Phasing Out Elitist Education

Steven Longden's picture

Phasing out private and grammar schools in the UK is essential if the increasingly cross party call for ‘equality of opportunity for all’ is serious.  The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission's, "examination of who gets the top jobs in Britain today found elitism so stark that it could be called ‘Social Engineering’"[1].  Private schools, educating 7% of the nation's pupils, provide:

71% of senior judges, 62 % of senior armed forces officers, 55% of Permanent Secretaries, 53% of senior diplomats, 50% of members of the House of Lords, 45% of public body chairs, 44% of the Sunday Times Rich List, 43% of newspaper columnists and 36% of the Cabinet.

In the state sector “less than 3% of students attending grammar schools are eligible for free school meals, whereas the average proportion of pupils entitled to free school meals in selective areas is 18%”[2]. This disparity is caused by wealthier parents pushing up house prices in the catchment areas of grammar schools[3] whose head teachers also point to the use of private tutors to pass entrance tests[4]. Over four times as many children attend grammar schools from private feeder schools than children on free school meals[5].


In December 2015 the Commission reported that, "despite many welcome initiatives, the current policy response – by educators and employers as much as governments – falls well short of the political ambition. The gap between rhetoric and reality has to be closed"[6].  Yet the Commission goes quiet on private and grammar school reform.

Perhaps the public's love of 'choice' when deciding how to spend their hard earned money argues against phasing out of private and grammar schools? These survey results suggest otherwise[7]:

  • When asked in the 2010 British Social Attitudes Survey, “should the quality of education be the same for all children, or should parents who can afford it be able to pay for better education?” 61% of respondents thought it should be the same[8].


  • 2013 research by YouGov found that 78 per cent of the public in Great Britain thinks that “it should be the government’s job to ensure that rich and poor children have the same chances”.


Those who buy private and grammar services console themselves with arguments that help them to justify their continued use. The most common of these arguments are outlined and challenged here:



1. The state’s comprehensive system encourages mediocrity.

Qualified teachers are required to effectively differentiate work for each student in their classroom.  In order for a teacher in the state sector to be judged as 'good' or 'outstanding' they must demonstrate this, including stretching and challenging the most able students.


2. Phasing out private and grammar schools would mean the most affluent would simply create their own "elite" within the state system.

This phenomenon can be addressed by ensuring that any school judged ‘good’ or 'outstanding' by Ofsted be required to reserve places equivalent to the percentage of students eligible for free school meals within their local authority.

3. What really matters is class size!

Department for Education evidence shows that a smaller class size does have a positive impact on attainment and behaviour in the early years of school but that this effect tends to be small and diminishes after a few years[9]

After three decades of rising wealth inequalities and with clear evidence about the negative impact private and grammar schools are having on social mobility, now is the time to expose the assumption that 'choosing' to use wealth to access schooling is a fundamental right. Surely, any right predicated on wealth should not be allowed to supersede the right to equality of opportunity.


Key Recommendations


  • Turn all private and grammar schools into non-fee paying, non-selective state schools over a period of 5 to 10 years. Finland managed this in 8 years.


  • Increase government spending per child to at least the higher North West European average[10].


  • Any government funded school judged to be ‘good’ or 'outstanding' by Ofsted should have a legal duty to reserve places equivalent to the percentage of students eligible for free school meals in the local authority.  This will enable poorer families to overcome house price barriers around successful schools.
Steven Longden
The above article was first published on CLASSOnline and Left Foot Forward in January 2016.
Steven has also produced a project proposal to Phase Out Elitist Education which will be submitted as a resolution at the next Socialist Education Association Meeting on 25 June 2016.  The proposal has already been submitted to the Labour Party's National Policy Forum for consideration (see attached).  If readers wish to submit the proposal to their unions or Constituency Labour Party meetings for adoption please do so but email Steven in advance at:
The Phase Out Elitist Education Facebook page has also been created to support the proposal.  Please join at:

[1] p10, ‘Elitist Britain’, Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, Cabinet Office, 2014.


[2] p5, ‘Poor Grammar: Entry into Grammar Schools for disadvantaged pupils in England’, The Sutton Trust, 2013.


[5] ‘Grammar schools segregate children by social class’, Professor Diane Reay, 2015.


[6] p6, ‘State of the Nation 2015: Social Mobility and Child Poverty in Great Britain’, Cabinet Office, 2015.


[7] p3, ‘Elitist Britain’, Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, Cabinet Office, 2014.


[8] P350, ‘Private schools, choice and the ethical environment’, LSE Research online, 2014.


[9] p2, ‘Class Size and Education in England: Evidence Report, Department for Education, 2011.


[10] P215, Education at a Glance, 2014, OECD Indicators.


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Nigel Ford's picture
Mon, 11/04/2016 - 09:02

I see this as 2 separate issues.

The idea that grammar schools are an escape route for clever working class children is entirely bogus, as seen by the very low FSM pupils in grammars, and the argument to build more of them doesn't wash because all you will do is replicate the polarisation in 11+ areas like Bucks and Kent to other counties. So yes, let's phase out the apartheid caused by grammar schools in the state system and make comprehensive universal.

With regard to private schools, recent research undertaken by Durham University showed that these pupils enjoyed an advantage of just 0.64% of a GCSE grade across the board over their state sector counterparts. This small deficit could easily be overcome with a bit of private tuition at a fraction of the cost of these crazy independent school fees. So if parents want to pay silly money for their kids education for such small tangible gains, go ahead and more fool them.

