Is it time to force private schools to become free schools?

Francis Gilbert's picture
As Finnish education expert, Pasi Sahlberg, noted it was only when Finland abolished their private schools in the 1970s that the country was able to narrow the attainment gap between the poorest and the richest students. Well, here's an idea for Mr Gove to chew upon, since we've got a free schools policy -- which is flawed in many respects -- why not make the best of it and insist that all our private schools become free schools? At the moment, we've got the ridiculous situation whereby private schools are sponsoring free schools and academies but effectively admitting that their state school counter-parts are "second best" and merely adjuncts to the real "elite" institution, the private school. Of course, they have to make sure that their state school counterparts are second-rate otherwise their fee-paying parents would be up in arms; they wouldn't be happy about paying monstrously high fees if they knew the "sister" state school was delivering just as good education for no cost at all to the parents.

This situation might be  solved if the private schools became free schools. Of course, this should mean that they wouldn't be able to select their pupils by ability or interview -- as they do at the moment -- and that the schools should take their fair share of the local population. Perhaps a fair banding admissions system or lottery could be introduced. Then their wonderful resources would be shared around the country. The evidence from Finland is that when a country does something like this, something approaching equality can be achieved. As long as the private schools remain private, we will always have a socially segregated elite who grab all the resources and top jobs. Alan Milburn's report on social mobility argues that employers should favour state-educated children but this clearly would be "tokenism". If we are going to make our society more equal, we need much more radical solutions. Perhaps Mr Gove's inherently conservative free schools policy could be turned on its head and used to addresss the rottenness at the heart of the English education system: the chronic unfairness of our private school system.

Wouldn't be amazing if Eton admitted children from the local community who are both poor and have special educational needs? Wouldn't be great if Westminster private school admitted some of the most challenging teenagers who live nearby in the borough? Wouldn't be great if Bedales shared it's amazing grounds with other people in the area?


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Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 31/05/2012 - 21:29

Some interesting points but no, this is not the right time.

1. We can't afford it.
2. Why pick something ludicrously controversial when there are many things we could do to very rapidly improve education which are not controversial (such as get Ofsted in line our national standards for inspection and regulation, integrate formative and summative assessment for students up to the age of 14, look at the amount of play we allow our younger children in line with Pasi's key recommendation, etc. etc. etc).
3. There's no general desire for this.
4. We need to sort out local management of and accountability for education so the Free Schools structure is not a stable one in the long term. Finland has strong local management.

Ben Taylor's picture
Thu, 31/05/2012 - 22:09

Could just (re)introduce state sponsorship of intelligent pupils to public schools

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 31/05/2012 - 22:38

Why? That's the policy which rapidly created loads of really horrific sink schools in the 1980s like the one I went to, which is why it was stopped.

I take it you didn't go to the kind of school where no academic teaching was going on at all and the wise teachers helped their classes sneak out of school early to help them avoid getting beaten up again on the way home or the answer to your own question would be obvious to you.

Perhaps you think it doesn't matter since the Free Schools policy is designed to reintroduce lots of sink schools anyway?

And no - a sink schools isn't one where only 30% of students get 5A*s to Cs in a tough area. It's a school where the children stay off because it's fundamentally unsafe to be there and there's virtually no teaching going on and the adults condone this because they would too.

Ben Taylor's picture
Thu, 31/05/2012 - 23:04

The children and adults who make it unsafe need to be removed using physical force if necessary. It's simply the operation of English Law as envisaged 100s of years ago.

So you still need the peer group effect of the intelligentmiddle class in order to run any kind of decent working class school? Can't we start having proper safeguarding and public order? There are enough working class people ready for a return to the old norms.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 31/05/2012 - 23:10

I think you and I remember the old norms differently Ben.

What are your memories of the norms for the multi-generational unemployed? In my experience most of those who are going to prison don't get banged up until they are at least 16 and they cause a lot of bother in schools along the way. And yes, it's often the parents with self-confidence in society who blow the whistle and it's also those parents who take advantage of the offer of free places for their children in public schools.

You think this stopped being the case because 'society grew out of this' rather than because the scheme was shut down and lots of policies were introduced to prevent sink schools occurring? Why do you think that Ben?

