LSN readers may have been a little puzzled by headlines yesterday, including in the Guardian, proclaiming ‘Soaring state schools threaten private sector.’
It is not often that a Guardian lead story risks sounding like a Tory press release or a Toby Young blog but this is certainly one report that begs rather more questions than it answers:
Who or what was the source of this lead story?
The chief source is the much quoted Ralph Lucas, owner of The Good Schools Guide ( available on subscription), the education bible of the upper-middle classes.
While many newspapers and the BBC report that Lucas is an Eton educated hereditary peer, fewer mention that he is a Conservative and that according to the UK Parliament website he is listed as a member of the Tory group in the Lords - a rather crucial omission given the underlying politics of the story. LSN has written previously about the political leanings of the 12th Baron.
Which schools is Lucas talking about?
Safe to say that Lucas is not referring to schools in the AET chain, many of which have been recently criticised by Ofsted, nor indeed to some of the excellent comprehensives in impoverished areas around the country.
Media discussion of the new, improved state sector concentrates on those in wealthy, urban locations, such as my old school Holland Park or Toby Young’s West London Free School ( which has yet to produce a single set of GCSE results), schools which operate in highly favourable circumstances in relation to everything from admissions to resources to government support and, of course, media publicity.
Are private schools really on the run?
Soaring fees, in a time of austerity, have produced a lot of grumbling about the burden on parents who choose the private sector.
But this is nothing new. Exactly the same stories were run in 2009 but without the pro-government gloss.
Then as now, those private schools most affected are small and medium sized establishments outside London, forced or welcomed (take your pick) into the state sector under the free schools and academy programme.
Soaring fees have clearly not affected the sector as a whole, particularly at the elite end.
According to William Richardson, general secretary of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, which represents leading independent schools, ‘pupil numbers are currently at record levels in private schools.’
Last May, the Independent Schools Council said 517,113 pupils were at UK independent schools, the highest level since records began 40 years ago.
Can the government really claim ‘soaring’ success for its schools policy?
Ralph Lucas is widely quoted as saying that he had been ‘put off sending his own children to the state sector in the 1980s after seeing pupils using drugs and fighting at state schools in west London.’
Leaving aside the fact that dinner- party-style anecdotes have no place in a front page news story, this was at the height of the Thatcher period, when resources and government support for state education was at an all time low, and most Tories wrote off comprehensive education asa form of impossibilist idealism, producing only mediocrity.
Historically speaking, the Tory Party is a truly shockingly late arrival to the idea that non-selective schools can succeed and the party currently risks returning us to the grim old days of widespread selection with its foolish plans to expand grammar school education.
Lucas does at least acknowledge that the belief in the potential of all children is the work of several generations.
Despite this, the DFE has gleefully jumped on the Tory peer’s comments, claiming in yesterday’s paper that they are a ‘ringing endorsement’ of its policies.
In truth, they are a pure propaganda gift to government at a time when most agree that state education is facing a perfect storm in the face of a growing crisis of teacher retention, recruitment and demoralisation, impending funding cuts and widespread alienation as a result of a new, far narrower curriculum.