Top private school headmaster attacks ‘politics of envy’

The Telegraph, 29/09/14, the Chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC) will criticise the 'lazy stereotypes', used by many politicians to describe independent schools

Britain’s education system is being undermined by the “politics of envy” and a failure to celebrate academic excellence, according to a leading private school headmaster.

Richard Harman, chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, says politicians and quangos need to spend more time curing the UK’s social mobility “disease” rather than engaging in “class war” against independent schools.

In a speech on Monday, he will say fee-paying schools should be celebrated as some of the world's best-performing institutions and not blamed for the “social ills” of the nation.

The comments – to be made at HMC’s annual meeting in South Wales – follow a series of attacks on private education by key figures such as Alan Milburn, the government’s social mobility tsar, and Sir Michael Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted.

Schools have been threatened with the loss of charitable status, which brings millions of pounds of tax breaks, and told to sponsor more state academies.

Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, who was educated at Westminster School, has criticised the “rift in opportunities” that exists between the state and independent sector.

Michael Gove, the former Education Secretary, who attended the independent Robert Gordon’s College, Aberdeen, has also called on leading private schools to be directly inspected by Ofsted.

But Mr Harman will accuse politicians of seeking to “stir up the politics of envy” rather than find solutions, such as investing in educational partnerships between the two sectors.

He will say that independent schools should not be lectured, especially when “many of you who do so have yourselves benefited from or use the service we provide”, adding: “Hypocrisy is out of tune with the times.”

“It is time to stop scapegoating and start celebrating our schools and their contribution,” he says. “Stop using them as lazy shorthand for the social ills of our country. Move beyond envy and take collective pride in the fact that a small country like Britain has created some of the very best schools in the world.”

Pupils from private schools currently outperform those from the state system, with teenagers twice as likely to gain top A-level grades and secure access to leading universities.

A recent report by Mr Milburn, the former Labour cabinet minister, found that adults’ chances of gaining top jobs were closely linked to their school, with 71 per cent of senior judges and more than half of members of the House of Lords given a fee-paying education.

In his speech, Mr Harman will criticise the UK’s “sclerotic social mobility”, but say that “attacking the excellence of the education we provide will never help solve it”.

Independent schools nationally contribute almost £12 billion to the economy each year, he says.

HMC, which represents 260 leading schools, such as Eton, Harrow, Westminster and Wellington, also provides £365m in financial support to pupils, it is claimed.

“Contrary to what some dinosaurs from the class war era would have you believe, we are not a drain on national resources; we add significant value to UK plc,” he says.

Mr Harman says schools “have solutions to offer” but “too often those in power are embarrassed to be seen talking with us, preferring instead to threaten us with loss of charitable status or more state control”.

In powerful conclusion, he will call on the government to part-fund places – on a means-tested basis – at private schools to the same level as finances are allocated to state schools.

But he adds: “Deploying lazy stereotypes, making school type a proxy for advantage, as Alan Milburn and others are inclined to do, just won’t cut it and won’t in the end make a real difference other than to stir up the politics of envy.

“We want to work together on practical partnership plans to turn the tide. When it comes to social mobility we are part of the solution, not the root of the problem. We want and intend to do more, and the impact will be huge if this attitude is reciprocated by Government and its unelected officials. We live in hope.

“We can’t in the end solve all of society’s ills – education is part of the answer but economic, family and social policy matter too.”

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