowl gave to IoE…..another fine example of the academics stating the flipping obvious with no depth or indeed intelligence to the analysis. The LEAs have long known that FSM children tned to attend less academically achieving schools ; this is is why such schools tend to get up to £1.5K per pupil extra to provide behavioural and academic intervention support. Read a few OFsted rpeorts of outstanding high FSM schools ( such as Stranton in Hartlepool and quite a few in Liverpool) and it’s clear they key to a successful high FSM school is strong engagement and support of struggling paretns, strong promotion of aspiration , high qaulity staff and a strong empathetic leader.

  11. Rosie Fergusson says:

    please note deliberate mistakes in post above…all carefully designed to lure the egotistic right-winger into deflecting value from my opinion simply by sneering at my ( apparent) lack of education.

  12. Andy says:

    As contradictory as this will inevitably appear I am with both Francis and FJ on this issue. That is to say, in a true open democracy parents must be allowed to invest their disposable income into their child(rens) education. Detractors should acknowledge that those same parents also assist in funding state education – which they don’t use – by dint of PAYE or Corporation Tax. To urge for the socialization of private education (aka nationalisation) is to introduce totalitarianism to the scenario. That said, the reality of the situation is that few private schools could meet the full criteria of the Charity Commission rules of charitable status. Bring tangible pressure to bear from this angle and you’ll most likely see a marked increase in private schools seeking adoption as Academies/Free Schools and a similar increase in cross boundary interaction initiated by the private schools to work/collaborate/partner more closely with state school neighbours (whether maintained or academy or free school status).

    Should this come to pass then surely even the most entrenched bigot would concede that it would be a win/win situation (of sorts) and at the very least progress …

    • Rob Peutrell says:

      Hi Andy, You wrote: ‘in a true open democracy parents must be allowed to invest their disposable income into their child(rens) education’. Why ‘must’? Perhaps a truly open democracy requires a truly open democratic education system in which democratic citizens can acquire together the habits and values of that open democracy. A school system closed to those who can’t afford the entrance fee is incompatible with an open democracy. It is tho’ highly compatible with oligarchy, which is where FJ’s support for the Pinochet supporting Hayek starts to scratch the warning bells. For sure tho’ there is a debate to be had about how the vision of an open and democratic education system might be achieved.

  13. I agree with Andy.

  14. For you, does open mean, ‘do as the state tells you’? Sounds like 1984 and ‘Newspeak’ to me. I’m not sure what Pinochet has to do with it, but I’m certainly a fan of Hayek.

    • To my mind ‘open’ means ‘equitable’ and ‘meritocratic’. I can see how ‘the ruling class’ might be reluctant to cede the ground.

    • And regarding the ‘Newspeak’ analogy, let me remind you that it was Comrade Baker who first introduced the National Curriculum and Comrade Gove who’s busily trying to doctor it in order to produce “Educated citizens”.

    • Rob Peutrell says:

      As a fan, you’ll know that Hayek supported market freedoms so much he supported a mass murderer in Chile. His relationship with Pinochet matters because it reveals the authoritarian skulking inside the market liberal.

  15. ‘Ruling class’. Marxist stuff. Orwell would love this, 1984, here we come.

  16. Rosie Fergusson says:

    Francis – are there many private schools that , as you put at the end of the post – are ” justifying themselves by constantly attacking the state sector as being “rubbish” and failing.”- I haven’t seen any examples…such schools can rely upon the Daily Mail and the Telegraph to reinforce the prejudices of their target audience with no active input from the schools marketing department surely ?

    If you try and abolish private schools then surely you will simply see an increase in free schools modelled on independent school principles ; this will drain money from existing state pupils and provoke the influential parents , suddenly deprived of elite schooling , into lobbying government for free schools to have greater control/veto over admissions.

    I would let the minority have their private schools ( lets rely on the subtle subversion of ” Made in Chelsea” to do its work on parodying what really totters out of private education). As an aside I feel Harriet Harman should either send her kid to a comprehensive or to a private school rather than supporting the social segregation of the state Grammar school ( St Olaves, Orpington).

    • You have little idea of what ‘;totters out of private education’. Typical left wing bigotry.

      • Rosie Fergusson says:

        Bit baffled ( again) FJ…not quite sure how my support of private education and parent choice is “left wing bigotry” ; it would seem I have clearly hit a nerve with you in my refusal to hold private education in the same abject unquestioning reverence that you clearly do .

