This week, Dr. Beaumont des Crayeres, also known as Dr. Tristam Hunt, launched a vintage attack on Britain’s independent schools. Under a Labour government post 2015, independent schools will be required to meet a “schools partnership standard” or else be denied the business rates tax relief they currently enjoy.
It was Labour of course who so persistently removed, from the state maintained sector, the classical features pertaining to independent schools. A text-book based, piecemeal examination system incentivising non-rigorous academic learning, was accompanied by the rolling back of competitive school sport. Good old fashioned ‘games’ was replaced with a treadmill work-out of beastly exams and tests, modular assessments, sub-unit assessments and sub-sub-unit assessments, not to mention the vicious ‘controlled assessment’. Vocational qualifications were made practically obsolete. One only needs to watch five minutes of Professor Niall Ferguson talking at the Cambridge Union in 2012 to hear of the systemic problems in the teaching of history. In all, a top down approach to education squeezed a lot of the good out of the British school curriculum. All the while, a herculean amount of pressure was put on teachers and Head-teachers to meet the one-size-fits-all standards of the regulators.
For hundreds of years young children have been packed onto trains, boats and planes with their trunks and sent overseas to British boarding schools. Never before has the Chinese, Russian, and European market for a British independent school education been bigger. Given this magnetic pull that British education exercises across the world, surely, as former Education Secretary Michael Gove cottoned onto, independent schools are the radiant saviours of the British state education system and should be embraced.
Basic economics tells us that market forces create winners and losers – if an independent school delivers a fine education, it survives; if it does not, it fails. This explains how, over many years, they have honed the art of a delivering a stellar education – with the worst schools being weeded out.
Hunt is attempting to bring independent schools aboard with a system of negative incentives. By imposing such a system upon the market, he is in effect curtailing schools from offering social mobility opportunities. It is costly to strike up partnerships with state schools – teachers, resources and time cost money, as do scholarships and bursaries worth £660m a year. Inevitably the latter would have to be reduced under such a system.
Furthermore, Hunt’s proposals assume too much and result in inefficiency. Why on earth would an independent school need to pair itself up with a highly successful state school? Take Queen Elizabeth's in Hertfordshire for example – the top state-maintained school in the country by A-Level results. A central planner is not best placed to tell state-maintained schools they need an independent school partner. Instead, let the Head-teacher decide – for they alone know what their school needs.
If Hunt really cared about British education and remembered Labour’s record, he would make friends with the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, not ruck with them up against the proverbial fives wall. His proposals are top-down, curtailing and inefficient.