FORMER private school pupil John McDonnell, Labour’s shadow chancellor, is flag-waving for the abolition of schools like the one that he used to attend.
As the son of a bus driver and trade unionist, he does not fall into the ‘posh kid’ category too often associated with fee-paying schools. Like a substantial minority of private school pupils today, he was nevertheless able to take advantage of an independent school education.
What is more, he was a grammar school pupil before taking his place at an independent, fee-paying boarding school. Because he had declared a desire to join the priesthood, the Catholic Church was happy to cough up the funding for him to attend St Joseph’s College in Ipswich. By the age of 16, though, John claims he discovered girls. He dropped the religious vocation and moved into unskilled employment.
His formal education eventually continued with A-Levels passed at Burnley Technical College followed by a bachelor’s degree in government and politics at Brunel University. A master’s degree followed in politics and sociology at Birkbeck, University of London.
It did not take John long to work out that becoming a trade unionist and politician was a quicker way to sainthood than anything on offer from Rome. So, up the greasy pole he has climbed to become a Labour MP and shadow chancellor. Along the way he has acquired impeccable Left-wing credentials and has become a darling of his party.
At the Labour Party Conference beginning today in Brighton he will be roaring his support for the educational wreckers in an ‘Abolish Eton’ debate. Anti-independent school fanatics and their camp followers from the ‘Blob’ of the educational establishment are metaphorically baying for blood. Nothing but the extermination and eradication of private schooling will do.
A group calling itself Labour Against Private Schools (Laps) will present a motion to conference that flouts our international human rights obligations and calls for the integration of private schools into the state system with seizure of their assets. It will win much support. In a piece for the Guardian, Melissa Benn, sister of a viscount, captures the frenzied excitement of revolution. Like a prophetess of old, and quoting the social historian David Kynaston, she foresees the collapse of a ‘morally rotten’ bastion of privilege and the advent of ‘a long overdue historic moment’.
More appropriately, Melissa might have quoted from The Second Coming by W B Yeats:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world . . .
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The fevered attack on independent schools that is now unfolding is delusional, ignorant and vengeful. Against the shadowy backdrop of so much of our under-achieving school system, independent schools offer a shining light.
According to the OECD, 15-year-olds in the Asia-Pacific super-star education systems are up to three years ahead of ours. How remarkable, then, that many of the wealthiest parents in Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong send their children to UK independent schools or, indeed, to satellites of these schools in their own countries! Worldwide, when it comes to schooling, UK private schooling is seen as the provider of greatest excellence.
The Labour Party is moving to destroy this excellence for the simple reason that it cannot be matched by a sufficient number of state schools. ‘Exterminate! Exterminate!’ will be seen as the only solution to this problem by some Dalek delegates in Brighton. Education has become a brutal political battlefield with many of our best schools in line to fill the casualty list.
Last year, a teaching assistant delegate told the Labour conference: ‘If we give [children] a proper education . . . we’ll probably not have any Tories because we will have brought up our kids properly.’
In state schools, Labour’s takeover is almost complete. At the time of the last general election in 2017 the TES reported that, in mock polls held in schools around the country, 75 per cent of pupils voted for Jeremy Corbyn. It also discovered that only 8 per cent of teachers vote Tory while 68 per cent back Labour.
The misplaced hysteria over school budgets whipped up by vote-seeking politicians from across the parties has fuelled the politicisation of schooling, a near 900 per cent real terms increase in educational spending since the 1950s notwithstanding.
The truth about our failing school system is too unbearable for most politicians across the spectrum to confront. David Cameron told his party conference in 2015 that ‘Britain has the lowest social mobility in the developed world’. He failed to point out that this is the crowning achievement of comprehensivisation.
The Labour Party conference is barking up the wrong tree with its attack on private schooling. The real social division in Britain is access to good schools, whether they be in the private or in the state sector.
In 2016 the Social Mobility Commission, chaired by Labour’s Alan Milburn, reported that a child living in one of England’s most disadvantaged areas was 27 times more likely to go to an inadequate school than a child living in one of the least disadvantaged.
To prosper in the 21st century global economy the UK needs excellent schools. Our independent sector has never done more to support and work with the state sector and to help the less privileged. Our comprehensive school system is not failing because of the availability of private education. It is failing because of its own inadequacies. It is time that political parties of whatever persuasion faced up to them.