        Mind you – you have made me rethink blaming it all on private education .Yesterdays episode of “Made in Chelsea” featured some parents ; the preening and dead-eyed banality of the show’s cast is clearly multi-generational and genetics has also played a big part. The sad truth would seem to be that these kids have never stood a chance. Small wonder Toby Young is working so hard to keep his kids out of private education.

  17. Rosie Fergusson says:

    or …Harman should send her kid to a private school and then go and work her arse off as an effective governor, including manning the school cake stall, in a school with 65% FSM as two of my friends are doing.

  18. Andy says:

    Is this really a discussion on the morality or immorality of sending a child to private school or a trite argument of political opposites riven by the politics of envy?

    We all need to remember that the dissolution of the private education sector would incur several damaging economic blights on the taxpayer:

    1. Funding the purchase of the physical schools, land and associated equipment
    2. The additional costs of operating and maintaining the fabric of private schools purchased by the state
    3. Assuming the teaching and support staff were prepared to be TUPED across to the state sector the funding of their salaries and on-costs (i.e. NI and pension contributions)
    4. The significant funding required for each pupil transferring from the private to state sector

    Just a thought or two for the entrenched bigots who seem unable to see past political rhetoric and posturing and who would have the state dictate how a person/families disposable income is spent.

    • 615,000 students in 2,500 schools (7% of pupils). It would hardly break the bank, even with your “Transfer fee”.

      • Rosie Fergusson says:

        3arnOwl…..but it’s money we haven’t got which would be channelled from the existing schools already being deprived of capital and operational funding by the free school movement. The free school movement would expand hugely driven by powerful parents and presumably we would lose the overseas student market which,rightly or wrongly, is a critical part of international rapport.

      • Isn’t the ‘bank’ near to breaking point already? What happens to those who set up a school in their own property? Do you arrest them and the parents of the children? Drag them in chains to the nearest state school?

        • Each government makes decisions about levels tax and spending priorities…

          As for home-schooling, I’ve only come across it twice: one pair of teenagers didn’t seem to have enjoyed the experience much, but came to the opportunities afforded to them in VI form with great enthusiasm.

      • Andy says:

        Transfer fee? All my FTE posts have been in the state sector …

        I’ve not researched the numbers of pupils by age range to estimate the AWPU costs let alone the numbers and breakdown of staffing in the private sector or the value of the bricks and mortar or estate, but you’re talking £billions. Loosely based on your figures the amount could be anywhere from £10 to £15billion+, which the taxpayer simply can’t afford.

        • Transfer fee what your point 4 – whatever that is!

          Of course the country could afford it! But it would need to look at its taxation levels and its spending priorities.

          • Andy says:

            Point 4 refers to the AWPU for all the private school pupils who become state school pupils at the point the private schools are closed and nationalised

          • There’s always money allocated per pupil according to age, but thank you for explaining.

          • Andy says:

            Yes, the state sector funding is underpinned by AWPU but what you appear to have missed, and forgive me if I have misunderstood your comments, is that private school pupils don’t qualify for AWPU thus if private education is nationalised/scrapped/banned/made illegal then all those pupils will become state school pupils and their schools will claim the appropriate band of AWPU.

          • I did realise that, yes,

    • Rosie Fergusson says:

      my point entirely Andy ( if a little more erudite) !

    • Rosie Fergusson says:

      who’s envious ..not me..I support a parent’s choice for private education but I don’t support placing it on a pedestal to the detriment of state education ; and anyone who does can expects to have their cage rattled well and truly ( can’t you just see FJ’s temperol pulse throbbing —result!) .

      So expect the p*ss to be taken … you say “trite” I say “satire” …(blame it on a childhood watching too many Freddie Starr Imitations of HItler , Spitting Image and reading Private Eye).

      • I support parental choice being extended into the state sector, where I have happily worked for more than 25 years, and choice means a real choice, which means variety, not the choice of going to the local LSN-approved comprehensive.

        • Typical response from an “I’ll have what I want and s*d the rest” liberal! What happens to the young people who can’t pass the entrance tests of all the newly privatised schools, or whose education would be deemed to expensive for the school to deliver?

    • I entirely agree with Andy.

    • Rob Peutrell says:

      Hi Andy. Moral questions are always political. The question of private education is not just an abstract issue for cosy moral dis/agreement, but a very practical, policy issue. Entrenched bigot? I assume in this context ‘ent.big': ‘those who disagree with my unprincipled wavering’.

