The Berlin Wall Manifesto: For politicians serious about private schools

Last month the New Statesman ran a series of articles looking at the “Berlin Wall” divide between private and state schools. The headline essay was by historian David Kynaston, and his son George, who worked as a teacher in a Birmingham state school. Looking back over the past 60 years or so, they berated Labour for failing to deal with inequities between the two.

Respondents such as Andrew Adonis, Anthony Seldon, and I, gave our own thoughts. Adonis, for example, suggested private schools should enter the state system through academisation. I recommended we follow India and require privates to freely provide 25% of their places via random lottery.

Michael Gove also jumped in. He made a speech lamenting the “The Berlin Wall” between private and state schools, & also arguing it must be brought down. (Though it was a bit more rhetoric than reality). He also wrote a follow-up NS article in which he taunted Labour’s failure to grasp the problem, then completely neglected to address my policy suggestions.

But, worst of all, was the disappointment of Tristram Hunt. So far he has been entirely silent on the affair somewhat proving the Kynastons’ right that Labour’s lack of courage on this issue betrays their alleged left-wing leanings.

Subsequently, George Kynaston and I emailed one another, disappointed by Labour’s reaction and wondering how we could push politicians to be more serious. Gove can make endless speeches, but it’s pointless without action. Continued silence from Hunt is unforgivable.

George suggested that only if all the suggested policies were adopted would “The Wall” even begin to shift. He outlined them in one of his emails, and I agreed.

So, here is our Berlin Wall Manifesto. It’s for politicians serious about bringing it down. If they really want change, they will sign up to everything. Not just the soundbites. Not the favourites of their voters, or donors, or next door neighbour. ALL OF THEM are needed. Anything less is cowardice.


The Berlin Wall Manifesto: For Politicians Serious About The State/Private Divide

  1. Require private schools to sponsor at least one academy, and/or work in partnership with an academy provider, giving access to facilities and staff.
  2. Allow private schools to convert to state school status through the Free Schools & Academies Programme
  3. Make private school charitable status conditional on freely offering 25% of places via random lottery to the most vulnerable children. No academic selection allowed.
  4. Weaken the link between private schools and top universities by providing the highest GCSE scorer in each state school the opportunity to take a guaranteed interview at their choice of Cambridge, Durham or Oxford.
  5. Disclosure of private schools’ accounts to give full details of bursaries, charitable activities and their impact.
  6. Agree to take part in a Cross-Party Commission dedicated to finding the most practical way to fully implement these policies.

Are some of these difficult? Sure. Are they impossible? No. If we really want to, all of these could be implemented. So from now on any politician making claims about private schools will find me sticking this in front of them and looking for agreement. If serious, they’ll agree. If not, we’ll know that “The Berlin Wall” was a disappointingly convenient soundbite.

Related Posts:

Let The Private Schools Take 25% At Random

What I Learned From Writing About Grammar Schools

33 thoughts on “The Berlin Wall Manifesto: For politicians serious about private schools

  1. A few people have made comments on Twitter re the Durham inclusion. It’s not because I went there, or because I’m trying to be diplomatic, or other such guff. It’s because they interview as standard and I thought young people who live in the North and didn’t want to have to move super far away would appreciate the option.

  2. I don’t understand the logic behind requiring private schools to sponsor an academy. Would this be all private schools, including the naff ones?
    Seems to reinforce the concept that only private schools can offer a decent education, so we have to spread their influence more. Makes me feel that state school kids need to know their place as second class citizens.
    I say this having spent 36 years teaching in state secondary schools.

    In most cases private school is about buying privilege for your children, and keeping them away from “oiks”. This is usually countered by some who say that anyone could pay for private education and “my cleaner mum scraped together £30,000 per year to send me to Eton, because she cared about me. Anyone who cared about their children could do the same!”.

    Getting private schools to sponsor academies is about making private schools feel less guilty about keeping the plebs in their place.

    1. Ian…so, I felt similarly to you on this initially. In fact, my NS article made a similar sort of point. George talked me down though, and I think for good reason.

