Saturday, 8 January 2011

Let's engage with Simon Hughes on private schools and stalled mobility

LibDem deputy leader Simon Hughes faced some flak for agreeing to take a role promoting university access for the government - given that he did not support the government's policy in Parliament, and as the role lacks a budget or decision-making authority. Critics suggested this would neuter his backbench independence.

Hughes appears determined to show that this is not the case, making an eye-catching proposal about dealing with the way in which private schools contribute to stalled social mobility by taking up such a large proportion of places at university, telling the Guardian that:

Every university should, wherever their fee level is, but specifically for a fee level above £6,000, recruit on the basis of no more people coming from the private sector than there are in the public as a whole ... I don't believe you have to look to the private sector to give you the quality of exam results and ability to make up the numbers to fill the places."

There are two problems with this.

Firstly, Hughes' premise that universities have got a lot from the proposed reforms will be questioned. That would be a strong argument if the increases in tuition fees were being used to increase university funding. It is considerably weaker when the extra money from student simply replaces public funding (and with a time-lag after the cuts come in too).

Secondly, Hughes implies an extremely radical proposal which has next to no chance of being adopted by either the LibDem or the Conservative frontbenchers. For the number of children who are privately educated to be reduced to somewhere around 7% would be an enormously radical change for many of the Russell Group universities in particular. 45% of Oxbridge offers typically go to privately educated students.

But the question is not only whether Hughes' proposal itself comes about - but whether or not his intervention can be used to open up public debate in this broad area of educational opportunity.

Does a government which says that social mobility is its driving passion needs any analysis of whether or not private schools contribute to stalled social mobility? Or is this theme considered entirely off limits as a subject of political discourse and policymaking - and, if so, why?

There will be a concerted attempt to close down the debate which Hughes is trying to open up. But it will not achieve Hughes' goal of establishing his independence if this proves his impotence, nor the government's claim that they will take him seriously. I would like to see the Labour frontbench - and perhaps particularly key backbench voices such as David Lammy, who recently looked at the class and race pattern of Oxbridge admissions - use the opportunity of Hughes' comments to crack these debates open.

Here are some of the questions we could look at opening up.

1. Clegg and Cameron have spoken out a great deal about the gulf in educational chances - but is this purely rhetorical?

"There is lots of anger about higher education at the moment and I understand it. I am angry too. Here's what makes me angry. Oxford and Cambridge take more students each year from just two schools — Eton and Westminster — than from among the 80,000 pupils who are eligible for free school meals... These are the things that make me angry: these are the facts that would make me take to the streets; these are the injustices that our policy will remedy"
- Nick Clegg in the Hugo Young lecture in November.

"I want every child to have the chances I had"

"I went to a fantastic school. I’m not embarrassed about that because I had a great education and I know what a great education means. And knowing what a great education means, means there’s a better chance of getting it for all of our children, which is absolutely what I want in this country"
David Cameron in Tory party conference keynote speeches

But there is a gulf between this rhetoric and their current policy - which will increase the funding gap between the middle and the top, to deal with that between the bottom and the middle through the pupil premium.

Hughes' comments could begin to close this, by ensuring the impact of private education on inequalities of opportunity and stalled mobility is part of the picture too. So I would suggest a very moderate way forward with which nobody could reasonably disagree - why doesn't Hughes ask the Education Select Committee to embark on an inquiry into education and social mobility, and the impact of private education on this, and ask Cameron and Clegg to publicly endorse this idea?

Who can be against studying the evidence, and examining options to address the current gaps? It would be particularly embarassing were the government to turn its face against this.

2. Public attitudes support private education - as long as it does not lead to unfair chances.

Attitudes to fairness and private education split three ways. Significant minorities are either strong opponents or strong supporters of private education in principle: a Fabian/YouGov poll back in 2007 found 39 per cent are against, because they think it leads to unfair opportunities, with 29 per cent in favour of what is seen as an important freedom that should be open to anyone who can afford it.

But the middle ground (25 per cent) is held by those who believe both that parents should have the right to choose private education and also that it is the responsibility of government to ensure their children do not gain an unfair advantage from their doing so. It is that moderate goal which should be reflected in the policy of all three major parties. That will never happen if it is put in the "too difficult to think about" box or considered an illegitimate subject for policy or debate.

3. Is the idea of considering any quota for state or privately educated children at particular universities worth considering? Are there 'targets' or 'aspirations' short of quotas which can be shown to have any impact?