      This is not the politics of envy, but hey … fair response because my view is clearly that private-school defenders are advocates of the politics of (anxious) privilege. Inevitably, lines get drawn.

      Democracy is not resolved when X says ‘I think private education is morally wrong’ but then capitulates when Y asserts her consumer rights.

      It is silly to accuse people who think that market freedoms are not the most important social values of posturing and rhetoric. Green energy might be one area in which individual preferences are and should be subject to constraint. Education should be another. This is because shared education is fundamental to the making and sustaining of democratic community. You disagree, no problem – but this is not a trite argument. BTW – I don’t think you’re trite or posturing, just a bit wrong.

      The problem with your perspective is that whilst you claim to disagree(ish) with private education you’re not prepared to follow the logic of the argument. If something is wrong (child abuse, drinking and driving, employing people below the minimum wage, fly-tipping, smoking in the office, hitting people we disagree with, discriminating against people who are not like us) we take measures to stop it. This is reasonable, and generally uncontroversial. Education and money hit a nerve.
      Anyway. Nuff said. Thanks.

      • Rob
        I do not “disagree(ish)” with private education. To be honest I am not sure where you get that idea from.
        Neither do I agree with your proposition that private education is wrong. Therefore in terms of a parental choice of how they prioritise the allocation of their disposal income arising from legitimate employment, I believe that they have the freedom to select from any of the legitimate areas of expenditure to spend their money. If that means private education then that is their choice and I defend their right to do so. I am somewhat bemused that you so glibly liken private education to child abuse, drink driving etc.
        What I do find questionable is how private schools retain their charitable status, which I do not think the majority should and that in turn this has an impact on the VAT receipts for the treasury. The other side of this scenario is the potential impact on the taxpayer caused by private schools becoming state schools and the direct financial impact to the taxpayer.
        You are also strongly implying, if not asserting, that private education should become criminalised, which if an accurate reflection of your views is irrational and untenable within a national community that is allegedly based on freedom and democracy. Your arguments against private education also have direct implications for home schooling in that you imply that all pupils would have to attend state schools. Are you really suggesting that in your view all private schools should be closed and private education criminalised with all pupils attending state schools, with any parent that rejects this being prosecuted and/or off-spring taken into care.
        The more I nudge the envelope of the views you have expressed the more repulsed I feel at the absolute totalitarian imbalance they represent.
        If I have misread/misunderstood your expressed views in this thread then please do clarify my interpretation.

        • Rob Peutrell says:

          Andy, A misreading of your contribution above, I’m afraid i.e. ‘As contradictory as this will inevitably appear I am with both Francis and FJ on this issue’. Not sure I said I would criminalise parents using private education. What I did say is that if we believe that publicly funded education is a good thing we should take measures to stop it. Removing charitable status would be a start. Reversing the Academies programme and private sponsorship of education would be another. Mainly I have said we need to find the confidence to argue for social, ethical and pedagogic value of shared, public education. Making clear that private education is divisive and unethical is part of the argument, as is NOT being bullied by the anxious well-off, or making a fetish of market freedoms. My argument is not for jack-booted EWOs, but local democratic community control of schools. I assume it’s not this that you find repulsive. I notice that you think the dismantling of the NHS is ‘illiberal’ (tho’ surely not in the economic sense). I hope we’d agree that there are parallels between publicly funded health and publicly funded education, and that you wouldn’t find my views on private health also repulsive. Anyway – think our different positions are pretty clear. Cheers

  19. Rosie Fergusson says:

    Bit baffled ( again) FJ…not quite sure how my support of private education and parent choice is “left wing bigotry” ; it would seem I have clearly hit a nerve with you in my refusal to hold private education in the same abject unquestioning reverence that you clearly do .

    Mind you – you have made me rethink blaming it all on private education .Yesterdays episode of “Made in Chelsea” featured some parents ; the preening and dead-eyed banality of the show’s cast is clearly multi-generational and genetics has also played a big part. The sad truth would seem to be that these kids have never stood a chance. Small wonder Toby Young is working so hard to keep his kids out of private education.

    • I was referring to your remark about ‘Made in Chelsea’.

    • I was referring to your remark about ‘Made in Chelsea’. After 25 years in state schools, and some time in the private sector, I only hold in awe good schools, state or private, and avoid stereotyping.

    • After 25 years in state schools, and some time in the private sector, I only hold in awe good schools, state or private, and avoid stereotyping.

