This week’s Labour Party Conferences voted for a promise to ban private schools, committing the party to "integrate" independent schools into the state sector. Whilst the policy may be popular with Labour members attending conference, it has come under fierce criticism from commentators.
Around 7% of all school-age children in England attend private schools, though they are unevenly distributed by age; among pupils over 16, more than 15% are at independent schools. Despite being a small minority, private school leavers are highly overrepresented within certain high-level occupations – such as politicians, judges and journalists. They also dominate higher-tariff universities.
Labour says such overrepresentation means change is needed: the abolition of private schools and caps on the number of privately educated students admitted to “elite” universities such as Oxford and Cambridge. Would these changes really mean a fairer education system? I believe the answer is “No.”
Those from privileged backgrounds benefit not only from a private education but from social capital, “polish” and family connections. None of these would be removed due to a change in the name of the school they attend or who pays for the education they receive.
It is important to remember that the state-funded section of the education system is not equal and does not enable all students to receive an outstanding education. For the 93% of students who attend state funded schools, it is highly likely that the income, or more accurately the wealth, of your parents will influence the school you attend.
School admissions are based on postcodes and catchment areas – whether you can attend a good school and benefit from good teaching is based on whether or not your parents are able to buy a house within the catchment area of a good school. The SMF’s 2017 Commission on Inequality in Education found that more experienced and highly-qualified teachers gravitate to schools whose children come from wealthier families, leaving children in poorer areas with lower-quality teaching and thus widening the gap between them. The commission recommended giving heads in poorer areas additional resources to attract new staff.
Research has shown that the average price of a house within the catchment area of a school with an ‘outstanding’ Ofsted rating (1) is £331,605. That’s 13.2% higher than the cost of a home near a school with an Ofsted grade of 2. On average it costs £38,000 more to buy a house near an outstanding school than a good one. The figures may be even higher in more expensive parts of the country such as areas of London and the South.
If parents who have the means to pay school fees can no longer send their children to private schools and must instead chose among state schools, how will they respond? The risk is that by abolishing or integrating private schools into the state system the current house price premium associated with living in a catchment area of an outstanding school increases. This does very little to address the inequality within the education system. Indeed, it may even increase it. Labour’s policy is unlikely to end a situation where parents’ financial position helps to influence the quality of education young people receive.
So how do we change the admissions process to enable equal access to a good (or outstanding) education?
There are several options for reform, one is random allocation. School admission lotteries assign places to oversubscribed schools using a random ballot rather than simply relying on catchment areas or proximity to the school. There are a small number of schools across the country that use this method, however it is most commonly associated with Brighton and Hove, where a hybrid catchment lottery has been used for over a decade. Early evidence suggested that the reform was unlikely to substantially lower social segregation, in part due to the continued use of catchment areas.
Research conducted by the Sutton Trust in 2007, showed that when given a scenario of an oversubscribed comprehensive school, nearly as many people think that a ballot is the fairer way of deciding which pupils get a place as those who think it is fairer to decide on how near families live to the school. When presented with a more abstract description, people were less positive about the allocation method – highlighting the importance of messaging.
A pure lottery system that does not rely on catchment areas is likely to be highly unpopular with middle class parents. Whilst a Labour government may be happy to ban private schools, would it be brave enough to remove the link between house prices and school quality for the parents of the 93%? And will a Conservative government take social mobility seriously enough to act?
Until real strides are made in ensuring schools are funded correctly and additional capacity is created, and there is increased uniformity in the quality of teaching, the banning of private schools or even randomly allocating students will still cause those from more privileged backgrounds to benefit the most from our education system. It is a simple fact that there are inequalities in the education system, but there are no simple ways to fix that.