Hold the front page! Tory peer offers ‘ringing endorsement’ of Tory policies.

Melissa Benn's picture


LSN readers may have been a little puzzled by headlines yesterday, including in the Guardian, proclaiming ‘Soaring state schools threaten private sector.’

 It is not often that a Guardian lead story risks sounding like a Tory press release or a Toby Young blog but this is certainly one report that begs rather more questions than it answers: 

 Who or what was the source of this lead story?    

 The chief source is the much quoted Ralph Lucas, owner of The Good Schools Guide ( available on subscription),  the education bible of the upper-middle classes. 

 While many newspapers and the BBC report that Lucas is an Eton educated hereditary peer, fewer mention that he is a Conservative and that according to the UK Parliament website he is listed as a member of the Tory group in the Lords -  a rather crucial omission given the underlying politics of the story. LSN has written previously about the political leanings of the 12th Baron.

 Which schools is Lucas talking about? 

 Safe to say that Lucas is not referring to schools in the AET chain, many of which have been recently criticised by Ofsted,  nor indeed to some of the excellent comprehensives in impoverished areas around the country.   

 Media discussion of the new, improved state sector concentrates on those in wealthy, urban locations, such as my old school Holland Park or Toby Young’s West London Free School ( which has yet to produce a single set of GCSE results), schools which operate in highly favourable circumstances in relation to everything from admissions to resources to government support and, of course, media publicity.  

 Are private schools really on the run? 

 Soaring fees, in a time of austerity, have produced a lot of grumbling about the burden on parents who choose the private sector.    

 But this is nothing new. Exactly the same stories were run in 2009  but without the pro-government gloss.

 Then as now, those private schools most affected are small and medium sized establishments outside London, forced or welcomed (take your pick) into the state sector under the free schools and academy programme. 

 Soaring fees have clearly not affected the sector as a whole, particularly at the elite end.

 According to William Richardson, general secretary of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, which represents leading independent schools, ‘pupil numbers are currently at record levels in private schools.’

 Last May, the Independent Schools Council said 517,113 pupils were at UK independent schools, the highest level since records began 40 years ago.

 Can the government really claim ‘soaring’ success for its schools policy?  

 Ralph Lucas is widely quoted as saying that he had been ‘put off sending his own children to the state sector in the 1980s after seeing pupils using drugs and fighting at state schools in west London.’ 

 Leaving aside the fact that dinner- party-style anecdotes have no place in a front page news story, this was at the height of the Thatcher period, when resources and government support for state education was at an all time low, and most Tories wrote off comprehensive education asa form of impossibilist idealism, producing only mediocrity.

 Historically speaking, the Tory Party is a truly shockingly late arrival to the idea that non-selective schools can succeed and the party currently risks returning us to the grim old days of widespread selection with its foolish plans to expand grammar school education.

 Lucas does at least acknowledge that the belief in the potential of all children is the work of several generations.

 Despite this, the DFE has gleefully jumped on the Tory peer’s comments, claiming in yesterday’s paper that they are a ‘ringing endorsement’ of its policies.

 In truth, they are a pure propaganda gift to government at a time when most agree that state education is facing a perfect storm in the face of a growing crisis of teacher retention, recruitment and demoralisation, impending funding cuts and widespread alienation as a result of a new, far narrower curriculum.



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Melissa Benn's picture
Sun, 07/02/2016 - 18:27

I think it fair to add that Baron Lucas did explicitly mention an unusual and pioneering school: Highbury Grove, led by the innovativeand well networked  Tom Sherrington. Sherrington, a previous grammar school head,  has brought a spirit of ambition and determination to his new post as a comprehensive  head- and deserves all praise for his effort, as well as the creative work he and others at the Heads Round Table have done in terms of developing a National Baccalaureate ( a broad, flexible curriculum, which allows development for all learners)  - a very differentapproach to the rather thin gruel of the Ebacc as devised by government. 

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 08/02/2016 - 11:07

Scratch the surface of the publicity, and Baron Lucas said he would have considered state schools in London.  Yet Morgan says this recommendation is proof that Government reforms are working.  But the success of London schools was down to a mixture of the London Challenge and a large proportion of hard-working children of immigrants particularly ones from the Far East.  The Challenge took place before the Coalition came to power.

The evidence about Government reforms improving schools seems to point to the opposite: sponsored academies do worse than similar non-academy schools;  converter academies were already Good or better (and some of those have dropped grades - correlation isn't causation, of course, but if these converter academies are stand-alone then they can expect to be forced to join a multi-academy trust at taxpayers' expense); the increased emphasis on exam results (already excessive in England) is distorting the curriculum and risks teaching-the-test) and the much-touted reforms to GCSEs and A levels promise chaos and confusion.

And when Morgan talks of schools being 'transformed' she isn't talking about transformation for the better.  She's merely referring to schools which have changed their structure by becoming sponsored academies as I point out here.

Melissa Benn's picture
Mon, 08/02/2016 - 11:16

Thanks for adding those important points Janet. Also interesting to see that the private school lobby have picked up on the piece ( on twitter) because, of course,they don't like the suggestion that state schools might actually be as a good or better than they are. 

in truth, the government has done nothing to undermine or reform private education but instead supported it at every turn - another reason why the story has a bogus air. 

Much of this debate is about the Tory  claim  ( that flies in the face of the facts) to be the party of social mobility and fairness for all. Of course, the majority of  readers of Lucas's Good Schools Guide have few problems with social mobility. 

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 08/02/2016 - 11:34

And I forgot the mention the squeeze on schools budgets which independent schools are already touting as a reason to go private.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 08/02/2016 - 12:49

Although I suspect the (qualified) endorsement for state schools convenently allowed the DfE to blag about how recent reforms had improved state eduction in England, Baron Lucas is right that state schools (and not just in England) are an alternative to private schools.  The reasons are these:

1   Their children are not confined to a bubble of similar children  - being in a state school widens their children's aquaintance with children from different backgrounds.

2  Most teachers in the state sector are properly trained and qualified.   (Parents looking for these qualities, however, would need to check the proportion of such teachers in academies and free schools which can recruit non-qualified personnel.)

3  Parents can save thousands upon thousands on fees.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 08/02/2016 - 13:14

Thank you Melissa and Janet. I was not fully aware of the background to this story. However, I still think it is sad that the Guardian story, by a senior education journalist, was so lacking in analysis and critical interpretation.

Melissa Benn's picture
Tue, 09/02/2016 - 07:35

Just to add - an earlier story ( in late January)  in the Independent/covered by the TES suggested that the real story was almost the mirror opposite of the one discussed above; in other words, private schools are now working out ways to capitalise on swingeing cuts in state school budgets.  https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/exclusive-independent...

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