Steven Longden's picture
Mon, 11/04/2016 - 10:51

I couldn't agree with you more Nigel. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

ian thompson's picture
Thu, 14/04/2016 - 19:05

64% not 0.64% of a grade, in other words 0.64 of a grade difference for each GCSE and that was only the component attributed to better teaching. Their raw finding was that 'students of independent schools had an average GCSE score of 6.62, (between grades A and B) while students of state schools had an average of 4.86 (grades C and D). This meant that the average GCSE grade of students of independent schools was higher than that of students of state schools by just below 2 GCSE grades' - p24 - at least a 16 grade difference in total.

90% of privately educated pupils progress to A'levels where they achieve an average BBB grades, fewer than half of pupils in the state sector progress to A level where despite being above average for the sector the average achievement is CCC. While 7% of pupils are educated in private schools, because a minority in the state sector make it as far as sixth form for the purposes of comparison that figure is less than helpful. A more useful figure is 33% which is the acquisition rate of triple A grades at A level by privately educated pupils, the minimum required by many Russell Group universities.

With regard to grammar schools, in 2008 CEM at Durham researchers concluded 'However, if comprehensive schools in the current system are themselves often even more extreme in their social selectivity than grammar schools (as we have suggested in the previous section), then this would not appear to be any kind of solution to the problem. Indeed, if the choice is between ‘social selection, with academic selection as a by-product’, as appears to be occurring within the comprehensive system, and ‘academic selection, with social selection as a by-product’ as seems to be the case within grammar schools, then the latter could certainly be seen as more meritocratic'.

Nigel Ford's picture
Fri, 15/04/2016 - 18:25

0.64 of a grade once socioeconomic factors are taken into account.

So at the top of the scale a pupil with 3 A*s, 3As and 3B.s. at a comp would convert them to 9 A*s at an independent school. And if the pupil takes 3 A levels in his/her best graded GCSEs, no advantage is gained by going private.

ian thompson's picture
Sun, 17/04/2016 - 14:35

'No advantage is gained by going private' ?

The top 40% of pupils educated in state funded schools (which includes grammar schools) achieve on average CCC at A level and the top 40% of privately educated pupils achieve on average AAA. Subsequent manifest career and earnings advantages derive from this.

At A level the socio-economic gap is much smaller and the grade difference larger, so the schooling advantage is even greater than at GCSE, as you might expect.

Nigel Ford's picture
Sun, 17/04/2016 - 16:54

Nothing to do with many public schools putting a high bar on entry to the 6th form leaving the state their discards?

No reason why pupils can't maximise their potential at state comps and 6th form colleges if their parents allowed. Hills Road 6th form college and Peter Symonds send more pupils to Oxbridge than every public school in the country bar 3.

Steven Longden's picture
Sun, 17/04/2016 - 18:53

Once account has been taken of the socio-economic background of pupils, state schools out perform private schools by a significant margin (see para 53 -

ian thompson's picture
Sun, 17/04/2016 - 23:24

PISA wasn't powered to address this issue, the number of private schools was too small. PISA only looked at a total of 165 schools with 30 pupils from each, unlike 'A comparison of Academic Achievement in Independent and State Schools' which looked at about 3000 schools with up to 60,000 pupils in each comparison group and found the opposite.

The bar for entry to sixth form is set such that 60% of state pupils (or discards as you put it) drop out at this point compared with only 10% of privately educated pupils.

Hills Road (which requires at least a B average at GCSE) and Peter Symonds (which has complex admission criteria including 'family connections') send 8.6% and 2.6% respectively of their leavers to Oxbridge, and being sixth forms of 2000 and 4000 pupils they have rather a lot of leavers. However the percentage, which is the recognised performance indicator, is bettered by more than 100 independent schools.

Nigel Ford's picture
Mon, 18/04/2016 - 17:45

Easy to use averages in your favour when you have the smaller sample.

My father gave me the Kingswood School Magazine, the public school in Bath we attended, which scored in the top 100 A level public school results, and in a 6th form of 200 the number of Oxbridge entries could be counted on one hand.

What's more public schools are missing a trick by not doing Gen Studies A level to boost their UCAS points. I know most RG universities won't accept them and they're not relevant on Science courses, but many high ranked universities do. This means that some of the KS leavers that went to Aberystwyth and Hull could have made Sussex, UEA or Lancaster.

Furthermore, there have been recent articles in the Telegraph by the Heads of Sedbergh and Milton Abbey public schools pushing Btecs as credible alternatives to A levels, urging other independents to follow suit. The average A level score in Milton Abbey equates to an E grade.

ian thompson's picture
Tue, 19/04/2016 - 12:20

Assegai my dear chap, if I may use the old moniker, how splendid to be able to continue the debate. I would be the first to agree with you that there are many academically poor independent schools and many superlative maintained schools. On the subject of General Studies I think we will have to agree to disagree.

Nigel Ford's picture
Tue, 19/04/2016 - 14:48


On a note of reconciliation, I wouldn't actually state those public schools which offer Btecs are bad. A school, private or state, is often the product of it's intake.

I think that private schools generally give a very good standard of education although it's horses for courses, and a bright individual would be better off at Brighton College rather than Seaford College and the reverse stands for the average pupil.

I'm just not sure about the financial outlay, and I know you think differently, so we'll leave it there.

ian thompson's picture
Tue, 19/04/2016 - 18:50

Yes, indeed.

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