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Private Schools and Labour’s “Class War”


Pupils at EtonTristram Hunt’s speech at Walthamstow school on 25th November has had a hostile reception from the right-wing press. The Daily Mail echoed a private school head’s cry of “Offensive bigotry” and says that the proposals are a “threat to private education”. The Telegraph warns us that “Tristram Hunt has resorted to the politics of class envy” and says that “Labour’s attack on private schools is both vindictive and impractical”.

So far, so good, you may be thinking. If so you would not be alone. The speech has been widely welcomed in Labour circles even by some campaigners for comprehensive education. The Guardian joined in the chorus of approval with an editorial on the matter:

Mr Hunt’s recognition of the social injustice embodied by educational privilege is welcome… Not every independent school could run an inner-city academy. Some already do. But more of them could certainly do more than, say, invite local schools to the A-level art exhibition. …Tackling entrenched privilege is nothing to do with the politics of envy. This move could be a small step towards a fairer society.

What’s not to like. Right-wing press screaming “foul” and a left-liberal paper applauding the social justice of it all. Has Tristram Hunt, despite everything, got something right? The answer to that has to lie in what he actually said and not in the reactions it provoked. Let’s not forget that the Guardian is stuffed full of private school products who also, including its editor, send their children to private school. Let’s remember too that Tristram Hunt will not rule out sending his children to private school. It is also worth noting that not all right-wing comment has been equally vitriolic. Thus Isabel Hardman in the Spectator objected to the proposals for merely being “pointless”.

Here, in summary form are the key points from the Walthamstow speech.

Britain is a country divided by inequality. Labour seeks to overcome these divisions and restore a sense of a shared national mission. We must break down the divisions in our school system. Private schools produce more than 50% of people in top jobs and get the lion’s share of places in the top universities. Cameron talks about “spreading advantage” but Labour wants more than “crumbs off the table”. Our task is to improve state schools and we mustn’t let old divisions get in the way of this. Private school teachers are trained by the state and the schools get tax breaks of £700 million in the course of a Parliament, so now we want something back. We want them to help the state schools. We want a new settlement between state and private schools. We are not interested in arguing about the politics of charitable status. We don’t want to isolate private schools but to bring them into partnership with state schools.

Labour Government will amend the Independent Schools Regulations to require clear commitments to working with the state sector. All private schools should provide qualified teachers to help to deliver specialist subjects in state schools, assist with expertise to help get disadvantaged state school kids into top class universities, including Oxbridge and all run joint extra-curricular programmes where the state schools are an equal partner. It is not enough to make sports fields available. Private schools should play in the same games leagues as state schools.

Private schools should run summer schools; sponsor academies; support the training of qualified teachers in subject knowledge; assist in the running of state boarding schools; run mentoring and enrichment programmes, lead teaching school alliances, tap into alumni networks for careers and work experience; nurture character; and prepare disadvantaged pupils for challenging university interviews.(You can download the full text here.)

It perhaps does not take great analytical powers to see what is proposed here is not the overcoming of inequality but rather a way of managing it. This is the Disraeli model of one nationism which Tristram Hunt has done so much to promote. Disraeli’s solution to national division was not the removal of inequality but in the mutual recognition of the different classes with each knowing its place. In particular he put his hopes in the aristocracy as the nation’s natural leaders and in the respect that the working class would accord them if they exercised their responsibilities appropriately. As the lead character Charles Egremont expresses it in Disraeli’s famous novel Sybil or The Two Nations:

The new generation of the aristocracy of England are not tyrants, not oppressors … Their intelligence, better than that, their hearts, are open to the responsibility of their position … They are the natural leaders of the People … believe me they are the only ones.

It is really extraordinary that Labour should claim such antecedence for its one nationism. And the point here is that it is exactly this approach which is clear in Tristram Hunt’s proposals for a private school-state school partnership. The policy is predicated on the continued existence of a private/state divide. It therefore accepts selection on the basis of wealth as inevitable and unavoidable. Like Disraeli it seeks to ‘overcome’ the class divide not by overcoming the distinctions of wealth on which it is based by by accepting then and then trying to get some crumbs from the table – exactly what Tristram Hunt asserts he is not proposing. As Melissa Benn said in her book School Wars a cross-party consensus has emerged

… that far from being a thorn in the side of state education, private schools should lead the way in shaping the development of the public sector, sprinkling its poor, benighted state-school-siblings with some of its glittering DNA.

If this is class war then it is one fought with celery sticks and funny paper hats i.e. it is a jolly jape from which everyone emerges unharmed and doing what they were doing before before the fun. As Frances Ryan put it in a New Statesman article:

Maintaining the private versus state school divide is like giving one child a stick and another a sword and acting surprised when the stick snaps in two.

It is also worth doing a little arithmetic regarding the £700 million clawback ‘threat’. According to the Independent Schools Council Census for 2014 the average fee paid for all types of private school was £15,00 p.a. The number of children in such schools is given as over 500,000. That gives an income from fees alone (there are other sources) of over £4500 million. Set against this the clawback (£700 million over five years) amounts to less than 2% of the income stream from fees. Not enough to frighten the horses.

Despite the talk of mutual benefit from private school-state school interaction all the talk of leadership is in terms of public schools showing state schools what to do. What Tristram Hunt proposes is nothing other than a reinforcement of the private-state divide through setting up a system that both presupposes the division and offers a justification for it. This shows just how far Labour education policy has drifted in a direction set by the Tories under the leadership of first Stephen Twigg and now Tristram Hunt.

