The End of Independent Education?

Continuing with our theme of inequalities in education, King’s Think Tank recently held a debate on the motion: “Independent Schools should be Integrated into the State System”. The event went ahead despite snowy conditions, although one speaker was unable to travel. This left Mr Michael Pyke, Press Officer for the Campaign for State Education (CASE), with the task of proposing the motion on his own. He was against the formidable team of Mr Charles Fillingham, Headmaster of Francis Holland School, and Dr Eamonn Butler, Director of the Adam Smith Institute. The debate was chaired by King’s Think Tank’s own Bertie O’Brien.

The format was a series of ten-minute speeches, followed by an opportunity, extended to each speaker, for rebuttal and summary. A pre-debate vote on the motion was taken, and the audience came out 6-7 against the motion, although a good proportion were undecided.

Michael Pyke defined “independent schools” as schools that charge fees for students to attend and be educated by them. Integration, unlike straightforward abolition, would not shut down schools that are currently independent of the State. The policy of integration is defined as “making it illegal for schools to charge fees”. It is therefore perfectly possible that schools such as Eton, Harrow, Rugby, or Marlborough could continue to operate; but they would be funded by the Government, not students.

The debate

The speeches were fascinating, and the audience were treated to a wide range of perspectives. Michael, standing in for his intended partner Aaron Reeves, informed the audience that students at independent school were 94 times more likely to get into Who’s Who (a list of influential people in British Society) than those who had attended state school. The “elite caste” system created by independent schools is not only difficult to break into, but difficult to fall out of (they create a “glass ceiling” and a “glass floor”). This is unhealthy and unmeritocratic, he said, which is a good reason to remove the fee-paying principle.

In opposition, Charles Fillingham argued that there is no need and no demand for integrating private schools, and no gain from doing so. State and private sectors form independent systems of education that work very well – making it illegal to charge fees would not improve education quality in the UK. There is no demand because many fee-charging schools offer exceptional education: 50% of parents would send their children to private schools if they could (only 7-9% of children actually attend private schools). He cited a study showing that attending an independent school, such as his own Francis Holland, was worth an extra 2 years of education compared to state schools. Finally, there could be no gain to British society by the policy recommended today. Independent schools contribute over £3bn to the economy, including relieving the financial burden on the state of educating an extra 7-9% of its student population.

In his second speech Michael argued against Charles, and stressed that the private school system causes a highly unequal distribution of educational resources. Far more money is spent on the education of a child in a private school than in a state school. Whilst independent schools purchase prime property and land, state schools are having to sell off their playing fields to save money. And not only do independent schools attract many of the best teachers, they also attract many of the best students, according to Michael. He said that students are a crucial resource of any school: the student body is responsible for the academic, musical, sporting, and dramatic culture of a school. Siphoning off many of the best students into elite schools is unfair and has a detrimental effect on the education system as a whole. He cited Finland as an excellent example of a fully comprehensive system in which the resources of education are evenly distributed, and Finland routinely tops rankings of global education systems.

Rounding off the main speeches, Eamonn Butler brought his politico-economic laissez-faire perspective. He argued that, not only should independent schools not be integrated into the state system, but that the entire education sector should be privatised and marketized. He claimed that privatisation would bring healthy competition to education, raising standards and providing parents with real choice on how their children are educated. He made the analogy between education and other goods that we happily privatise: shoes, cars, and so on. 

The main speeches were followed by a heated to-and-fro between the speakers as they attempted to rebut arguments put forward by the opposing team. Michael argued that the analogy between clothing and education is misguided; whilst it may be acceptable that some individuals wear expensive clothes, and some do not, it is not acceptable that some children are given a high-quality of education whilst others are not. According to Michael, Kent is one county where the effects of inequality in education are borne out: students who are not privately educated or who fail to get into grammar schools are left with extremely poor life chances. Eamonn replied that Michael’s vision was an “identikit”: a politically managed school system that left no opportunity for competition, difference, or choice.

Saving Michael from talking a fourth time, the chairperson (Bertie O’Brien) took on the role of missing speaker Aaron Reeves; in his speech he put pressure on Charles Fillingham to justify the fact that parents can effectively buy their children a place in the elite of society. How, he asked, is it fair to the children of those parents who cannot afford private education, or who do not care enough about their children’s education to pay high fees for their schooling? Charles responded, stating that, although there is a clear problem of fairness in British education, the policy of integrating independent schools into the state system is not the correct solution. I suspect many sympathise with this point of view, which is perhaps why the issue has little political traction in today’s politics.

Questions, the final vote, and post-debate discussion

A post-debate vote was taken, and the audience voted 9-9 on the motion. This constitutes a marginal victory for the proposition, which won three votes, against the opposition, which only won two.

Audience members were then able to ask questions of our speakers, and following this there was an opportunity to discuss the topic further informally, at the local pub The George. In personal communications, the speakers have informed me that they found the students at King’s remarkably engaged and intelligent (more so than students at Oxford or Cambridge, according to one speaker). We would like to thank the speakers for coming to King’s and providing us with a fascinating debate, and to those who attended the event and raised the quality of discussion with their level of enthusiasm. 

Bertram O’Brien is a postgraduate student in Philosophy at King’s College London. He previously completed a BA degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at The Queen’s College, Oxford University. He currently works in the Schools team at the EdTech company MyTutor.

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