Ben Taylor's picture
Thu, 31/05/2012 - 23:18

I remember working class people who took any old job going rather than expect to live on benefit. Actually I still know people like this. They are still the the unrepresented people. They want good schools that will teach their children and give them a chance.

Not sure about how much credit to give Labour for school improvement. Certainly some good things but too many bad ones including neglect of the working class.

If you want to put your money where your mouth is open up your own elite job to anycomer. Or are you an elitist? Actually since you no doubt had to jump through some signficant hurdle to become a head of maths I think you deserve to be protected to some extent.

I don't want to de dominated by the rich but the solution lies in rigourous education for the poor.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 01/06/2012 - 06:31

"I remember working class people who took any old job going rather than expect to live on benefit."

What happened to those who couldn't get work Ben? And what happened to the disabled, the old and the single parents of several children? All the pits shut. Town after town were completely unemployed and all the supporting employment went to. Where are they now Ben? How many are unemployed now? Perhpaps you think everyone who is unemployed is unemployed because they can't be bothered to get out of bed in which case I very strongly suggest you go out and talk to some real people.

"Not sure about how much credit to give Labour for school improvement. Certainly some good things but too many bad ones including neglect of the working class."

Schooling was carefully planned at the local level to ensure every school was successful. Funding went up in general which help. Many specific interventions were planned to reach groups of children. Excellence cluster money was used to intervene to protect small top sets in schools which were in danger of becoming sink schools. A close and well funded eye was kept on the worst potential sink schools. Substantial effort was put into the national numeracy and literacy strategies.

"If you want to put your money where your mouth is open up your own elite job to anycomer. Or are you an elitist?"

I'm certainly not elitist. The idea of having lecturers in education who have not taught is just ludicrous because they couldn't do the job. The teachers being trained wouldn't accept them. Would you?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 01/06/2012 - 08:46

Actually thinking about this Ben, perhaps I'm being a bit harsh on you. After all we have had two solid years now of all lecturers in education being portrayed through the media as being ignorant socialist ideologues from whom trainee teachers need to be protected (while they are removed), so perhaps you've fallen for that ludicrous bit of spin. I really don't know how people have fallen for and would be honestly interested in any comments on this.

Instead of berating you it might be more useful to explain to you a little of what lecturers in education actually do?

For example they provided over-arching supervision for trainee teachers in schools and support and training for their school mentors. The job of settling in trainee teachers who've been to top schools themselves and have been indoctrinated by the media into thinking that schools in challenging areas are 'failed versions of schools in nice areas' is not trivial'.

Then you have to teach the BEds and the 'conversion to teaching' students your subject at a high level (typically first year university) while exemplifying all best teaching practice (such as ensuring everything taught is properly embodied in contexts until students are ready to manage without those contexts and ensuring students repeatedly express their learning until they properly understand it, as well as the more obvious disciplines of structuring a curriculum, writing and marking exams and so on). Of course you will be writing your own material.

Then you need to lecture in the issues associated with education up to Masters level with sufficient flexibility to enable you to accommodate whatever experience teachers bring to those sessions.

And of course you will also be involved in rewriting the texts on education to ensure they are up to date in the context of emerging research, policy and technology in education and you may be managing research projects and supervising PhD students.

andy's picture
Fri, 01/06/2012 - 06:41

We live in a democracy and part of that set up is that people have the right to make choices over how they educate their children and make use of their disposable income. To arbitrarily close all private/independent fee paying schools would be a huge step away from democracy into a former soviet union style totalitarian state. What would follow in its footsteps, criminalising parents for choosing homeschooling?

There are also a significant minority of fee paying schools that are non-selective. There a significant number of fee paying schools whose rolls include overseas students (this includes many of the UKs top schools). It follows then that the approximately 10% of schools in the UK that make up the fee paying sector are not wholly populated with students eligible for places in state schools in England and Wales. The figure touted around is that 7% of the nations children are educated at fee paying schools but this begs the question is that 7% based on the number of school places or is it adjusted for the non-UK pupils. Take Queen Ethelberga's near York: roll approx 1165 of which 765 are boarders and the lions share of these are non-UK (including Finns).

