Labour announces plan to abolish private schools: the road to meritocracy or a socialist pipe dream?

This year’s annual Labour Party Conference unveiled plans for numerous socialist-leaning policies, such as a pledge to move the nation to a 32-hour working week, to provide free personal care for over-65s, as well as scrapping prescription charges. Yet, there was one policy which created the most controversy, one policy which cannot go ignored- a call to ‘integrate’ private schools, and their immense assets, into the state sector- essentially a process of abolishing all fee-paying schools. Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, claimed that “the ongoing existence of private schools is incompatible with Labour’s pledge to promote social justice”. In an attempt to relieve Britain of its infamous ‘old boys network’, the party proposes to redistribute private school assets, remove their already questionable charitable status and tax exemptions, whilst also placing a 7% cap on the proportion of private school students a university can accept. If Labour swept to power, this would undoubtedly be the most radical educational policy for decades, an immense form of phased nationalism, forcing our oldest private institutions in the hands of the state.

The possible end to Britain’s prestigious public schools (that’s a farewell to the likes of Eton, Harrow, and Charterhouse) will ensue extensive backlash, which will undeniably threaten the proposal’s success. The Independent Schools’ Council has already criticised the proposal for being an “ideological distraction from dealing with the problems of education,” whilst Prime Minister Boris Johnson also accuses the party of pushing for a “long-buried socialist ideology”. It is hardly surprising that those who have and continue to benefit from privatised education are the first to slam Labour with accusations of mere ideological motive. Despite the obvious lean towards socialism, Labour must be given credit for offering a bold solution to the frightening level of education inequality in the UK. 

However, Labour is still left with a plethora of foreseeable impracticalities. Most notably, the huge influx of 600,000 pupils that would supposedly move across to state schools, a strain which would cost an extra £3.5 billion a year for such schools, bringing potentially unpopular tax increases to the wealthy: a move which could cost them an election. In fact, recent polls demonstrate just how unpopular this policy is, with 50% opposed to the idea. Even if Labour did manage to get the electorate on their side, complexities regarding the ‘redistribution’ of assets for independent schools would certainly arise, a reality that could see legal battles over ownership and rights lasting years. Lastly, universities are expected to feel uneasy about the proposed 7% cap, which undeniably threatens their autonomy from the state. All these obstacles inevitably paint the proposal as increasingly unlikely to be put fully into practice.

Perhaps Labour needs to be this daring if it wants to combat the widespread elitism which is so prevalent in our universities and top-paying jobs. A fact ultimately stemming from private school privilege. The statistics certainly shine a huge floodlight on the desperate state of the UK’s social mobility: only 10% of employees in elite occupations (finance, law, and areas of media) are from working-class backgrounds, and those who make it to this level will, on average, earn 16% less than their privately educated colleagues. Removing these socially exclusive institutions could be a monumental step towards greater social mobility, but perhaps a step that is also simply too jarring with the values of most Britons. Instead, it could be proposed that Labour put greater focus on more ‘electable’ ways to alleviate education inequality, such as providing free childcare, giving universities and employers higher quotas for low-income applicants, and of course, pumping our failing state schools with the funds they have been so deprived of by consecutive Tory governments. It is these achievable policies that should surely be at the foreground of ridding our society of private school elitism.

Izzy Tiffin

Image: Geograph.