  20. rosie fergusson says:

    Owl- no new free school can introduce testing other than for fair banding purposes although it’s a grey area for the financially unviable private schools which are forced to convert to free schools if they were using testingbefore.. a new free school can however set itself up under a vague generic ‘Christian’ ethos and introduce high uniform and mandatory equipment costs in order to get some control over admissions.

    However these are insignicant compared to what would be unleashed if private schools were abolished and provoked the influential parents, used to control, and their interests into having a stake in the state sector.

    • The latest Conservatory party manifesto proposal regarding education is to extend privatisation as much as possible – in which case, who knows what will happen regarding intake criterion – will there even be guaranteed places?

      Parents ought to be involved in their children’s education! Their part in the equation is as important as the teachers’, the SLT, the school facilities, their child and all s/he does in and out of school. Parents should be grit in the oyster of a school, as well as full of support and pride.

  21. John Greenlaw says:

    An attack on private education is an attack on freedom of choice.

    An attack on the advancement of education as a charitable aim would be an attack on the definition of charitable aims in general. Who knows where it might end?

    A ban on private education would be profoundly illiberal. Given the foreign currency earnings of the private sector and the relief it brings to the provision of state education, it would also be perverse, even absurd.

    • Andy says:

      I wish it were as simple as you imply in your second point but it is far from clear. The issues hinges on ‘public benefit’. The previous government tightened things up in the private sector when they added the statement, “Where the benefit is a section of the public, the opportunity to benefit must not be unreasonably restricted … by ability to pay any fees charged.” (see page 4 of This was overturned by the Upper Tribunal.

      However, the interim guidance from the Charity Commissioners, given in March 2011, would still present the majority of fee paying schools with a real dilemma should the Charity Commissioners wish to press the issue:

      I would suggest that very many private/fee paying schools would be hard pressed to meet the range of criteria listed in the interim advice:

      For fee-charging educational charities
      • Charity trustees of educational charities which charge high fees, in consequence of their duty to administer the charity for the public benefit, are required to take into account the whole of the class of beneficiaries the charity is set up to provide for.
      • Accordingly, they have a duty to make provision for the poor. That provision must be more than minimal or tokenistic and must be related to the charity’s aims.
      • Beyond that, the level of provision to be made for people unable to pay the full fees is to be decided by the trustees in the context of their charity’s circumstances. There are no objective benchmarks about what is appropriate.
      • In deciding what provision to make for people who cannot afford the full fees, the charity trustees must act in a way that a reasonable body of trustees would in their charity’s circumstances.
      • If educational charities provide ‘luxury’ or ‘gold-plated’ facilities, it will be even more incumbent on them to demonstrate a real level of public benefit.
      • There are different types of benefits that charities can provide for people who cannot afford the full fees – direct, indirect and wider benefits. All types of benefit can be taken into account (although some may have greater significance than others) provided that the benefits are related to carrying out the charity’s aims.

      NB: Key factors appear to be not being ‘minimalistic or tokenistic’

      All of that and one hasn’t scratched the surface of those schools with entrance exams …

      Moving to your closing points: (1) In the big picture foreign earnings are tiny and are only beneficial to the private schools involved (i.e. without the overseas students they would almost certainly have to close) (2) the biggest example of illiberal activity being pursued by both coalition partners is the dismantling and privatisation of the National Health Service.

  22. John Greenlaw says:

    No idea what relevance comments on the state of the National Health Service have on this site.

    Education has always been a charitable purpose.

    Parliament had not set out in charity law what was the definition of public benefit.

    This ambiguity means that the definition would have to be developed through the courts in a new canon of case law.

    Last year, public schools in England and Wales won a landmark legal battle over how they show their benefit to society.

    A court ruled that the Charity Commission was wrong in some of the ways it made fee-paying schools show their public benefit.

    Before the 2006 Charities Act, public schools were able automatically to claim charitable status, which brings in many tax benefits.

    Since then, the Commission decided that they had to pass a public benefit test, showing they offered a good to wider society, not just those paying fees. This included bursaries for poorer students and sharing facilities with local state schools.

    But the tribunal ruled that public schools could claim charity status if they showed they were offering only “token benefit for the poor”.

    It said: “Once that low threshold is reached, what the trustees [of a private school] decide to do in the running of the school is a matter for them, subject to acting within the range within which trustees can properly act.”

    Education in this country is over politicised.