The we have the issue of where all the displaced English and Welsh state school qualifying students will go. Are we to compulsorily allocate them areas where there is surplus capacity or will they be sent home to their families to await school places at over subscribed state schools? Perhaps the proposers and other backers of this idea are also going to say lets compulsorily purchase all the private/independent school buildings and grounds? Perhaps they are also suggesting that every teacher in the fee paying sector should be compulsorily made to teach in the state sector?

What would happen to rich tapestry of curricular studies that exists in the fee paying sector? Absolutely everyone - with the possible exception of homeschoolers - would follow the straightjacket of the school league table driven national curriculum (e.g. no more World IB curriculum schools, no more American International curriculum schools).

All of these issues and I haven't even scratched the surface of the rest e.g. what the national curriculum should look like, what a truly appropriate starting age for school should be, what - if any - testing should look like and its timing, whether GCSEs and equivalents should remain or be replaced and with what?

I strongly suggest that our collective attention be switched the English and Welsh curriculum and overarching education policy rather than false errands.

andy's picture
Fri, 01/06/2012 - 10:36

The Assisted Places Scheme was introduced in the 1980s as was portrayed as a method of creating more opportunities for children to benefit from the fee paying school sector. Children were required to score within the top 10-15% of applicants in the school's entrance examination. The second goal was to widen the social range of pupils attending fee paying schools. In 1985 there were an average of 6000 pupils in the scheme on an annual baasis. By 1997, when Blair came to power, there were 34,000 children in the scheme who attended some 355 schools. Across its inception to demise - 1981 to 1997 - the scheme catered for approximately 80,000 pupils. Blair stopped it on the basis that it was a waste of taxpayers monies and elitist and redirected the money to rducing class sizes in infant and primary schools. The result for fee paying schools was to reduce the range/scope fo their social composition. As a dreict result of this many of teh participating schools set up and/or increased their bursary schemes to enable them to maintain a wider social mix.

"The Assisted Places Scheme". Department for Education and Employment. John Catt Educational. Retrieved 20 May 2012.

The APS figures demonstrate that this was not the cause of what became labelled as 'sink' schools (i.e. 80,000 / 16 years = 5000 pa across England and Wales). This was largely a result of the 'right to buy' scheme and impact on the social composition of the council estates and parental willingness to relocate for social and school catchment reasons.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 01/06/2012 - 11:49

Ah - unbiased information from someone marketing their services in image management of independent's schools. How delightful.

When my oldest sister went to Longbenton Middle and High School, many of her friends from our local church went their too. She therefore went through as part of a cohort of students destined for university and she and some of her contemporaries went to Oxford.

When I went there 8 years behind her none of my friends from the same local church with aspirations to go to university went there as they had all passed the selective tests to go to private schools on the assisted places scheme. And yes their parents did sacrifice anything and everything to put their children into independent schools as the Longbenton schools rapidly descended into the state I've described as a consequence of these families leaving. They sacrificed a great deal financially and they and their children missed on a lot because they did this.

The idea that this is linked to the right to buy issues is ludicrous as right to buy wasn't going on then. In my experience right to buy has led to improvements in the areas in which sink schools tended to occur in general any so how this author thinks right to buy caused the sink schools is really quite unfathomable.

The stuff about changing the social mix of those independent schools laughable too. What was happening was that in the communities where quite a lot of the families could previously afford private education and chose it, all of those families then chose it. It wasn't the kids from the deprived areas who took advantage of it. Most of them couldn't pass or prepare for the tests or afford the travel, uniform and part fees. They were all on benefit for goodness sake Andy. This was a middle class buy-a-vote policy.

The report you have referenced is disturbingly bad, inappropriate propaganda Andy and is clearly intended to win the author work writing similar, reassuring guff for independent schools.

But feel free to try and prove that the author researched the issues he discussed properly (by, for example, interviewing people who were involved in trying to run and sort out the sink schools or analysing statistics about the social mix of the students who benefited from this scheme) if you like.

Andy's picture
Fri, 01/06/2012 - 13:09

The right to buy scheme was introduced by the Conservative government in the 1980 Housing Act.