Personally, I think it would be worth discussing whether or not a weaker version of Hughes' idea could be considered - or made workable. The 2009 Fabian New Year conference's final 'democracy dragons' session debated (and supported) a proposal from Parliamentary researcher Sarah Vero of a ceiling of twice the proportion of the cohort which are private educated at each university.

It would be interesting to hear whether those who think Hughes' implication of a 7% quota too radical would also regard a 14% or even 21% ceiling as unthinkable and unfair - and why? The argument that it would be "unfair" to privately educated pupils if there was a 14% or 21% ceiling, for example, strikes me as quite difficult to sustain. Intuitively,, having two or three times a proportionate number of places is more than fair - and so perhaps has the potential to provide some middle ground in this debate.

4. Will Simon Hughes examine or support proposals to prevent the funding gap between state and private schools widening?

Those who challenge Hughes' argument on ground of "merit" should face some tricky questions. There is evidence that state school pupils outperform their privately educated peers with similar grades at university, so admissions are not currently doing enough to detach past attainment (where resources matter) and confidence (which can be coached) from potential.

More fundamentally, they have to explain how the "merit" argument addressses the stark gap in resources. There is a reasonable argument that, if we had a level playing field there, it may be unnecessary to intervene as strongly in admissions. We can at least test whether those who oppose both arguments are interested in equal opportunity in education, rather than primarily defending established privileges from a self-interested point of view.

That question is not only of concern to Labour egalitarians and social liberals on the left of the party. David Laws - the favourite LibDem of most Conservative-supporting commentators - has also said that this is a vital area, at least when he was Opposition spokesman (but can hardly credibly have changed his views on such a central question since then):

"The risk now, given the new constraints on public spending, is that the [funding] gap between public and state schools will widen and become a chasm" as Laws said 18 months ago.

Hughes was among those LibDems who has been arguing that the credibility of the pupil premium depended on keeping the Coalition Agreement promise of "additional' funds.

He should keep battling on that front - and point out the danger of increasing the gap by funding the pupil premium by cutting funding for most schools, increasing the gap between most pupils and the increasingly entrenched privately educated elite.

I have made my own proposal in the new Fabian Review that genuinely additional funding could come from levying a tax on private school fees dedicated to a pupil premium mobility fund.

I hope it will be possible to engage both Labour and LibDem internal policy debates about this or other means to prevent the widening funding gap, which Laws fears and which I am sure frontbench and backbench voices across different parties must think is a matter of concern.

Simon Hughes will speak on a panel at next Saturday's Fabian New Year Conference on whether progressives can influence the Coalition. He deserves credit for making whether or not the debate about private education gets opened up closed down an important test case of his argument that this is possible.

1 comment:

Stephen Wigmore said...

Regardless of how you paint it quotas on access to education is deeply illiberal. You are talking about barring people from universities on the basis of the type of school their parents sent them to because there are too many of 'their type' there. Why not go the whole hog and go for their race, gender, religion and sexual orientation as well? Too many Jews in the legal profession? We better have a quota to stop them taking all the good jobs. It is a disgrace.

The division between state and private schools is arbitrary. There are plenty of private schools that are no better than good state schools. Why should parents who move home, fake religion, bribe schools or use any of the other dubious methods employed to ensure children get into a good state school be rewarded just because they have not gone down the route of the 'evil' private schools? Your rhetoric is simplistic and takes no account of the complexity of actual reality. Any such measures would overwhelmingly help good state grammar, faith and other schools in rich areas and not those pupils from genuinely worse social backgrounds.

Unless you haven't noticed, parents who choose to send their children to private schools are already paying taxes for state school places for their children, taxes they don't get back for places they don't use. The existence of the private school sector effectively subsidises the state sector by billions of pounds a year already.

The other unfortunate factoid you may have missed is that university places are not just some way of rewarding 'merit' or social deservedness. You also need to actually have the grades and skills to be able to flourish at university. If you haven't got the grades you can't go to a top university because you don't have the knowledge (and probably intelligence) to do the course, not because of some scheme of handing out social rewards to the deserving. Universities already have to spend far too much time bringing students up to speed to do their degrees without forcing them to take pupils who don't have the grades.

Instead of looking for ways to restrict private school pupils, what might actually help is looking for ways to improve state schools, increasing the culture of achievement and making sure that good state school pupils get the encouragement and support they need to apply for university and good universities.

Maybe forcing universities that want to charge higher fees to pay for people to go to state schools to identify, encourage and tutor people with the capability/wish to apply for top universities like Oxbridge.