Tristram Hunt came to Walthamstow this morning and made a speech where he highlighted the fact that ‘there can be little doubt that Britain is an increasingly divided country. Riven by growing disparities in the distribution of wealth, power and opportunity.’ He wanted to focus on one particular aspect of that divide: ‘A divide that has become emblematic of a country run for the benefit of the privileged few not the many; The divide between private and state education. ‘
He recognised that ‘ poverty need not cap aspiration; and that hard work and talent can overcome the highest of hurdles; ‘ but that ‘there was also no escaping the fact that students from some state schools had overcome so much more in order to get to University than those that went to certain private schools. ‘
He asserted that whilst he was not alone in doing so we must recognise that ‘If we are to prosper as a country, we need to be a more equal country. If we are to make the most of the wealth of talent that exists in every community, we need to give every child a chance. And if we are to be a country which works for most people, we need to break down the divisions in our school system. ‘
Tristram then went on to outline some of the ways in which this divide could be overcome. He wanted a new settlement. He announced that a Labour government would ‘amend the Independent Schools Regulations to introduce a new ‘Schools Partnership Standard’ that will require all state-subsidised private schools to form a hard-edged partnership with state schools.’
He was quite specific about some of what would be required: ‘we will be crystal clear when amending the regulations about what criteria schools will be judged upon to pass the standard. For example, as a bare minimum:
All private schools should provide qualified teachers to help to deliver specialist subject knowledge to state schools.
All secondary private schools should assist with expertise to help get disadvantaged state school kids into top class universities, including Oxbridge.
And all private schools should run joint extra-curricular programmes where the state schools is an equal partner. ‘
As he ruefully acknowledged later, there is no more money for carrots and so he was reliant upon the stick to get results. These would be achieved by ‘pass[ing] new legislation which amends the 1988 Local Government Act so that private schools’ business rate relief becomes conditional upon passing the Schools Partnership Standard. And we will make sure the Independent Schools Inspectorate demonstrates the rigour its sector is renowned for – and assess private schools commitment to this standard as part of their inspection cycle. ‘
Class war? I don’t think so. But a belated recognition of class divisions and inequality as being crucial elements in educational outcomes. I think so.