Equality of opportunity for all school aged children

Posted: 10th September 2018

A few weeks ago, in a Guardian podcast, Melissa Benn (daughter of Tony Benn) put ‘the case for abolishing private schools’ in the UK.

The thrust of her argument was not new. That equality of opportunity for all school aged children could not be achieved, she argued, whilst those with more money enjoyed the advantages of an education to which the poorer in society had no access. Private schools could be abolished, she stated, look at the example of Finland.

The success of schools in Scandinavian countries is often quoted as an example for the UK. They are higher up the PISA tables than us, have better literacy rates etc, etc. They are, however, also in a completely different socio-economic situation to the UK and it would be physically impossible for us to replicate their conditions here.

Finland is a country with an area of 338,424 square km and a population of 5.5 million. The UK has 30% less space, 242,495 square km and a population of 66.6 million. Looking at the schools that cater for the 11 -16 age range, Finland has 3,450 comprehensive secondary schools and the UK 3,408. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that trying to use Finland as an example for the UK is like analysing the obvious advantages of a small a rural village school over a huge urban comprehensive. Finland has 16 people per square km, the UK has 247!

Most teachers working in the private sector recognise that we are better resourced than our counterparts in the maintained schools. We have between 2 and 3 times more funding per pupil, smaller class sizes and supportive parents who are bought into the education process. But abolishing the private schools is not the answer to our educational woes.

To strip out the only world class education establishments that we have in the UK would be a disaster. There is nothing to show that the state system would rise to meet the challenge; the move would only serve to dumb down our national performance still further. We would just get bigger and bigger schools, with teachers all struggling to even know the individuals in their care let alone provide the individual support needed to nurture their development.

The only solution to Melissa Benn’s problem is better funding for the maintained sector; to provide our colleagues in those schools with a similar, or at least vastly improved, level of funding per pupil. That is the only recipe that, in the long run, would narrow the gap between the state and the private sector. As Finland shows, smaller schools would be more successful.