    The private sector relieves the state of educational provision for 7% of pupils.

    Anyone seeking to end this private provision must indicate how a 7% increase in school places will be provided and funded, and why so to do would not be perverse and absurd.

    • Andy says:

      With regard to my reference to the NHS, if you read the thread in sequence you will readily see the relation to early comments about illiberalism.

      With one or two embellishments your comments are really not that different to mine. Where we differ is that while the action of the previous government to tighten the Charity laws to effectively attack the private school sector – something I disagreed with – the action of the judiciary to not only overturn the changes to charity law but to effectively uphold minimalism and tokenism was equally ill-conceived. I have no issue with parents investing their legitimately earned disposable income to privately education their child(ren) and thus have no issue with fee-paying private schools operating alongside state funded schools. I do have an issue as to how fee-paying schools met and provide for public benefit. Judiciary or not mere tokenism and/or minimalism is unacceptable.

      While I disagree with the position adopted by several contributors, and if 3arn0wl will forgive me, the fact of the matter on funding the 7% is that government could just as easily reprioritise spending (e.g. scrap HS2 would produce an official saving of £32billion which is easily far more than required to meet the funding of 615-620,000 extra pupils).

      My concern regarding private education is the backdoor privatisation of state school provision in the form of academies and free schools (including private firms profiteering from taxpayer funded resources). This is another example of illiberalism within what we cherish as a broadly liberal open and free democratic nation.

      • John Greenlaw says:

        We certainly appear to be in danger of agreement. It will never catch on.

        The government could reprioritise spending but it would have to increase it by 14% to match current spending, 7% private funding removed, 7% more pupils requiring state funding.

        In an overtaxed economy demanding infrastructure modernisation on a substantial scale in order to restore prosperity, that looks to me like a tough, even disastrous, policy to sell. But I say to Mr Miliband: ‘why not give it your best shot?’

        Regarding academies and free schools, the Swedish experience seems to indicate that we must wait a while longer before being able to make an informed assessment:

        I personally view the purchase, in this country, of a decent education within the state sector by buying an expensive house near a good school as a far more damning and illiberal indictment of state provision.

        • John – The Academies Commission (2013) found it’s difficult to come to conclusions about the Swedish free schools programme because Sweden doesn’t routinely collect test and demographic data. The Commission cited the same report that formed the basis of the Spectator article. This report had concluded the Swedish free school programme had improved educational performance and this was driven by the effects of competition BUT the authors (Bohlmark and Lindahl) warned against applying findings from Sweden to other countries because school types and external factors differed.

          The Academies Commission cited Cook (2012) writing in the Financial Times: the improved educational performance attributed to the Swedish free school programme was extremely modest and the slight positive effects were “not very impressive given the scale of the policy intervention.”

          Meanwhile, the Swedish State Secretary for Education, Bertil Ostberg, told the BBC Radio 4 programme, The Report (11/10/12) he was setting up an inquiry into profit-making companies running many of Sweden’s free schools. He feared that bringing in the profit motive resulted in conflicting interests – those of the child versus the needs of shareholders for a financial return.

          • John Greenlaw says:

            The only conclusion I am drawing from the Swedish experience of free schools is that we need a great deal more time before we can really attempt balanced and informed comment on our own academies and free schools.

            I look forward to the results of the inquiry to be set up by Swedish Politician, Mr Ostberg, into the effects of the profit motive on schools in Sweden.

            In a competitive environment, profit drives levels of service. Parents will take their children elsewhere if particular schools do not provide a good service.

            The interests of the child and the shareholder in a successful school should therefore be as one.

        • John

          Re Academies (and implicitly Free Schools also) Janet Downs and others have posted comments based on the growing body of evidence that Academisation does not by and of itself automatically bring about improvements to educational outcomes.
          Internationally the experience of Ontario provincial schools has been that they turned their outcomes around by pairing up weaker with stronger performing schools (e.g. a Canadian equivalent of the Federation approach we used to have). This was a key driver in seeing Ontario scoot up the international tables. Not a private sponsor in sight and no company making a profit from taxpayer investment in their schools estate, fabric, human resource etc.

          With regard to catchment hopping, LAs have a duty to eradicate this when they become aware of it and rather than illiberal activity by the families doing it for me it is more a case of gross selfishness and an abusive exploitation of their fiscal advantage.