The evidenced cited in my comment is open to interrogation by all.

"Ah – unbiased information from someone marketing their services in image management of independent’s schools. How delightful."

To reflect back at this derisory comment I will use the posters own words elsewhere on LSN: "Take the ball not the man" and "Please be reassured I have no personal axes to grind at all Fiona."

For clarity, my only experience in the fee payiong sector was as a Bursar. My entire teaching career: teacher through AST to Deputy Head was in the state (comprehensive) sector.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 01/06/2012 - 15:26

Andy if you have any experience relating to sink schools in the 1980s - what they were like, why they occurred, how they were resolved and so on, please do describe it.

Likewise if you have any evidence to suggest that the article you referenced is anything other than a demonstration of the author's ability to write positive spin for independent schools please share it.

If you, or anyone else, would like to scrutinise my memories of the 1980s in detail, please get in touch and I will see if I can put you in touch with, for example, one of the teachers who saw it all and then became a key head teachers who helped to sort it out. Or you could just go to any local similar area and ask the teachers who are still around from that time.

I don't recognise your description of the effects of 'right to buy'. I remember the estates where the sink schools were as being hellish places where no-one would choose to live. The shops were all vacant, boarded up or, if open, shuttered so you couldn't tell they were open unless you knew. The houses were run down. Everything was vandalised by the agro boys or the clockwork. The LBAB letters of the very visible roof of my school were metres high. Every family seemed to have a rottweiler or an alsation for protection. It was a long time before right to buy began to make any difference to at all to these estates Andy. None of my comments are about trying to pick any kind of argument with you - they are just my comments about my reality which I have checked out and found to be representative as I have discussed these issues with many people with differing perspectives and experiences over the years.

I'm not anti-independent schools Andy. If you look at my comments the only thing I've really criticised about your comments relating to them is the notion that removing the most motivated and able students from local comps and putting them into independent schools is about those schools being charitable and benefiting society because that is a seriously flawed claim. I also believe that new selection shouldn't be allowed unless, after proper consideration, it will not seriously damage other local schools to the extent that these schools become places where bright local children will no longer thrive.

I disagree with Ben's assumption, that I would have been more intelligent and somehow a better person if I had been to an independent school. I wouldn't. I would just have been more easily duped by misrepresentions the reality of life in Britain and my parents would not have been to have our small holidays and trips out where we learned so much and run the car that helped up cope with my mum's MS. These are the things my friends, whose parents spent everything to send the to independent schools they hadn't used to need to attend, did without.

Allan Beavis's picture
Fri, 01/06/2012 - 14:09

Finland pretty much swept away fee paying schools and they didn't descend into a former soviet union style totalitarian state. In fact, Finland is a capitalist country, so it didn't descend into a fascistic state either. It's rather a good example of what can be achieved in a country that has had the will to tear up in the inequality rule book that encourages the dominance of a small elite over the rest of the population in order to offer its citizens real access to good prospects, jobs and a decent standard of living. This is true democracy in action - not the democracy of "choice", where many tax payers who have already paid to have their children educated are presented with options they cannot have - selective schools, private schools, faith schools, SEN-free schools. Very little that can be passed as "democratic" when Gove pushes through legislation that sweeps aside the mechanisms of local accountability and consultation. The argument that we cannot replicate Finland's success is defeatist. In 1970s, the Finns tore up the rule book and look how successul they are. Gove's "radical reform" is designed to appear as if he is also tearing up the rule book but his policies are a throwback to the 1950s within the larger context of overall Conservative policies which threaten to take us right back to Victorian levels of inequality.

andy's picture
Fri, 01/06/2012 - 16:08

Firstly, let me make it clear that I have no desire to engage with you or delve into you personal/family history or background.

Secondly, delve into the old Dept for Educ and Employment data not simply the Catt web page.

The factual data e.g. an average of 5000 pupils per annum across the whole of England and Wales does not respresent anywhere near the pupil brain drain required to cause the national rash of 'sink' schools.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Fri, 01/06/2012 - 16:54


an average of 5000 pupils per annum across the whole of England and Wales....

