In Depth

Should private schools be banned? The pros and cons

Head of private school association says Labour’s proposal is ‘vote loser’

Private school headteachers have criticised plans to abolish private schools under a Labour government.

Delegates at the party’s recent conference in Brighton voted to “integrate” private schools into the state sector, removing their charitable status, stripping them of tax benefits, and “redistributing” their endowments, investments and properties.

Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner, told the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday that private schools had been subsidised by taxpayers for far too long.

“I want a comprehensive state education system and I want to stop subsidising private education, which is elitist, which entitles 7% of the population to do better than the rest at the expense of everybody else. We have to invest on everyone’s education,” she said.

But Fiona Boulton, chair of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), is warning that “destroying great independent schools is a vote loser”, the BBC reports.

The plan is “based on ignorance and the desire to damage”, she will tell around 300 heads from the country’s most expensive independent schools at the HMC autumn conference in London today, according to The Guardian.

Boulton will say: “Voters want the government to help more children to get access to independent schools. Parents are ambitious for their children and people want to see our schools opening up, not closing down.”

The Week examines the pros and cons of private education:


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Good for economy

Private schools generate billions of pounds for the UK economy, supporting thousands of jobs and contributing significantly to tax revenue.

Indeed, latest figures from Oxford Economics and the Independent Schools Council show that fee-paying schools contributed £13.71bn to UK GDP in 2017.

“This puts private education on a par with the city of Liverpool in terms of its contribution to the UK economy,” says Forbes.

Popular support

Although only around 7% of UK pupils attends private schools, a new survey by HMC and market research firm ComRes found that 68% of 2,000 people quizzed thought parents should have the right to opt to pay for their children’s education.

The strongest support came from Conservative voters, of whom 83% said parents should have that choice, compared with 70% of Lib Dem voters. More surpringly, 56% of Labour voters said parents who could afford to pay should be able to do so.

But a Labour source told The Guardian: “These are leading questions that don’t tackle the real issues at all. We note that the private schools lobby failed to ask the British public whether they thought it was right that children’s life chances are determined by how wealthy their family is, or whether it is right that private schools don’t pay their taxes like the rest of us.”

Better future prospects

Supporters of the system point out that many of the country’s top jobs in politics, the judiciary, media and business go to privately educated people - arguing that this proves such an education leaves students better equipped to excel in their later lives.

Equality think-tank The Sutton Trust says research has shown that 39% of “the elite group as a whole were privately educated, more than five times as many as the population at large”.

A total of 65% of senior judges were privately educated, 59% of civil service permanent secretaries, and 57% of members of the House of Lords.

In the media, 43% of the 100 most influential news editors and broadcasters attended independent school, along with 44% of newspaper columnists, The Guardian reports.


Fundamentally unfair

Independent schools are usually only an option for the children of parents with enough money to pay the fees, so the social and professional advantages that such an education brings are concentrated in the hands of the wealthiest in society, perpetuating inequality.

“At every rung of the income ladder there are a small number of private-school attenders; but it is only at the very top, above the 95th rung of the ladder – where families have an income of at least £120,000 – that there are appreciable numbers of private-school children,” says The Guardian. Among the richest 1% -  families with incomes upwards of £300,000 – six out of every ten children attend private school.

No guarantee of good results

The exam results gap between private and state school pupils has been narrowing in recent years. 

The Telegraph reports that the proportion of privately educated children winning the highest grades at A levels is now at its lowest level, falling from 52% to 45.7% since 2010, when the A* mark was introduced.

The national proportion of students getting A* or A has fallen by 1.5% over the same period, from 27% to 25.5%.


Sending a child to private school is incredibly expensive for even the most well-off parents.

Annual fees at Eton (£40,668), Harrow (£40,050) and Winchester (£39,912) are all well above the average annual salary of UK workers, which stands at around £28,000.


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