          • John Greenlaw says:

            The recent EIU/Pearson report ‘The Learning Curve’ clearly shows up the many and varied routes to perceived excellent educational outcomes, whilst highlighting the often flawed nature of those perceptions.

            Education is an art, not a science, defying prescription and dogma.

            Long live diversity, freedom of choice in a depoliticised educational system.

          • Andy says:

            I agree the underlying spirit of your comments John, but cannot agree that this diversity should extend to the backdoor privatisation leading to profiteering for sponsors. The school, its grounds, staff and resources have been funded by taxpayers. The same public funds that also pay for the ongoing upkeep and maintenance and then along comes a private sponsor to academise the school and rakes off a profit at taxpayers expenses. Ditto Free Schools that are set-up/established by public taxation and yet the sponsor creams off a profit. I have nothing against diversity of approach but every bone in my body screams out against profiteering by privateers. Thus if the profiteering is eradicated we can still have academies and free schools operating alongside comprehensive schools. We could also reintroduce pairing weak and strong schools through federated approaches – let me think about that? Ah, yes, we also used to call it collaboration and partnership.

          • Andy says:

            PS. If I remember rightly the Learning Curve report was also based on results that were largely pre-coalition changes to education.

          • John Greenlaw says:

            I’m not clear why the profit motive should necessarily be a bad thing in education?

            In a theoretical sense, competition drives out excess profits and provides high levels of service, efficiently.

            In the imperfect world that we inhabit, effective regulation prevents profiteering:

            Q554 Katy Clark: There has been a great deal of concern about the US for profit model. Do you think what we are talking about is importing that style of education into this country and, if not, what do you think is being proposed?

            Carl Lygo: The system in the United Kingdom is very different; it is a very different model from the United States. The regulation of the UK sector is very different. I am in a unique position, being owned by a US parent, to see the differences between the US and the UK. We have much more control by the academic peer group in the UK. The external examiner system does not operate in the US. I have something like 39 different UK universities represented within the governance structure of BPP. It is a very different environment from the US, and also the US for profit sector is probably dominated by those who are seeking to serve the open access sector, and that is dominated by the Open University in the UK. It is a very different provision. If you look at the type of student that I have at BPP, it is the ABC1s, so high quality students who are going on to high quality jobs.

            It is a very different model in the UK from the US, and what I would say to the panel members here is that we have to make sure that we maintain a strong regulatory role for the Quality Assurance Agency across the whole of the private sector. At the moment, I am sitting in a team of four private-sector providers that are directly regulated by the QAA, while the 690 or so that are not degree awarding bodies are not being directly regulated. It is quite important that we have that level playing field, as I describe it, as we go forward.

            Valery Kisilevsky: I would like to echo Carl’s statement that we need a level playing field and a common regulatory framework for all providers of higher education in the UK. Some well-publicised risks and failures are associated with the US model. LSBF is a fully British owned company and we take great pride in that and in the fact that we are actively engaging with the Government here to advocate one common regulatory framework. There is greater room for the Quality Assurance Agency to impose a uniform regulatory framework for the sector in the UK, which would help avoid many of the pitfalls that have become known in recent years in the US.


          • Yes, John, that’s the theory about competition but it also has a record of cartel style activities that drives out real competition.

            The main issue for me is not around the academic strand of academy and free school activity – although there are some – rather my concern is about the day to day operation of these schools, which have been funded from the public purse (including the salaries and ongoing maintenance). The sponsor is then either paid a contractual fee for operating the school (e.g. IES in East Anglia) or via some other arrangement. Thus the taxpayer continues to provide the operating capital while to sponsor takes a profit from running the school. For me this is simply wrong.

            It is also of some concern that academy chains that cease to operate do not revert to the state (i.e. maintained sector) but are taken on (sold) to other chains (e.g. the Vardy Emmanuel chain was transferred to ULT when Reg Vardy retired but when diferences in philosophy arose ULT passed them onto another sponsor). Underlying this is that the Vardy Foundation did not pay for the land, building of the school, staffing etc that was paid by the taxpayer.

            Yes, under the Labour scheme sponsors had to front up with a contribution (e.g. average £1m) and even the old SSAT scheme required schools to find £50k but the vast majority of the funding came from the taxpayer. Thus for a sponsor to recoup their investment is one thing to but to operate their chain for a year on year profit in addition to recouping their investment is unacceptable. Indeed, in this context the fee paying sector are up front and totally honest about how private schools a re structured and funded, which simply cannot be said for the (semi) independent state sector.

