As you read this, delegates will be arriving in Brighton for the annual Labour Party conference. Now, I usually steer clear of political debate, however, one item on the agenda for debate in Brighton is particularly dear to my heart and I suspect yours too. John McDonnell, Labour Shadow Chancellor, intends to throw his weight behind the “Abolish Eton” debate and has, this week, declared that, “private schools don’t need to exist”. He has supported the motion put forward by the campaign group Labour Against Private Schools, which is calling for independent schools in England to be stripped of their charitable status (in financial terms this will mean they lose their discounted business rates), have limits placed upon their pupils’ entry to university, and for their assets to be used by the state education sector. Added to this Labour also wish to add VAT to school fees.
John McDonnell’s core argument seems to be that the English educational system is unequal and that an integrated educational system would remove these inequalities. And in part, he and I are in agreement. The British educational system is indeed unequal...there is a massive difference between the best performing schools and the worst performing schools but, don’t forget, some of the biggest inequalities are to be found in the state educational system where the difference in quality between the best and worst performing schools is a gulf of epic proportions. Where we differ is how we feel this should be addressed. John’s view is that we should destroy the best schools and create a level playing field of mediocrity. Meanwhile, I believe that it is the responsibility of the Government of the day to put investment, an appropriate inspection regime and support in place to enable all schools to achieve at the highest level.
My biggest fear with this campaign is that a future Labour government would pursue this policy and, in doing so, not remove inequality but instead create an averagely lack-luster educational experience, at the same time as removing parental choice. We live in a democracy and one where people are currently able to make their own choices and exercise free will. The ability to make these choices enables people to create a better life for themselves and their families by choosing to spend money on the best education available if that’s what they chose to prioritise. To destroy the independent educational system in our country would not remove inequality but would remove parental choice and we should be prepared to fight for this liberty.
If the papers are to be believed, I suspect that we have a general election on the horizon. As the parties set out their stalls there will be emotive issues to be debated and of course Brexit is perhaps the most emotive of them all. However I for one will not be taking my eye off the ball of private education. It is not for me to tell you either how you should vote or, indeed, how I will vote. However, I will tell you this...I have no intention of being the proverbial turkey voting for Christmas and I have no intention of allowing any politician to take away my freedom of choice in how I choose to spend my money or educate my children.
John F Gilmour