And yet among Rebecca's peers at her local church, every single one went on the assisted places scheme, turning Longbenton into a sink school. Funny the tricks fallible memory plays eh?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 01/06/2012 - 17:18

Er no Ricky. It's not funny and it's not tricks. You're only talking about maybe 20 kids in my year. These problems were concentrated in the cities close to where the independent schools were. The list of schools involved looks right so you're looking for the communities within 45 mins travel of them by public transport.

As I said, if you'd like to chat this through with one of the head teachers who came in and sorted the situation out feel free to get in touch. It was quite interesting that Ofsted were not needed. Just a very good head who had the full support of the LA - doing the job efficiently and effectively. LAs were just massively stretched as it was happening in so many places at the same time so fast so they weren't perfect but they did a huge amount both for the schools and for the individual students caught up in it. By the end of my first year at a sink school half the students who started there had been moved to other schools with the approval and support of the LA. Because I was identified as being gifted at maths I was placed in a school where I'd be able to go on to do double A-level maths. Other children went to different schools best suited to meet their needs. Today it'll just be a 'survival of the fittest free for all' won't it? The children with the pushiest parents will get out to the best schools and those with particular needs which would be met by those schools will be left behind.

andy's picture
Fri, 01/06/2012 - 17:59

Ricky, I'm not sure whether this helps you or not but based on the number of LAs in Eng and Wales in 2010 (some 375), there would have been more in the 1980s/90s, this would mean an average of 13.33 pupils per local authority per annum. That is to say 13.33 across all age groups across each LA.

andy's picture
Fri, 01/06/2012 - 17:11

I did not imply that they had. To be clear what I was saying is that to arbitrarily sweep away the fee-paying sector in this country would be an act of soviet style totalitarianism. What the Finnish people decided through the ballot box is in the public domain and a splendid example of long term strategy in revitalising and refocusing education in Finland. They are the first to say that:

1. Both the Right and Left of their political spectrum reached common agreement on an issue of crucial national importance. Put another way they stopped playing party politics with education.

2. It was a gradual long term strategy and not a magic wand panacea.

3. There were far more fundamental changes necessary than simple closing down all fee paying schools e..g:

a. Stopping high value testing
b. Moving to smaller school units
c. Moving to a highly trained and specialist training model for teachers targeted on the top end of graudates
d. Recognising that children develop at different speeds/ages in relation to their socialisation and learning
e. Allowing children the time to be children for longer before starting formalised education and even then not overloading them them with targets and expectations but recognising the need for recreation (play) as part of the socialisation and learning process
f. Creating the capacity for children to be supported in their development and learning needs without the pressure to perform to a target or deadline (they stopped measuring and allowed teachers to support, explore, nurture and teach)

The above is not a exhaustive list of the measures the Finns implemented over the 3 decades to coming to prominence through PISA but it does illustrate that the decision to ban fee paying schools was not a burning priority.

In relation to the equality embedded within their system, it is my understanding that this is rooted in the ensuring that from the time children enter the school system they all receive the same level of support, nurturing and teaching expertise and thus the when they eventually sit their first assessment at end of their High School stage the gap between the the top and bottom is narrower than almost every other country.

I suspect then that the decision the close the fee paying schools was more to do with striving for social egalitarianism than educational equality.

We must also avoid putting Finland on a pedestal in splendid isolation for there are other models that have risen up the PISA rankings too (e.g. Singapore) and those educational models are different again. Noticeably the latter did/haven't required the dismantling and outlawing of fee paying schools.

So, if we are to radically overhaul our education system, which I'm confident we all want to do, then surely the starting point is rather more earthy and pithy than focusing on fee paying schools. The burning question is where to start and what the foci of the new education system and curriculum should be? Should be about personal learning and thinking skills and/or social and emotional aspects of learning? Should it be test/assessment driven and if so at what stage/frequency? Should it be about silo driven subject areas or themed? What should the foundation learning be based on (e.g. special attention of English literacy and oracy and numeracy and a multilingual input)? When should formal schooling start? Should learning be about preparing youngster for work alone or a balanced life? And so on.