          • John Greenlaw says:

            “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” and so on and so forth.

            Adam Smith knew a thing or two, I agree.

            His solution to collusion was more competition.

            That is where effective, preferably government underwritten, but independent, regulation has a key role.

            There seems to be a body of opinion that equates profit with greed.

            But people who work generally expect to be paid.

            Similarly investors (including pension funds, of course) who put their funds to work, at risk, expect a return, otherwise the money stays in the bank or under the mattress.

            The idea that independently operated state educational establishments should only ever operate as charities or ‘not for profit’ resonates with many.

            Many of those would also support the removal of charitable status from private schools.

            There are many conflicting views, all strongly held.

            My point is a simple one.

            A competent and effective education sector regulator should be well able to cap profits based on an attractive but fair (sector benchmarked, risk related) rate of return on capital actually invested by the educational operator.

            What this country badly needs is a restatement of the vital constituents that promote prosperity:

            “What is the species of domestic industry which his capital can employ, and of which the produce is likely to be of the greatest value, every individual, it is evident, can, in his local situation, judge much better than any statesman or lawgiver can do for him.

            The statesman who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it.”

  23. Rosie Fergusso says:

    I’m with John,
    Except for his last point…
    Far far more damning is politicians piously sending their children to a state school but ensuring they can get themselves places at the “top” state schools even though the school chosen is not their closest school i.e Clegg and Harman. Pity the poor local child who has missed out on a place because our great rulers have suddenly developed a religion.

  24. Rosie Fergusso says:

    Clegg’s choice of school has 6.4 % FSM compared to the nearby secondaries which have over 44% FSM each. Isn’t it fortunate that out of all the good catholic boys across London striving to get a place Mr Clegg managed to cop one?

    • Andy says:

      One could argue that Cleggie sending his children to a state/voluntary aided school is more egalitarian than sending them to a fee paying school. However, I agree with Rosie that it does seem extremely fortuitous that he – a proud and loud atheist – is able to negotiate access through the rigorous admissions policy of a heavily oversubscribed RC school. Yes, his wife is a practising catholic. Yes, his children are being raised in the RC faith and regularly attend Sunday Mass. But please don’t try and tell me that there are no other families on the waiting list where both parents are active practising Catholics. How must the latter families be feeling knowing they were passed over for a declared atheist? The whole thing stinks (to high heaven) of hypocrisy and political posturing of the worst kind.

      Surely there is a disgruntled catholic family who have been leap frogged by the Clegg’s that could raise a formal complaint over the misapplication of the admissions policy?

      Just proves that you can always rely on the political classes to abuse the system …

      • The children are Catholic, they attend mass and have a supportive Catholic parent. Clegg’s atheism is irrelevant. If you are suggesting that the school is violating its own admissions criteria, you are making a potentially libellous statement for which you have, as far as I know, no evidence other than your own speculation and political prejudices.

        • FJ
          With respect please read my comments more closely. The school is heavily oversubscribed and there will undoubtedly be many families on the waiting list where both parents are practising Catholics and raising their children in the Catholic faith. It follows then that for the Clegg’s to gain a place means that the admissions policy has been misapplied. That is to say that the Clegg’s only have the mother as a devout practising Catholic and the get a place whereas there will be families with both parents devout practising who got passed over. If you go onto the Oratory website and read their admissions policy it states when oversubscribed some of the criteria to be used are whether both parents are RC, whether the child(ren) are baptised, whether the family regularly attend Mass and actively participate in the parish etc. It follows then that if one parent is an avowed atheist this should militate against admission compared to other fully RC applicants.

          Just a thought or two.

          • Andy – the Schools Adjudicator censured the London Oratory for its oversubscription policy. The school gave priority points to parent(s) who had given service to the parish including flower arranging in breach of the Schools Admission Code which says that priority should not be given on the basis of any help to the school, financial or otherwise.

            Hasn’t stopped the London Oratory including the clause in its admission criteria for 2014, though. Sticking two fingers up to the Schools Adjudicator, it appears.



          • Andy says:

            Thank you for that input Janet.

            I wonder of FJ is still following the discussion?

          • Both parents being Catholic is one of the criteria, but there are others. You still have no basis for saying that the Cleggs were given special treatment. it is pure speculation. My familiarity with this school is perhaps greater than you realise.

          • FJ
            We will have to agree to disagree.

