Side show attracts more attention than main event

Labour’s thoughts on the subject of private education received more coverage this week than their announcement on teacher supply issues put out the day before. Public fee-paying schools are a part of the political agenda and Labour’s call to remove business rate relief from such schools not prepared to go further in cooperating with schools in the state-funded sector avoided the thorny question of charitable status, but no doubt played well to voters that would prefer to see all children educated by the State.

My view has always been that the State in England lays the obligation on parents to educate their offspring. It has never mandated where or how that should be achieved. In an unequal society some parents can buy schooling. If they were forced to send their child to a local state school they would still buy tutoring, as many parents do at present, to improve the educational outcomes of their children. Preventing parents from spending money on education while allowing them to spend money on cigarettes, gambling and other potentially bad habits would seem illogical. However, we know that private schools produce better results than many state funded schools, just as selective state schools do. Interestingly, Tristram Hunt didn’t appear to say that such schools should share teachers with other state schools.

Labour’s carrot and stick approach to the private schools, ‘either help or pay more tax’ probably does recognise that with a teacher supply crisis looming in some subjects, and some parts of the country, private schools may be in a better position to recruit not just better teachers but actually enough teachers. The fundamental question is, therefore, as ever, how will schools that cannot recruit enough teachers effectively teach their pupils? Sharing a scare resource sounds fine in principle as a solution but is fraught with practical difficulties. I assume that private schools don’t have spare teaching capacity just waiting to be redeployed, so to use their teachers to help state schools they either have to employ more of them, potentially making the situation worse or create larger teaching groups – the very thing some parents are paying to avoid – or perhaps offer spare places in ‘A’ level groups where an additional one or two students might make no difference. But, that is no solution for the small private primary school.

The Conservative Party’s solution to the education problems around improving quality seems to be a discussion of more grammar schools. This suffers from the Oxbridge dilemma. How do you stop parents with money paying to secure entrance by improving the learning opportunities of their children before the test? This takes us back to where this piece started. Do parents have a right to pay for education if by doing so they advantage their children over others?

Finally, as Tristram Hunt failed to acknowledge, private schools are now a large export earning industry.  Id that something we wish to encourage or does it risk educating the children of our competitors in the global market place as the expense of children brought up in England?  Of course, one solution to the teacher shortage is to recruit more teachers from overseas, but how does that play in the present debate over immigration?

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