The picture is too big and too important to get caught up on ideologies (e.g. fee paying schools, yes/no).

andy's picture
Fri, 01/06/2012 - 17:15

Stop it Ricky, I'll end up getting into trouble again :)

To be honest I'd rather devote my time and energies with other commentators such as yourself, Allan, Tim, Janet, Fiona, Emma et al

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 01/06/2012 - 17:52

Indeed Andy.

Here are my three priories for improving English Education.

1. Oblige Ofsted to the standards and laws (designed to ensure regulators adopt best practice and act in the interest of education rather than in the interests of themselves and politicians) which all other regulators are obliged to.

2. Plan to abandon SATS in five years but force schools to be professionally accountable for students progress so creating a policy environment in which the major education companies will invest in and develop the kind of systems described here:

3. Draw up an agenda for real localism. Jon Snow describes the issues beautifully in this month's Prospect magazine.

Beyond that you could look at reinstating collaborative networking for teachers, online teachers TV (with internet interaction for registered teachers) and plenty of other very obvious, popular and effective initiatives.

Tim Bidie's picture
Sat, 02/06/2012 - 06:39

Socially segregated elites are like molehills. Show me any country you care to mention, and I will show you a verdant plain covered in muddy brown hillocks. As soon as you get rid of one lot, up pop some more somewhere else.

'People compete for status in different ways, and distinguishing oneself through high income and conspicuous forms of consumption is only one of them.......Academics compete for status by publishing in reputable journals and by earning the respect of their peers. As Paul Samuelson, one of the most influential academic economists of the 20th century, said:

“Scientists are as avaricious and competitive as Smithian businessmen. The coin they seek is not apples, nuts, and yachts; nor is it coin itself, or power as that term is ordinarily used. Scholars seek fame. The fame they seek…is fame with their peers
- the other scientists whom they respect and whose respect they strive for.”

And it is not just academics. Environmentalists compete for status by engaging in recycling, buying organic, or other environmentally-friendly products. Infovores, or “geeks,” compete for status by accumulating very detailed information about one
specific subject (say Star Trek or DC Comics).

Over a year ago, the same author was predicting: 'At the moment, six private schools are seeking state funding, but clearly a great many more are watching: if these six get state funding, an avalanche is sure to follow. This will be very unfair because it will definitely increase social segregation:'

A few days ago he was advocating the abolition of private schools: 'Our education system will never promote equality until private schools are abolished. It’s a completely absurdity that these institutions have charitable status when they only have a negative effect upon society, causing social fracture and segregation.'

We now have the slightly sinister but more subtly expressed ' insist that all our private schools become free schools?'

I sense the siren calls of some cloistered ideology at play.

Here's a thought.

You are the young Prime Minister, newly elected on a platform promoting economic growth, of one of the world's most prosperous nations. Visitors from other countries flock to your shores. Many others abroad send their children to your vibrant private educational sector, widely acknowledged internationally as a centre of excellence.

Do you adopt, as a flagship policy, state enforced restructuring of that entire private educational sector to bring it under state control, raising VAT by 3% to pay for that?

Do you temporarily reduce VAT as an economic stimulus and concentrate scarce education funding on the most disadvantaged in the state sector, aware that the private educational sector is a substantial net benefit to the public purse?


You are slightly mentally unstable so you invade Argentina?

andy's picture
Sat, 02/06/2012 - 07:03

I fear that I must agree with you Tim. The repeated thrust of Francis' views are the abolition of fee paying schools. It appears that he doesn't care what vehicle or rationale is used to peddle the meesage. Thus the Finnish education model is not what is genuinely wanted to improve the UK system for the benefit of our children and ultimately nation. The only strand of the Finnish experience he focuses on is the abolition of fee paying schools, which for me diminishes his crediblility and exposes a person who had a regrettable experience of the fee paying sector and is using that the attack the entire system. On that basis should every parent who has a bad experience of a state school set up a campaign to argue for the abolition of all state schools?

A wonderful example of positive people power (democracy in action) is that of the families who firmly believe in the Steiner Schools system of education and go to set up new schools because they believe in it. But the anti fee paying lobby don't give a damn about that and would arbitrarily and totally unthinkingly abolish them.

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