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An End To Apartheid Schooling
The Guardian, January 11th, 2002

If the government wants to tackle social division in education, it's got to get tough with private schools

Jack and Chloe are going to school. They're packing their satchels and pulling on their John Lewis uniforms. When once these children may have walked up the road to their local state primary, now they're driving to a private pre-prep. The number of children going to "independent" schools has risen in the last year, to about 7% of the total school population, despite record fee increases outstripping inflation. The government itself predicts that the private school sector will grow steadily for the next 10 years. Already, more than half a million middle class children are opting out of the state school system. The government response is to try to tempt them back. This week the education secretary, Estelle Morris, announced a "100m schools for the future" scheme. One purpose of the "launchpad" schools is to encourage more professional people to put their sons' and daughters' names on the register. Other carrots to those opting-out middle classes, still a minority, have included city academies, city technology colleges, and specialist status schools.

But the point of no return has been passed, and no amount of bribes will bring the likes of Jack and Chloe back. Even some families with distinctly modest middle class salaries now struggle to fork out fees, averaging 6,250 per annum, for their child's education.

This belief in bought-for education is not rational, so nothing can counter it. No amount of "proof" that they've got a good chance of getting three straight As at the excellent local comprehensive will make these families enrol Jack and Chloe there. Some parents don't even make a perfunctory tour of their local state school before deciding upon which - often distant - independent institution they'll send their child to. The presumption is that if it's state, it can't possibly be good enough.

In a bid to counter the "my Jack's too bright for an ordinary school" argument, the government introduced a 29m programme for "gifted and talented" children, appropriately known as "G&Ts". There are after-school clubs, masterclasses, and summer schools for the exceptionally able. But the government is wasting its time trying to second guess what would make these parents commit themselves to state education, throwing away millions on initiatives which mainly benefit the majority of middle-class families who do refuse, or are unable, to opt out. Instead, children should be brought back into the state system by pulling away the safety net. Private schools should be abolished.

It doesn't have to happen in one fell swoop. First, charitable status could be removed from Britain's 2,400 private schools. This has given the independent sector considerable tax benefits, including no income tax, no corporation tax, no capital gains tax, no inheritance tax and preferential business rates on properties. Without these benefits, parents would have to pay a realistic price for the small class sizes and swimming pools they expect. It would no longer be a case of simply sacrificing that winter skiing holiday for the sake of Chloe's education; the house in Hampstead or the Wirral would have to go as well. And, as a bonus, state education would benefit from the new tax raised.

There is huge reluctance by government (double the national average of privately-educated) to implement even this simple measure. Presumably the risk of alienating the middle-class electorate is felt to be too great. But as with the gradual removal of tax relief from mortgage interest payments, measures that seem to be directly targeted against the middle classes rarely produce the feared suburban semi-detached backlash. With the prospect of private fees at least doubling, many of those who have recently flown from the state system would simply be forced to rejoin for financial reasons. Slowly, the private sector would wither away.

There might be a reactionary rump, a few dedicated to allowing their children to exercise the Harry Potter option whatever the cost and whatever the alternatives. Such entrenched attitudes are difficult to shift. Electronic whiteboards, cyberspace libraries and a laptop for each teacher will not buy them over to the wonders of the local secondary. But such a tiny minority holding on to such an outdated view on the right to exclusivity would increasingly appear absurd, as redundant as the royal family. Once private schools were reduced to such insignificant numbers, they could be easily, quietly closed down.

The benefits would be enormous. Education would become something we all shared, equal stakeholders in its quality and worth. Education could be effectively and efficiently planned on a national basis, in the knowledge that every child would go to a local school.

Early this year, Estelle Morris announced that tackling social divisions in education would be her priority. But as long as there's a subsidised fee-paying option, those divisions will flourish. Half a million mostly white, well off children will not be schooled alongside their peers, a form of educational apartheid. It's no longer any good just offering carrots. It's time to reach for the stick.

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