Owen Jones: Private school parents are wasting their money

Academies and free schools miss the point - and they're deeply damaging

Share

Our comprehensive schools are under attack and barely anyone in public life is defending them. As part of an ideologically charged campaign to strip the state of all but its most basic functions, the Tories are fragmenting the education system by building a patchwork of privately run free schools and academies. Forced into retreat, champions of the comprehensive ideal have adopted a purely defensive posture. But it's time to stage a counter-assault. The case has to be made that we need to drive all forms of segregation and selection from our education system. And it will take some courage, but the idea that differences in educational achievement are purely down to the quality of the schools has to be challenged, too. Class is largely to blame: but it is almost completely absent from the debate.

It is a case that Labour has failed to make: the Government can boast that it is merely building on the policy foundations laid by New Labour. And now, there are worrying signs the Tories may be building a new consensus. Ed Miliband has handed the shadow education brief to arch-Blairite Stephen Twigg to the obvious delight of Education Secretary Michael Gove. "On the basis of everything that he has said so far," he crowed "I think there may be a real change in the Labour Party's approach towards the issue, so I encourage him on the path of virtue and say no more."

It marks a dramatic turnaround for the party that unleashed the comprehensive schools revolution. New Labour's leading lights often claim Tony Crosland, the standard bearer of the party's post-war social democratic right, as their own. But he was a passionate advocate of comprehensive education. "If it's the last thing I do, I'm going to destroy every fucking grammar school in England," he supposedly told his wife. "And Wales and Northern Ireland."

Alongside the tireless education campaigner Fiona Millar, I took the case to enemy territory this week: City of London School, which charges over £13,000 a year in fees – or nearly two-thirds of the median pay-packet. Despite a spirited defence of private education by Eton-educated Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, a show of hands revealed that far more pupils had been swayed by our arguments. If we can win the debate there, we can win it everywhere.

Separating children on the basis of their parents' bank balances denies children the opportunity to mix with others from a whole range of backgrounds, fostering divisions at the earliest age. What's more, private schools are a form of taxpayer-subsidised class privilege: because they are absurdly granted charitable status, they save up to £100 million in tax breaks.

But the key point I made to the City of London boys was that – as well as being unable to grow up with kids from non-privileged backgrounds – their parents were wasting money. Above all else, it's class that determines how well children do at school. This August, a study by the OECD unsurprisingly found that privately educated students did far better than those at state schools. But it also found that those with middle-class backgrounds did just as well at comprehensives.

My own experience backs it up. My primary school was in the bottom 5 per cent by results: I was the only boy to end up at university. That's not because I was naturally brighter, but because I had odds stacked in my favour: university-educated parents, an environment free from the stresses that poverty can impose on everyday life, a comfortable living space, and so on. It's a horrible expression, but "cultural capital" – in part, having middle-class parents with degrees – gives you a massive head-start whichever school you go to. A recent study in Scotland revealed that, by the age of five, children with better-off, degree-educated parents have, on average, a vocabulary 18 months ahead of their poorer classmates. No wonder, then, that another study looking at middle-class children sent to inner-city comprehensives found most "performed brilliantly". Indeed, 15 per cent of those who went on to university ended up at Oxford or Cambridge. That's why academies and free schools completely miss the point. But they're also deeply damaging. Academies are not accountable to local authorities; it's claimed that their results are rising faster than other schools, but – except for maths and English – they don't release a breakdown by subject.

Free schools are an even greater threat. Drawing inspiration from Sweden, where they were introduced in the 1990s, they are taxpayer-funded schools set up by private individuals or businesses. And yet according to the OECD, Sweden has slipped back significantly in literacy, maths and science throughout the noughties.

If we're going to look to a Nordic country for inspiration, it should be Finland. It has no league tables, no selection, few private schools, and free school meals for all. It also has the best performing education system in the world. But it also has another key ingredient: far lower levels of social and economic inequality. Ending the segregation of our children would be good for them and for society. But if we really want to transform education, we have to wage war against our society's ever-growing economic divisions. The obsession of New Labour and the Tories in tinkering with school structures is a damaging distraction. If the consensus on education is to be taken on, the comprehensive dream and the struggle for equality must go hand in hand.

Owen Jones is author of 'Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class'

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Riyadh is setting itself up as region’s policeman

Lina Khatib
Ed Miliband and David Cameron  

Cameron and Miliband should have faith in their bolder policies

Ian Birrell
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor