The Teacher’s Strike and Questionable Superiority of Independent Schools

Today teachers in some schools were going on strike in protest against Thicky Nicky’s proposed academisation of the state school system. The woman with the mad, staring eyes had originally wanted to turn all of Britain’s schools into academies, run by private education companies outside the control of the Local Education Authorities. She’s been forced to go back on this, so that not all schools will be so transformed. Nevertheless, she still wishes more schools were handed over to private sector management.

It’s another massively daft idea, which Mike has debunked several times over at Vox Political. He’s reblogged statistic after statistic and diagram after diagram showing how schools managed by the LEAs perform better and recover quicker from poor performance than either free schools or academies. But this goes by the wayside, as it contradicts over three decades of Thatcherite orthodoxy, which insists that private industry, responding to the free market, automatically knows how to run institutions and concerns better than state managers or educational professionals. As shown by the fact that Howling Mad Morgan herself has never stood in front of a chalkboard trying to teach a group of youngsters, well, just about anything. Like pretty much just about the rest of the Tory party, with the exception of Rhodes Boyson, one of Maggie’s education ministers, who had actually been a teacher.

The Tories’ and New Labour’s entire approach to education is thoroughly wrong. Rather than bringing educational standards down, LEAs and similar state regulators and inspectors in the private sector have been responsible for raising them, including in independent schools. In the 19th century, these varied massively in quality, and it was only with the foundation of the LEAs circa 1902 that standards began to improve and the very worst were forced to close. In the 1960s the numbers of independent schools were expected to decline even further. They didn’t, because the supplied a niche market for ambitious parents wishing to get their children into the elite grammar schools. This is all stated very clearly in S.J. Curtis’ and M.E.A. Boultwood’s An Introductory History of English Education Since 1800, 4th Edition (Foxton: University Tutorial Press 1970). They write:

During the last century [the 19th] schools varied greatly in efficiency. the Newcastle Commission sharply criticised a large number of them. At that time there was no legal obstacle to prevent any individual from opening a school in his own house, even if he possessed no qualification nor experience in teaching. Some of the cases singled out by the Commissioners seem almost inconceivable to a modern reader. These schools were not open to inspection, unless they asked for it, and the inefficient ones were not likely to do this. The Report of the Newcastle Commission gives numerous instances of the terrible conditions which were encountered when the Commissioners visited the worst types of private school. They reported: “When other occupations fail for a time, a private school can be opened, with no capital beyond the cost of a ticket in the window. Any room, however small and close, serves for the purpose; the children sit on the floor, and bring what books they please; whilst the closeness of the room renders fuel superfluous, and even keeps the children quiet by its narcotic effects. If the fees do not pay the rent, the school is dispersed or taken by the next tenant”. The mistresses were described as “generally advanced in life, and their school is usually their kitchen, sitting and bedroom”. The room “was often so small that the children stand in a semicircle round the teacher. Indeed, I have seen the children as closely packed as birds in a nest, and tumbling over each other like puppies in a kennel”.

The mistresses and masters would not be tolerated for one moment at the present day “None are too old, too poor, too ignorant, too feeble, too sickly, too unqualified in one or every way, to regard themselves, and to be regarded by others, as unfit for school-keeping – domestic servants out of place, discharged barmaids, vendors of toys or lollipops, keepers of small eating-houses, of mangles, or of small lodging houses, needlewomen who take on plain or slop work, milliners, consumptive patients in an advanced stage, cripples almost bedridden, persons of at least doubtful temperance, outdoor paupers, men and women of seventy and even

Evan as late as 1869, one school was described as being held “in a small low room, in aback court. There were forty-four boys of ages varying from four to fourteen. In the middle sat the master, a kindly man, but a hopeless cripple, whose lower limbs appeared to be paralysed, and who was unable to stand up. The boys formed a dense mass around him, swaying irregularly backwards and forwards, while he was feebly protesting against the noise. In a corner the wife was sitting minding the six or eight youngest children”. One wonders what kind of education the pupils received…(pp. 301-2).

