Defending the indefensible? Some modest arguments in defence of a radical proposal

Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College, published a pamphlet with the SMF this week titled Schools United: Ending the divide between Independent and State. He spoke about the proposals at a launch event with us this morning and Andrew Adonis, former Schools Minister, responded.

Both in the advance coverage and today, there was strong opposition to Seldon’s stance. This blog discusses some of the most powerful criticisms; and suggests that their force is limited.

But first, a recap of the proposals:

1. State schools should emulate the best features of independent schools such as house systems, boarding, longer school days, uniforms and greater parental involvement.

2. Independent schools should bond with state schools, from shared teaching and facilities to sponsoring an academy or setting up a free school.

3. Independent schools should open their doors and offer a quarter of their places to those from the least affluent quartile in the country.  This will guarantee the students benefitting would be only those from the least privileged backgrounds.  The government grant would be capped at a maximum of 50% above what it would have paid for the child to attend state school.

4. Popular state schools should be means tested.  Families earning over £80,000 a year, should contribute financially for their children to go to a popular state school.  The more the parents earn, the more they must pay.  If families earn over £200,000 per year, they should pay the full price of their children’s education at popular state schools.  Fees at the most popular state schools should be the same for the affluent as the fees charged at independent day schools.  This ‘parent premium’ for those households earning over £200,000 per year will generate surplus funds – a quarter of which would be retained by the school themselves, while the rest is redistributed amongst state schools at large.

While the first and second proposals may be seen to be going with the grain of previous reforms, the third proposal is very significant; we are doing further detailed work on this with the Sutton Trust and so I won’t go into it here.

It’s the fourth that has been the most controversial. Here are the key objections to it; and some notes on why the objections don’t quite work.

1. There is a right to free primary and secondary education

In this respect, primary and secondary education aren’t the same as higher education. But nothing Seldon proposes would remove the right to free education. Most state schools would be free, which is to say funded entirely through general taxation rather than fees. There would only be a limited number of top performing, highly popular state schools where parents would face the prospect of fees. They could pay those fees or enrol their child in a different state school where there are no fees. The right is not lost.

Arguably the exercise of the right may become more difficult, eg. if all the schools in your neighbourhood are top performing and highly popular. But it’s not obvious that the right to free education is a right to free education within a specified distance from your home; and in any case we could lift the bar for fee-charging status over time, ensuring this state of affairs doesn’t arise. It would be a nice problem to have if too many state schools are top performing and highly popular.

2. Parents are already paying taxes to fund schools

There are two ways to read this argument. It might be saying that there is enough money in the schools budget already raised from general taxation; and we don’t need anymore. This might be true, the schools budget has been ring-fenced from spending cuts. But of course there are more spending cuts to come, several years of them. And we also know that independent schools have much more resource than state schools; and some of that extra resource presumably does some good. This first reading of the objection doesn’t really get us anywhere.

The second reading is that it’s unfair for parents to pay fees on top of taxes. It might be, but the fees would be optional in that parents could send their children to a school that doesn’t charge fees. And we already have top up fees in a number of other areas: NHS prescriptions, court cases, express passport services. Are all the fees unfair or is there something particularly unfair about fees in education?

3. These fees punish aspiration

If families have worked hard and done well for themselves and now they’re seeking the best school for their children, they shouldn’t be punished for this. Yet the purpose of the proposal just like the purpose of income taxes isn’t to punish anyone. The purpose in this case is to increase resources for state education and provide with some level of priority more opportunity for children from disadvantaged backgrounds to enter top state schools too.

Those feel like legitimate objectives and shouldn’t be swept aside in order to introduce a pejorative accusation of ‘punishment’.

4. Parents have already paid for access to these schools via higher house prices in the catchment area

This is a description of the housing market rather than an objection to the proposal. House prices are higher near tube stations too but I don’t see what relevance that has in a discussion about rail fares. At the very least the premium Seldon is discussing for top state schools goes into the schools system.

5. The proposal will push parents to send their kids to independent schools instead

The point is that, if they have to pay for a state school, then they may as well pay for an independent school. This point has some force and a negative impact might be felt in the state school system through the departure of talented pupils from wealthy backgrounds as well as the withdrawal of the parent power from these families.

There will be some countervailing pressures though. On Seldon’s proposal, top state schools will have fees plus state funding, so they could out compete many if not most independent schools. Already the very best state schools are better than many independent schools; the added fee income will allow standards to keep rising. Equally state schools not yet in the top bracket will have an added and significant financial incentive to get into that bracket; and their efforts may suck in students who would otherwise have gone to independent schools.

None of these effects are guaranteed, neither the positive nor the negative. Seldon’s proposals need further analysis and development. What he has proposed is controversial but it doesn’t succumb easily I believe to the leading objections. The possibility he poses of cutting through the years of austerity ahead and getting higher competition and standards all round deserves some further attention.


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