      I don’t for a second believe that all private schools are better than all state schools. BUT, I do believe that they almost always have better facilities and *often* capable staff who have more time (due to teaching smaller classes and lighter timetables), and – in some cases – expertise. This is why I put the ‘and/or’ in my statement, though. So that it could be defined.

      I don’t mean ‘sponsor’ in the hard sense of being the leading charge of the school. I mean in that they should at least partner with an academy trust or a maintained school and open up access to these things. It doesn’t mean they get any *say* in the local school – but why not ask for this level of access to their goods if they are getting a tax exemption?

      This isn’t about letting anyone “feel good”. It’s about the fact that if you are a charity you have some responsibility to act charitably. So let’s make that defined. And then let’s require it. Not because it’s “good” but because it’s the least we should expect.

  3. I can see both operators and parents who would be more than willing to relocate just over the borders away from your suggested manifesto. The future of English Public Schools will be on the French, Belgian, Irish or Dutch Coastlines or Even in Scotland. That’s a lot of cash to leave the country! It would look like an evacuation, all the refugee children forced to leave their own country.

      1. They don’t need to leave the country, just send the kids a week at a time. Its not the tax hikes they want to avoid it would be to avoid having a class of 25% lottery place winners.

  4. I was recently at a conference in Pakistan where most of the delegates represented chains of private schools. They all seemed to have a real issue admitting that anything they were doing could be improved upon. They were also very keen to do down the state sector. On reflection of course this isn’t surprising, it’s in their commercial interest, but it had never struck me so clearly before.
    I don’t know English private schools well, do you think there is the same reluctance to engage in open dialogue (and willingness to denigrate state schools) in private schools here? If not, why not and if so would the adoption of your manifesto help to improve the situation?

  5. Why should a private operator engage with the state?
    If the state wishes to learn from private providers then they will have to pay along with all the other private school stakeholders.

  6. Laura: Thanks for this, and I’d really like to have a conversation with you on the subject sometime….

    The Tristram Hunt situation is worse than you think if the recent reports of his making claims that independent school staff have an ‘easy life’ are reliable. Teaching and leading in independent schools is tough, but just tough in a different way from teaching and leading in state schools, in my opinion, based on having done both. The worrying thing about TH taking this view is that it betrays a lack of understanding of the reality of the independent sector. This lack of understanding isn’t uncommon – I see it in Ian Taylor’s comment:

    “In most cases private school is about buying privilege for your children, and keeping them away from “oiks”….Getting private schools to sponsor academies is about making private schools feel less guilty about keeping the plebs in their place”

    too (from my experience of the sector this is a gross distortion and simply not true of the motives of many who ‘buy in’) – but it’s worrying when such lack of understanding comes from the shadow Sec of State for Education.

    I would disagree that all independent schools have the capacity (financial and in terms of human resources) to sponsor academies. Most independent schools are nothing like the wealthiest, better known schools that can do this and many of the smaller, less affluent schools (which exist in fee income alone) I really don’t believe could manage it. Some are struggling just to keep afloat in the current climate.

    I do believe in partnership – but it needs to be partnership from which all parties benefit. Independent schools do have some thing to bring to the table, but there’s much they can take away from it too. Any model that sees the sector as the ‘experts’ from which others can benefit really doesn’t get it!

    1. He didn’t say it was easy everywhere – he was responding specifically to a comment about Brighton College, and he said that it was easier to be a teacher in a class with 10 children than being a teacher in a class where there are 30 students with complex needs including SEN or difficult home lives. Even accepting that private school children may commonly have SEN or difficult home lives too, I think he’s right that it’s easier to teach 10 than 30.

      So yeah, his commenting when looked at as quips was not smart. But looked at in the round, there’s an important point he was making.

      In terms of ‘sponsoring’ academies – there is no cash requirement. It is literally just about working in a partnership with a chain, so that there is access to the facilities and expertise. And yes, that cuts both ways.