The Commissioners came straight to the point when they offered an explanation for the popularity of private schools. To send a child to one of these institutions was a mark of respectability: “the children were more respectable and the teachers more inclined to fall in with the wishes of the parents. The latter, in choosing such schools for their children, stand in an independent position, and are not accepting a favour from their social superiors”. In fact, the motives of the parents could be summed up in the one word “snobbery”. (p. 302)

This was when many other countries, such as the Netherlands, Prussia and Switzerland, had a good school systems and a much higher literacy rate than in England.

Nevertheless, a sequence of reforms began in which good schools began to receive state grants and qualifications were issued to those wishing to teach. Schools also began to be inspected and the worst closed. Further reforms began with the education act of 1944, which opened up independent schools to state inspection.

The Government did not contemplate the closing of efficient private schools. The Act of 1944 directed the Minister of Education to appoint a Registrar of Independent Schools who should keep a register of them. Certain schools which were already recognised as efficient secondary schools, and some preparatory and private schools which had previously been inspected, were exempt from registration. A school found to be inefficient because of inadequate buildings, or an unqualified staff, or for some other grave reason, could be removed from the register. The proprietor was given the right of appeal to an Independent Schools’ Tribunal consisting of a chairman appointed by the Lord Chancellor from the legal profession and two other members appointed by the Lord President of the Council from persons who possessed teaching or administrative experience. No officials, either of the Ministry or of a L.E.A. are eligible for appointment.

This section of the Act could not be brought into operation at once because of the shortage of H.M.I.s and difficulties as regards building materials and labour and the lack of teachers, which made it unreasonable that schools should be required to remedy their deficiencies within a fixed time. By March 1949 the situation had eased, and the inspection of independent schools began and continued at the rate of about 150 a month. By 1957, the Ministry had recognised 1,450 independent schools as efficient, and it was considered that this section of the Act could be put into force completely. In July of that year, proprietors were notified that they would be required to register their schools by 31 March 1958. The registration was provisional, and its continuance depended upon the kind of report rendered by the inspectors after their visit. During 1957, 145 schools were closed, of which 138 were of recent origin and which had become known to the Ministry for the first time. This is a comment on the strictness with which earlier regulations had been enforced.

It was expected that the number of private schools would rapidly decrease after 1944, but this did not happen. The reason was that many middle-class parents were faced with a difficult problem. Their children could not obtain entry to a grammar school unless they were qualified through the grammar school selection test at eleven plus. The only other way open to them was through a public or direct grant school, and these had a long waiting list. Competition was so keen that few children who failed to pass the grammar school entrance test would be considered. The result was that a number of private schools which offered an education similar to that given by the grammar school came into existence. The necessity of registration and inspection guaranteed their efficiency. Moreover, some primary schools, run by private teachers who were qualified, opened their doors to young children whose parents were anxious for them to pass the selection test. (p. 304).

I’ve also heard from talking to friends of mine that many of the smaller public schools in the 19th and early 20th century, such as those depicted in the Billy Bunter comic of a certain vintage, were in a very precarious economic position. They depended very much on fee-paying parents, and could not offer any more than a mere handful of free places to pupils or risk bankruptcy.

And instead of raising standards for schools, successive right-wing administrations from Thatcher’s onwards have actually lowered them. You don’t need a teaching qualification to teach at a private school. And the impression I’ve had that in order to make privately operated schools economically viable, the government has allowed them to make pay and conditions actually worse for the teaching and ancillary staff.

So the evidence, historical and based on contemporary statistics and conditions, points to academies actually being less efficient, and providing our children with a worse education than schools managed by the LEAs. But what’s this when measured against Thatcherite orthodoxy, and the need to provide a lucrative income stream to fat cat donors in the academy chains.

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