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The rigged private school sector must be abolished

Private schools serve to maintain the status quo and the old boys’ network. Teacher ROBERT POOLE explains why the AbolishEton campaign is seeking to bring such schools into the public sector

NEXT week we are about to have foisted upon us as prime minister yet another public schoolboy — most likely Boris Johnson, the 20th British prime minister to be educated at Eton. Or the head boy of Charterhouse Jeremy Hunt. Both products of the old boys’ network. 

Nearly every prime minister in British history has had connections to the private school sector. 

This is why last week we launched a grassroots Labour Party campaign calling for class war against the class-ridden system of private education which pervades Britain. 

Our campaign, @AbolishEton, is already supported by a number of high-profile MPs including Ed Miliband, Laura Pidcock and Clive Lewis, and is calling for a radical shift in Labour Party policy on private education.  

When I started teaching in 2011 I did so because I wanted to make a difference to the lives of young people. 

I jokingly used to say that I was saving the world one disadvantaged pupil at a time. I honestly thought that if I worked hard enough then the day would come when no child’s educational success is limited by their socio-economic background. 

Yet here we are in 2019 and academic achievement is still largely dictated by parental wealth.  

As Holly Rigby, a fellow state secondary school teacher and campaign co-ordinator for Labour Against Private School points out, “There is no justification for the fact that young people’s opportunity to flourish and fulfil their potential is still determined by the size of their parents’ bank balance.”

I have worked for my whole career in state schools in some of the most deprived regions of the country.  

My current school has 40 per cent of pupils eligible for free school meals and draws its intake from one of the top 1 per cent of the most deprived wards in the country.  

There are pupils coming to school having not eaten, exhausted having spent the night awake caring for parents, unable to concentrate due to the stress and worry of their home lives. 

In my lessons I teach that by hard work, grit and resilience these pupils can achieve anything; but as I tell them this I also realise that I’m probably lying to them.  

Although only 7 per cent of UK students attend private schools, the Sutton Trust’s 2019 report revealed that 65 per cent of senior judges, 52 per cent of junior ministers, 44 per cent of news columnists and 16 per cent of university vice-chancellors were educated at private schools. 

Children at private schools have 300 per cent more spent on their education than children in state schools. Yet at the same time we are seeing massive cuts to school budgets. 

My own school is estimated to have lost out on over £1 million in funding since 2015 at a time when due to austerity these young people need help more than ever. Private schools on the other hand benefit from facilities to rival the best hotels and spas — sports fields, swimming pools, drama theatres. 

One argument often levelled against the call for equality in education is that these private schools share their facilities with local state schools. 

But until they also start sharing the old boys’ network as well this will be nothing but a sticking plaster, a token gesture to ensure they maintain their charitable status.

One argument charged at the campaign is that we need simply to raise the standards of our state schools to the level of private schools. Make every school an Eton. 

The issue does not just revolve around resources though. As Laura Pidcock, shadow minister for business, energy and industrial strategy and a key supporter of the campaign, said recently: “While the privately educated are given a hand up into the most powerful positions in society by their friends in the old boys’ club, talented, working-class people continue to be met with slammed doors.”  

The other argument is that, in a democratic society, you should have the freedom to choose how you educate your children. If they choose to pay for their education then who are we to take away that right? 

But I say what right have you to give your child an unfair advantage over mine simply because you have more money? 

The pupils attending private schools already have many other advantages. This is our opportunity to level the playing field. Not by dragging everyone else down but by raising all up. A rising tide lifts all boats. 

The next argument is that it is the politics of envy. Why are we jealously coveting the success of Eton? When Eton college was founded more than 600 years ago by Henry VI it was written into its charter that all pupils should be poor boys drawn from the local community.  

Now, only 1 per cent of all pupils are on 100 per cent bursaries. Meaning that those from the most deprived households are not getting access to these private schools. In truth, we simply want to return Eton to its traditional roots.

There would be a financial implication to the country but nowhere near as much as our critics suggest. Our aim is to integrate these schools into the state school system. 

That would mean teachers retaining their jobs and the state system having access to lots of previously exclusive resources. 

Our campaign aims to get a motion passed at the Labour Party Conference later this year which would commit the party to integrating private schools such as Eton into the state sector. 

Although this would not be binding, it would become party policy, until the next general election. The motion will set out three aims: 

  • Withdrawing charitable status and all other public subsidies and tax privileges currently enjoyed by these institutions, including business rate exemption. 
  • Ensuring universities admit the same proportion of private school students as in the wider population (currently 7 per cent) and for endowments. 
  • Redistributing investments and properties held by private schools democratically and fairly across the country’s educational institutions.

Fellow campaigner Steven Longden, a Manchester secondary school teacher, Trafford councillor and executive member of the Socialist Education Association, would like to see a move towards a system similar to that in Finland. 

Finland, often held up as a beacon of education, made it illegal to charge for education and all schools are comprehensive with no selection of pupils allowed. 

The Labour Party holds equality as one of its core values, and as socialists we are fighting for a country that works for the many, not the few.  

An inclusive education system should be a key part of this. Seeing this motion be debated and pass at Labour Party Conference this year would be the most radical shift in the party’s rhetoric towards private education in a generation, if not in the history of the party. 

With the most left-wing Labour Party this century we could see party policy shifting towards one which would ensure a transformative and irreversible redistribution of resources and power in our system. 

This would establish the party as not just one of anti-austerity but also one which is a serious challenge to the Establishment.

Robert Poole is a campaigner for Labour Against Private Education, NEU member and secondary school geography teacher from Bolton who has spent his career working in some of the country’s most deprived regions. Twitter: @Robbmoster @AbolishEton.


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