23 September 2019

Why we must take Labour’s ludicrous schools policies seriously

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So, the Labour Party Conference has adopted a policy of scrapping independent schools. The motion, supported by the likes of Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, commits the party “to integrate all private schools into the state sector”. The first steps on this calamitous path would be to withdraw the schools’ charitable status and limiting universities to only accepting 7% of their pupils from private schools.

There’s more than a whiff of hypocrisy about all this. Take Diane Abbott, the Shadow Home Secretary, who sent her son to the fee-paying City of London school.

In a TV interview, Abbott offered a pretty limp defence: “I did what I did and I talked about it at the time. You can’t keep rehearsing those arguments. That was many years ago. What we have to look at is what will Labour’s position be going forward. There’s a lot of interest on the conference floor in debating this and if that is the Labour Party’s position I will support it.”

Then there is the Shadow Attorney General, Shami Chakrabarti. Three years ago it emerged that she had sent her son to Dulwich College, which has annual fees of £18,000. Perhaps the lad will have time to complete his A-Levels before the Corbynista Commissars seize the building.

Labour’s class war pitch might have some populist potential but the double standards involved make it excruciating. We are likely to have a General Election before the end of November. If a Labour Government is returned, the new Cabinet will resolve that now they and their own children have climbed the ladder provided by independent schools it is time to kick the ladder away.

Nor does it even seem like particularly smart politics. A ComRes survey commissioned by the Independent School Council found that only one in ten voters would be more likely to support a political party that pledged to abolish independent schools, compared to one in five who said they would be less likely to do so.

Of course, with public opinion depth matters as well as breadth. Labour might feel that even if most people are mildly opposed to the idea that it is still worth providing some red meat for the membership. Perhaps Corbyn had lost some of his anti-establishment chic. This could help restore it. While it might not win over Conservative or Lib Dem voters it could be something to mobilise the base.

For those of us who believe in a free society, this is pretty shocking. Consider the wording of the motion that Labour agreed to at their gathering in Brighton yesterday. The “endowments, investments and properties held by private schools” would be “redistributed democratically and fairly across the country’s educational institutions”. The idea that the schools would be “integrated” into the state system is a limp euphemism for what is a policy of theft, suited less to a social democratic political party than a communist one.

Indeed, monopolisation of education has been a core characteristic of totalitarian regimes, from Lenin to Castro’s Cuba. (If that comparison sounds far-fetched, remember that John McDonnell has promised that a future Labour government will be the “staunchest allies to support the Cuban revolution”).

Even if Chakrabarti and Abbott had held their noses and packed their sons off to the local comp this should still be ringing alarm bells. Does it not occur to anyone that if a school building can be grabbed by the state that other property might follow? It’s not as though this is a one-off either – as Tim Worstall noted on CapX recently, McDonnell has also mooted forcing private landlords to sell their homes to tenants.

That’s to say nothing to the numerous practical hurdles to this hare-brained scheme. For one thing all the pupils currently educated privately would have to be paid for by the state, at a cost of roughly £3bn. The ‘redistribution’ mooted by the conference motion would also surely be subject to some extremely vigorous legal challenges. And as the chief executive of the Independent Schools Council, Julie Robinson, has noted, the proposal would breach the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees a right to educational choice.

Under the circumstances, the other big announcement from Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner – the abolition of Ofsted – seems rather mundane.  But it’s every bit as big a victory for the hard left, which has campaigned for the regulator to be scrapped pretty much since its inception.

Make no mistake, this is a serious threat to school standards. Labour offer pupils and teachers the soft, comforting message that the “stress” of their performance being checked will be eased. There is some suggestion of local government box-tickers providing some alternative monitoring.

As Luke Tryl, a former director of strategy at Ofsted, says:

“We know by now that Jeremy Corbyn regards scrutiny — whether it be from the free press or the independent civil service — as an expendable impediment to his plans. Now Ofsted, which prides itself on reporting “without fear or favour”, has fallen into that category too. None of which is to say that when Ofsted inspections happen, they aren’t stressful. Any type of inspection or examination is. But inspections happen on average for two days, once every four years. A small price to pay to reassure parents that their child is getting a good education. Proposing to abolish Ofsted to reduce teacher stress is a bit like proposing to ban dentists so that we can avoid our six-monthly checks.”

What do teachers think? The Guardian reports that “a snap poll conducted by Teacher Tapp, a nationally representative survey of more than 3,000 teachers in England, 46% supported Labour’s proposal while 31% opposed it and 23% were undecided”. Given that a lot of teachers already vote Labour I’m not sure it will win them more votes from the profession. Any bright idea for upheaval or meddling tends to produce a groan in the staff room.

The upshot is that Labour has probably got their electoral sums wrong on schools policy. They are keen to point out that only 7% of children are educated at independent schools. But then Labour are also hostile to grammar schools, church schools, free schools and academies, all of which encompass a great many more pupils.

As for the plan to close down Ofsted, that threatens to undermine all the work that has been done to improve state schools – and if anything is going to make private schools obsolete, it’s a comprehensive sector producing the highest standards without parents paying any fees.

It’s possible, of course, that many voters greet these proposals with a shrug of public indifference. Many will assume that none of this stuff will actually happen. After all, Labour is well behind in the opinion polls. But we’ve been here before. Back in 2017 Labour were heading for a great crashing defeat and ended up nearly neck-and-neck with the Tories.

Would independent schools survive the machinations of a hung Parliament? Might the SNP vote through abolition with the proviso that Scotland was exempted, allowing rich English parents to pay for boarding school places north of the border?

With proposals so far-fetched it might be that most people don’t take Jeremy Corbyn seriously. That might prove the greatest danger of all.

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Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist