The annual Labour Party Conference was held recently at The Brighton Centre in East Sussex.
Numerous issues were on the agenda. Delegates voted for a ‘Green New Deal,’ which will subsidise electric transport, a decision was taken to back Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit plan, and John McDonnell outlined the proposal for a 32 hour working week with no loss of pay.
Following the failed attempt to abolish moderate deputy leader Tom Watson’s job, Momentum founder Jon Lansman tabled a successful motion at the National Executive Committee to disaffiliate the Party with Labour Students. It was alleged that the group had fallen behind on affiliation fees, although Labour Students deny this. This motion will not affect the position of Scottish Labour Students.
One issue in particular which provoked public interest, however, was the scheme to abolish private schools.
In the process of this, quotas would be introduced, limiting the number of private school students admitted to university.
On Sunday, Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner disclosed the proposal for the “integration” of private schools with the state sector, with the intention of “making the whole education system fairer”.
Delegates then voted in favour of including the motion in the next Labour Party Manifesto.
The plan seems to be focused on a gradual process of monetary (and eventually property) redistribution, rather than an abolition program implemented with immediate effect under a Labour government. The first proposed education budget aims to “close the tax loopholes used by the private schools” and remove their charitable status, using this money to “improve the lives of all children.”
Nonetheless, the practical implications of this motion have caused concern for the staff, parents and pupils at private schools.
Melvyn Roffe, headmaster at George Watson’s College, a private school in Edinburgh, said he was “disappointed but not surprised” by the motion, arguing that it was a “totally self defeating”and designed to “hammer some of the most successful schools” while not solving the problem of an underfunded state sector.
Roffe also pointed to the schools long tradition of working in partnership with the state sector, suggesting that reduced resources would severely limit this in the future.
Labour MP for Edinburgh South, Ian Murray agreed that the focus should be on improving a state school system that he believes to have been “decimated” in Scotland, rather than an abolition of private schools. He argued that abolition wouldn’t solve the issues of inequality in the state sector, which are a result of the ability (or inability) of parents to purchase property in the catchment areas of better performing state schools.
Murray told The Student “I believe any policy must be to create a level playing field and that means lifting the standard of state education… The solving of the inequality issues is by making state education as good as or better than the private sector and that is the challenge”
Murray is in favour of the removal of the ‘charitable status’ afforded private schools (which grants tax rebates) and scrapping the business rates paid by state schools.
Another aspect of the abolition scheme was the proposal to introduce quotas limiting the number of private school students admitted to universities to 7 per cent. This is the proportion of children at private schools in the wider population. Currently, 10 per cent of university students in the UK went to private school, with the number rising to 30 per cent at the University of Edinburgh.
While some of the policies voted for built on Labour’s 2017 manifesto, including the proposed National Education Service, the conference did mark a shift further to the left for the Party, probably a result of the increased role of momentum in party politics.
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