Phasing Out Elitist Education
Phasing out private and grammar schools in the UK is essential if the increasingly cross party call for ‘equality of opportunity for all’ is serious. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission's, "examination of who gets the top jobs in Britain today found elitism so stark that it could be called ‘Social Engineering’". Private schools, educating 7% of the nation's pupils, provide:
71% of senior judges, 62 % of senior armed forces officers, 55% of Permanent Secretaries, 53% of senior diplomats, 50% of members of the House of Lords, 45% of public body chairs, 44% of the Sunday Times Rich List, 43% of newspaper columnists and 36% of the Cabinet.
In the state sector “less than 3% of students attending grammar schools are eligible for free school meals, whereas the average proportion of pupils entitled to free school meals in selective areas is 18%”. This disparity is caused by wealthier parents pushing up house prices in the catchment areas of grammar schools whose head teachers also point to the use of private tutors to pass entrance tests. Over four times as many children attend grammar schools from private feeder schools than children on free school meals.
In December 2015 the Commission reported that, "despite many welcome initiatives, the current policy response – by educators and employers as much as governments – falls well short of the political ambition. The gap between rhetoric and reality has to be closed". Yet the Commission goes quiet on private and grammar school reform.
Perhaps the public's love of 'choice' when deciding how to spend their hard earned money argues against phasing out of private and grammar schools? These survey results suggest otherwise:
- When asked in the 2010 British Social Attitudes Survey, “should the quality of education be the same for all children, or should parents who can afford it be able to pay for better education?” 61% of respondents thought it should be the same.
- 2013 research by YouGov found that 78 per cent of the public in Great Britain thinks that “it should be the government’s job to ensure that rich and poor children have the same chances”.
Those who buy private and grammar services console themselves with arguments that help them to justify their continued use. The most common of these arguments are outlined and challenged here:
1. The state’s comprehensive system encourages mediocrity.
Qualified teachers are required to effectively differentiate work for each student in their classroom. In order for a teacher in the state sector to be judged as 'good' or 'outstanding' they must demonstrate this, including stretching and challenging the most able students.
2. Phasing out private and grammar schools would mean the most affluent would simply create their own "elite" within the state system.
This phenomenon can be addressed by ensuring that any school judged ‘good’ or 'outstanding' by Ofsted be required to reserve places equivalent to the percentage of students eligible for free school meals within their local authority.
3. What really matters is class size!
Department for Education evidence shows that a smaller class size does have a positive impact on attainment and behaviour in the early years of school but that this effect tends to be small and diminishes after a few years.
After three decades of rising wealth inequalities and with clear evidence about the negative impact private and grammar schools are having on social mobility, now is the time to expose the assumption that 'choosing' to use wealth to access schooling is a fundamental right. Surely, any right predicated on wealth should not be allowed to supersede the right to equality of opportunity.
- Turn all private and grammar schools into non-fee paying, non-selective state schools over a period of 5 to 10 years. Finland managed this in 8 years.
- Increase government spending per child to at least the higher North West European average.
- Any government funded school judged to be ‘good’ or 'outstanding' by Ofsted should have a legal duty to reserve places equivalent to the percentage of students eligible for free school meals in the local authority. This will enable poorer families to overcome house price barriers around successful schools.
 p10, ‘Elitist Britain’, Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, Cabinet Office, 2014.
 p5, ‘Poor Grammar: Entry into Grammar Schools for disadvantaged pupils in England’, The Sutton Trust, 2013.
 ‘Grammar schools segregate children by social class’, Professor Diane Reay, 2015. http://classonline.org.uk/blog/item/grammar-schools-segregate-children-by-social-class
 p6, ‘State of the Nation 2015: Social Mobility and Child Poverty in Great Britain’, Cabinet Office, 2015.
 p3, ‘Elitist Britain’, Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, Cabinet Office, 2014.
 P350, ‘Private schools, choice and the ethical environment’, LSE Research online, 2014.
 p2, ‘Class Size and Education in England: Evidence Report, Department for Education, 2011.
 P215, Education at a Glance, 2014, OECD Indicators.