            It is however somewhat telling that the school has a record of official rebuke over its admissions that it simply ignores and a track record of admitting children from high profile politicians (Blair, Harman and now Clegg). These factors give rise to concrete concerns about how they apply their admissions policy and the power exerted – directly or indirectly – by high profile parents.

  25. He lives two miles from the LOS. Isn’t that local enough for the LSN?
    I think some people expect politicians to select the worst schools for their children, rather than do the best for them, like any other parent.

  26. Rosie Fergusson says:

    We expect politicians to do what we , mere mortals, have to do which is send our child to the nearest school or take pot luck for a school further away and be prepared for not getting a place . We don’t expect them ( err .. actually come to think of it it’s exactly the sort of thing we expect from politicians) to use influence to procure a place at a better school further away at the expense of local children.
    If we don’t like the nearest school and we fail to get a place further away then we have the choice of going private, which is as it should be.

    • The hypocrisy is worsened when one stops to think that the Clegg’s Putney residence, which FJ rightly highlights is a mere 2 miles from London Oratory, is the second home permitted to MPs whose constituency residence to too far to travel from for daily attendance a the HoC. Thus the Clegg’s could have applied for a place at a local RC school in their constituency.

      I have no issue over applying for a place at a RC school. My issue rests with the abuse of privilege and station to queue jump other RC families on the Oratory’s waiting list.

    • How do you know he ‘used his influence’ to obtain a place? It is a serious allegation to make against a school, so I wonder what evidence you have for this. Like any other school, the LOS has to abide by its admissions criteria, so take care before you make such statements which might be considered to be libellous.
      Furthermore, LOS takes children fro every London Borough, and some from outside London, so two miles is very close. In that sense, it is very comprehensive, with a wide range of ethnic and social backgrounds to be found amongst its pupils.

      • Of course if it were not for the fact that LOS is so heavily oversubscribed this would not be an issue.

        • Why is it an ‘issue’? The issue on these pages is people making unsubstantiated allegations against a school.

    • John Greenlaw says:

      Very much agree.

      We are entitled to expect politicians to follow the nostrums that they urge on the rest of us.

      If they believe in freedom of choice and diversity regarding the education of their own children, then let us hear them standing up for those ideals for the rest of us.

  27. How do you know he ‘abused his privilege’ to obtain a place? How do you know he jumped the queue? It is a serious allegation to make against a school, so I wonder what evidence you have for this. Like any other school, the LOS has to abide by its admissions criteria, so take care before you make such statements which might be considered to be libellous.
    What is the relevance of his Putney home being his second residence? Could he be expected to dump his children in Sheffield and not see them all week?

  28. The latest great idea:

    I’m not even surprised that it’s taken them so long to come up with this cunning plan.

    • Old hat I’m afraid. This concept has been kicking around for a long time. For me it is another typically politicians blunt instrument reflecting the ideological bias of the group promoting it and as such lacks any tangible level of jointed up thinking reducing it to an exercise in ‘kite-flying’ to gauge the public response.

      Isn’t this variation of the voucher scheme what Free Schools were/are supposed to achieve? Aren’t converter Academies a part of the panacea cure all for underperformance? Surely back door privatisation and profiteering are part and parcel of driving up standards too?

      What happened to Federations and linking underperforming schools with high performing schools? Where are all the National Leaders of Education who were forming support Federations to spread their successful formula and structures?

      To introduce yet more “diversity” is a positive spin on creating even more chaos to an already complex and deeply parlous situation.

      Tellingly, where is the think tank’s thinking about the impact of a parental rush to take children out of “unpopular schools” and place them in better schools. What follows is by no means intended to be an exhaustive list:

      1. The negative impact on staff and relocation?
      2. The cost to taxpayer of bailing out a school that ceases to be viable?
      3. The logistical issues for popular schools that need to rapidly expand (e.g. accommodation, teaching resources, managing staffing increases)?
      4. The potential negative impact on the learning of existing students during the interim period of growth of roll before all the issues at (3) above are addressed?

      In the case of parents who take the opportunity to self-finance the difference between the voucher value and the actual school fees. This has all the potential to create a nasty Pandora’s box of surprises – not least for the taxpayer should the scheme be withdrawn by a new government of different political persuasion …

    • It is a great idea: choice!

  29. Yes, FJM is still following the discussion, and waiting for a response regarding the allegations made against the London Oratory School.

  30. MMA training young children keeps them personally active for extended periods of time. There’s really no competition, no options to stock, dispatch or transport.

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