It is time for every one interested in the future of a comprehensive system of education for all to tell the Labour Party through every means at their disposal, through letters, emails, resolutions and generally by making the case wherever possible. Much help is available for doing this from the various organisations campaigning for a better future for our schools. These include the Labour Party affiliate The Socialist Educational Association, the Campaign for State Education, the Anti-Academies Alliance, Comprehensive Future. All their websites contain a great deal of information and the SEA is making much material from recent meetings available (including audio files).

(Declaration of interest. I manage the SEA website.)


  1. Robert says:

    Tristram Hunt lets see yes sound about right the problem is of course the schools he went to and the school I went to, his political out look and mine and the fact is he’s Progress and to the right and I’m labour and to the left.

    says it all really.

    1. David Pavett says:

      You cannot blame someone for the circumstances of their upbringing. You can blame them for not having questioned the ideas that come with that upbringing – and that is true whatever one’s class background.

      1. Robert says:

        I can blame right wing Progress people within Labour and I do, this bloke has not got a socialist bone in his body.

        I will blame people who are to the right and I do not care if he was born on a council estate or in a palace.

        The whole party has been infested by right wingers from the Progress right.

        Labour has lost it soul due to people like him and Reeves and Blair and the rest of them.

        If I want to vote for right wingers we have the Liberals and the Tories.

        1. David Pavett says:

          Okay, but what about the substance of the article, as opposed to using it as a peg for general statements which say nothing about the specific points raised?

  2. Peter Rowlands says:

    An excellent analysis, but it is not clear, to me at least, what it is that David is exhorting us to tell the Labour Party. Is it that ultimately private schools and socialism are incompatible then fine, but if it is that abolition of private education should be a manifesto item now I would disagree, and I doubt if David would see that as realistic either. But if not then surely there are measures that a Labour government could commit to that did challenge the private schools. Two occur to me. One is to return to the matter of charitable status and end it, yielding far more than the rate relief proposedby Hunt. Another is to restrict the entry of pupils from private schools to top universities to the proportion of the total number of pupils who are qualified ( This would now mean at least 3 A grades at A-level? ). I’m not sure of the figures here, but it would I think mean far fewer at Oxbridge than is now the case.

  3. David Pavett says:

    Thanks for the comment Peter.
    I am certainly of the view that socialism and private education do not mix. On the other hand socialism, as you imply, is not in the frame for the 2015 election.
    I think that ending private education is not a matter of a simple decree but that a widespread understanding of its social harm has first to be created. That will not be the case for the next election. Therefore I did not call for an election promise to abolish private schools.
    What I think that I did argue is that (1) Tristram Hunt’s proposals are in no sense “class war” and that (2) his proposals would actually provide a justification for private education through the “help” that it gives the state system. I think that approach should be rejected.
    The next manifesto should simply remove all subsidies for private education in the various forms of tax relief. No conditions, just remove them. So yes, we are agreed about that. I agree also about entry into HE being determined purely on the basis of appropriate qualifications. I would also like Labour/Tristram Hunt to call time on the elitist obsession with “top universities”. If we want all schools to provide high quality education then we should demand no less of all our universities.

  4. James Martin says:

    The last Labour government and Gove tried this ‘partnership’ approach to a certain extent with parts of the academies programme of part-privatisation. So for example you had one of the first Labour academies like Fulwood in Preston (sponsored by Sir Charles Dunston of Carphone Warehouse) remove the previous headteacher (and all the previous governors) and replace them with an experienced Head from an independent school and governors that included the likes of Rebekah Brooks. The place went into free-fall and then Special Measures despite having millions poured into it and a brand new state of the art building.

    And that’s the thing about Hunt’s ‘policy’. It assumes (wrongly) that the independent sector is automatically ‘better’, whereas in my experienced having witnessed various teachers from ‘leading’ indie schools at close quarters most wouldn’t last 5 minutes in a ‘normal’ school.

    But what Hunt also ignores is what indie schools are really there for. Yes, many of the smaller ones are just attempts of individual owners to make a fast buck in what is nothing more or less than a business. But the larger ones, normally run by ‘charitable’ trusts are different. What do people really believe happens when you have schools who charge £30 – £50k per year per child? Yes, of course you are going to get a very good academic and sports related education with all those resources thrown at it (very small class sizes etc.), but also what you get at these places is the ruling class renewing itself in a quite blatant way. It is no accident at all that nearly all judges, generals and top civil servants, or for that matter ministers in all the main parties, went to an indie school. It is no accident that the people at the top of the big boardrooms and in the City institutions and banks nearly all went to an indy school. And it makes me laugh when some of the more daft elements on the anti-establishment left talk about secret conspiracies ala Bilderberg. There is no secret conspiracy in this country when it comes to power and its concentration in the hands of the ruling class as it is built on the very open and in plain site independent schools in this country – and that is why Hunt, like other Labour education office holders before him, is so utterly wide of the mark when it comes to what we really need to do as socialists with these vile places.

    1. David Pavett says:

      I agree with both your main points. Privatisation is not some distant prospect which may or may not happen at some time in the future. It is happening already as this TUC study makes clear.

      You are right to that no conspiracy theory is needed to explain what is being done in the full light of day. Labour’s most radical thought is to ask the ruling class to show the lower orders how to do things in return for tax breaks for holding on to their privileges. You couldn’t make it up.

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