      1. Many thanks for the clarification about the context for the TH comment, Laura.

        Re: academy sponsorship, I recognise that it isn’t just about financial commitment, but I do think the human resources/capacity issue is still significant. I was the head of an independent school in Bedford, part of the Harpur Trust group of schools, and we sponsored an academy during my time there – at the stage where you DID have to make a significant economic investment too, but the Harpur Trust had the ability to do that. I was absolutely convinced that it was the right thing to do, but I do remember how much work was involved, and I know that many freestanding independent schools just wouldn’t be able to manage this.

        I DO think that all independent schools should commit to partnership, but think this should be flexible in terms of the form it takes. It should be substantial and strategic rather than ad hoc, but I think this would enable schools to build on current good practice and move forward from there. (There’s a lot of good work already going on, which is a start). Again, both parties should benefit. The focus shouldn’t just be on the independent schools ‘giving access to facilities and staff’. It should be about sharing expertise and learning with and from each other, with teaching and learning at the heart of the activity. I think this would be a better starting point for the manifesto.

  7. I think how you approach private schools in the long term should be driven by a philosophical/political underpinning – rather than on pragmatism. We have state education, in which we invest a large amount of money. This is a political/philosophical statement, even if aspirational at the moment, in that we want all people to have access to life changing education. I do not think that the state should subsidise private education; I do not think that private schools should have charitable status. It follows that I do not want private schools partnering or sponsoring, or helping, state schools – I want state schools not to need such a thing. Private schools may have excellent facilities (and may always have better ones than state schools), but I don’t want that to matter to state schools. Private schools serve, perpetuate and encourage elitism in society. I want all our efforts and thoughts to be targeted at improving life chances in the state sector; I am happy to leave the private educational sector to its own devices. People should be free to choose private education, but the state should not encourage it; instead the state should be seeking to make the choice between state and private education difficult, even if the parents have lots of money.

    1. I think previous speakers emphasis on philosophical/political arguments is correct.I am afraid it seems to me to be incredibly naive to think any manifesto as described is helpful.It misunderstands essentially the divided society we live in.Furthermore it sanitises a continuance and justifies both sectors.More radical argument is needed.We may consider in its richest sense that education is a good thing for our young people but current offerings are far from this.Private education is about entitlement -if you have money you get it if you don’t you won’t .This is not an approach I can view as acceptable!

      1. But “if you have money you get it if you don’t you won’t” doesn’t take into account the significant number of independent school pupils who access it through financial support schemes, most offered by the school themselves.

        I do understand the philosophical/political arguments against independent schools – and presumably those who are against them are also against private health. But to be pragmatic, I would say we are where we are. Integrating all private school pupils into our state system wouldn’t be possible. Independent schools do actually SAVE the government a significant amount of money be educating so many pupils. Where do we go from here?

        What do you think, Laura?

        1. I’m with you Jill on the “we are where we are” – if the only road to go down is “get rid of them”, and that simply isn’t going to happen given the many philosophical, legal, financial, etc, problems then I’m not willing to stand there and say “SORRY BUT THAT’S THE ONLY OPTION I AM WILLING TO ACCEPT”.

          Ultimately, there are a million ways to shrink the divide. The ones offered here are the, I think, the best. That’s why I’d back them.

          1. Laura, that piece was fundamentally about selection on the basis of ability, it wasn’t about private vs public. Your objection to private (in that piece) was to do with segregation by ability, and that dissolved when you saw that the private sector might be happy to take randomly selected students in assisted places schemes. I don’t have an issue with private education, per se, only with them being a mechanism for propagating elitism. The state sector should offer an education in such a way that there is no need to engage with the private sector – state education should be for everyone. The state currently subsidises private education through charitable status…I don’t want the state to do that…and am not interested in making the private schools give back to the state sector as a price for charitable status. I want the state to concentrate its resources into the state sector.

          2. People get quite worked up about charitable status but the Independent Schools Council has interesting statistics about how much money this is in real terms, compared with how much the sector saves the government be educating so many children. (And yes, I know the ISC would say that!)

  8. Yep…for me it’s not really about the money, so much as the principle…and the need for a coherent policy….no mixed messages about what we want to achieve for state education….we want to make it as good as possible (and should be able to leverage scale advantages with respect to coherence of aims, I think…although I have no idea how…)…..

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