Comment Blog 26 June, 2024

Tackling private schools is not a silver bullet for education

Rosie Beacon
Research Manager and Head of Health

As surely as night follows day, discussion of private schools is almost guaranteed to elicit a strong reaction among the political class. With Labour’s pledge to remove the VAT exemption on private schools, this often emotive debate has reared its head once more in the general election campaign.

The received wisdom is that private schools perpetuate inequality while state schools fight it. But this assumption fails to capture the more profound problems with educational inequality in the UK.

There is undeniably a case for scrutinising the role of private schools in shaping the upper echelons of power in Britain. But a focus on private schools obscures the fact that there are plenty of excellent state schools in the UK which give many private schools a run for their money in educational outcomes. And these outstanding state schools are often disproportionately populated by pupils from more privileged, high-income backgrounds in the same way private schools are.

Rather than paying for school fees each year, parents will opt to pay for a more expensive house close to an excellent state school. Houses within the catchment areas of London’s Ofsted-rated Outstanding schools cost 20 per cent more than the city’s average. Parents with the income or wealth to do this are much more likely to be well educated and employed in well paying jobs. In turn, excellent schools become full of students who already have numerous educational advantages within the home, rather than those who have few.

It is well established that a person’s family background, and not just the quality of education, is extremely influential in a pupil’s access to the top occupations. These pupils have a better knowledge of routes to high earning careers and access to impressive networks. All the while, the values attributed by parents to work affects young people’s ambitions. Young people whose parents showed them that work and money are connected have a clearer and more concrete ambition to become economically independent.

Indeed, even as the state/private school balance has improved in Oxbridge applications, over 80 per cent of places at these two universities are given to people in the two highest socio-economic classes, a revealing piece of information on the demographics at high-performing state schools.

Fewer than 3 per cent of entrants to grammar schools are entitled to free school meals — an important indicator of social deprivation. Research conducted by the Sutton Trust in 2013 found that in local authorities with a selective state school system, 66 per cent of children who achieve Level 5 in both English and Maths at Key Stage 2 who are not eligible for free school meals go to a grammar school. This compares with 40 per cent of similarly high achieving children who are eligible for free school meals.

But it should be said, the data on this problem is limited. To truly understand the scale of inequality within the state system, there needs to be a comprehensive analysis of house premiums next to high performing state schools. State schools need to stop being homogenised in data from university admissions. It is far more difficult for a student from a ‘Needs Improvement’ state school to become socially mobile than it is for an ‘Outstanding’ state school, but it’s impossible to see this in the current data.

And the VAT exemption policy itself? On the one hand, it may well help under performing schools — the £1.4 billion raised from the VAT would be used to hire more teachers. There is certainly something to be said for finding innovative ways to raise money for public service expenditure given the difficult fiscal context, though Labour’s pledge to hire 6,500 teachers is small fry considering the overall size of the teacher workforce is 468,371. This would amount to a 1.38 per cent increase.

But it’s also true it could end up making already oversubscribed state schools even more competitive if students leave private schools and seek the next best option in the state sector. It is not clear how likely this is to happen: demand for private school places has not reduced even as fees have increased in recent years. Interestingly, it could mean some private schools convert to state schools which can be a massive value add for the state system, as Liverpool College demonstrates.

Reheating tired debates on private versus state education does very little to improve the experiences of those at the sharp end of the system. Whatever the outcome of this policy, it will not solve any of the more profound problems within education.