As the Major government limped to its destruction at the hands of New Labour in 1997, it played a few final cards in a desperate bid to cling on to the political hegemony established in 1979. There was the famous New Labour, New Danger poster, which only served to illustrate that, even with the eyes of an infernal horror from the lowest pits of hell, Tony Blair still looked a more plausible leader than any Tory. Policy-wise, perhaps attempting to recover from the spectacularly minimalist Cones Hotline-style gimmicks, there was to be ‘a grammar school in every town’, a truly audacious promise to reverse the greatest structural change in English education since the war.
It would be wrong to suggest that grammar schools are written into the DNA of the Conservative party – Margaret Thatcher was the education secretary who closed the most, often at the behest of Tory councils whose voters were suspicious their children weren’t going to get into them – but to be in favour of selective schooling, either state- or privately provided, is not a sin in the Tory party, while within Labour it is the Ultimate Heresy. Aside from the NHS, nothing unites a Labour party meeting faster than a denunciation of selective schooling, especially if it is paid for directly by parents, whereas the Tory party is led by the privately educated, and aspirations for selective schools are considered healthy, perhaps even praise-worthy.
Which makes it all the more interesting that the current Conservative government, despite the educational storm and fury of the past four years, has not only made no move to expand grammar schools, but has actually presided over the elimination of numerous private schools, which have entered the state-sector as academies. Though undoubtedly committed to traditional Tory educational values, Michael Gove has explicitly justified himself as seeking these things for the many, not for the few. Much of the upheaval in education has been a result of the education secretary’s determination that his curriculum and qualification convictions should be felt by every teenager, not merely by the privileged.
In such an educational environment, in which both the major parties are committed to the provision of excellent non-selective education for all young people, it seems very odd that the Sutton Trust should commit itself so forcefully to a new version of the old assisted places scheme. Yet last week, on the back of research illustrating that privately educated young people have access to higher earnings over the early career, the Trust essentially advocated exactly that: the state should fund needs-blind admissions to leading private schools for the most able pupils.
The idea that the answer to England’s educational woes (and they do exist) lies in providing golden tickets to a lucky few is profoundly misguided, and rests on some very faulty assumptions. The first is actually revealed in the report itself: although the earnings premium for private school pupils is trumpeted as being nigh on £200,000, taking account of social background and prior attainment it comes in at just over £60,000, or about £300 extra per month over the early working lifetime (26 to 42). That is not nothing, but it hardly seems enough to justify an outlay of several hundreds of millions on the Open Access plan.
Second, there can be little reason for assuming that the answer to a state/private earnings gap is to have thousands of young people abandon the one system for the other, rather than examining what about the private system causes its products to be more successful. Cristina Iannelli of the University of Edinburgh has recently produced research suggesting that the earnings differentials for pupils attending selective schools are a result of the curriculum on offer. In short, the academic curriculum is not only appropriate but also necessary for all children to have a chance of social mobility. It should not be necessary to send young people to fee-paying schools to deliver such curricula, it should be their right to access it in the schools their parents’ taxes pay for.
Open Access is an unnecessary way forward for England’s education system. Already, we have in place the tools by which the excellent practice found in many private schools can be shared with the state sector. Already, some state schools match and exceed the success of parts of the private sector. Some private schools are becoming academies, other leading public schools are sponsoring academies. The pioneering London Academy of Excellence in Stratford, where I will be working from September, is supported by Brighton College, Eton, Caterham and others, sharing best practice in both directions. Bridge-building, not lifeboats, should the foundation for stronger links between private schools and the state sector.
John Blake is a teacher, writer and co-editor of Labour Teachers
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