It’s unlikely that Jeremy Corbyn was paying much attention to England’s resounding win over Australia in the Rugby World Cup quarter finals on Saturday. As Kyle Sinckler burst through the Australian midfield to score the game’s crucial try, the Leader of the Opposition was listening to Boris Johnson’s opening remarks in the House of Commons’s first Saturday sitting since 1982.
Famously a cricket fan but hitherto non-committal on the oval ball game (having opted not to attend the opening ceremony of the 2015 World Cup), Mr Corbyn would do well to tune in to this Saturday’s semi final against New Zealand. Whether England win or – as most objective pundits predict – lose to a wondrously talented All Blacks side, they will still provide a timely pointer to Corbyn about the realities of our present education system.
Often wrongly derided as the preserve of the chinless, Barbour-wearing types who fill Twickenham’s over-priced stands on international match days, Rugby Union has long captured a far wider social collective than its detractors realise. At any local club across the country, you will find far more ordinary, hard-working plumbers, builders, and electricians than you will plummy voiced financiers.
And this England team is a glorious reflection of that: Sinckler, the marauding prop, grew up on a council estate in Tooting, and only took up the game when his mother took him down to Battersea Ironsides because he had been deemed too physical to play football; Ellis Genge, Sinckler’s front row colleague, hails from the infamous Knowle West estate in Bristol; Courtney Lawes, the hard-hitting second rower, is the son of a pub bouncer; Mark Wilson, the back rower, grew up on a Cumbrian farm, and Jamie George and Tom Curry are both the progeny of teachers.
These England players are no blue-blooded aristocrats. They are the products of relentless hard work, ambition, and no little natural talent. A quick glance at their alma maters can be misleading: it is easy to see that Mako Vunipola and Jonathan Joseph attended Millfield, that Mako’s brother Billy and Maro Itoje are Harrovians, and that Curry went to Oundle, and deduce that the old educational hierarchies have not changed. But that rather misses the point. For while well over half of England’s World Cup squad did attend independent schools, many of them only did so because they were awarded generous scholarships and bursaries.
Sinckler’s case is particularly illuminating. Having cajoled his inspirational PE teacher Stacia Long into starting a Rugby team at Graveney School in Battersea, he was spotted playing against an independent school and invited to join the Harlequins academy. After playing for Surrey and England at age-group levels, Sinckler was then offered a scholarship to attend Epsom College for his sixth form studies, paving the way for what has developed into a glittering career at senior level with Harlequins, England, and the British and Irish Lions. Perhaps someone of Sinckler’s immense talent might have made it anyway, without needing to go to an independent school – but it is instructive that a number of other former Graveney pupils have since followed Sinckler on scholarships to other leading schools in the South East.
And for every Sinckler, Billy and Mako Vunipola, there are thousands of pupils who are not lighting up the World Cup but whose life chances have been immeasurably improved by the opportunities provided by their time in independent education. The Independent Schools Council reports that its members spent over £420 million on means-tested fee assistance in 2018-19, up 6 per cent from the previous year, while a third of the most disadvantaged students at Oxford in 2018-19 had attended an independent school on a bursary or scholarship. A large number of prominent independent schools have already announced their intention to move towards needs-blind admissions, and they are raising large sums money to do so.
And yet Corbyn and the Abolish Eton campaign would undo all of this sterling work. One of the saddest features of the British educational landscape in recent years has been the ever dwindling number of schools in the state sector that have managed to maintain regular competitive sport. There are many reasons for this, including the practice of selling off playing fields to raise funds and the government’s unwillingness to invest in the training of PE teachers to the same degree as it has in other subjects. (Currently, in a laudable bid to counteract a shortfall, aspiring Physics teachers are eligible for a £26,000 tax-free bursary while they complete their PGCE, whereas those with a specialism in PE have only the option of a high-interest loan).
There are some shining limits amid this gloomy landscape: schools such as John Fisher in Purley, Campion in Hornchurch, and Lymm High in Cheshire have admirably managed to continue competing with some of the best independent schools on the Rugby pitch. In recent years, the Premiership clubs and the RFU have teamed up to support a network of state schools and sixth form colleges as part of the Advanced Apprenticeship in Sporting Excellence Scheme. Facilities and coaching at these institutions are every bit as good as at independent schools, and among the current England squad, Genge, Jonny May (both Hartpury College) Jack Singleton (Oaklands College), Jack Nowell, Luke Cowan-Dickie (both Truro College), and Joe Cokanasiga (St Paul’s Catholic College) have all graduated from the scheme. But sadly they are few and far between, with only fourteen centres nationally.
It has already been widely noted that re-distributing independent schools’ assets would put enormous pressure on the state sector, while also costing the taxpayer £3.5 billion each year. But it would also make it far harder for talented children like Sinckler and the Vunipolas to fulfil their potential. It is inconceivable that there would be sufficient funding for competitive sport to take place in a newly expanded state sector, given all of the additional financial pressures that the proposed re-distribution would entail.
Our present education system is clearly imperfect. No matter how hard independent schools try to widen access, unjustified inequalities based on accidents of birth will persist. But the move to abolish – rather than reform – the independent sector is not the solution, and would end up entrenching inequalities rather than eradicating them.
Jeremy Corbyn may not have the time in the midst of the Brexit chaos to watch England’s semi-final. But when the dust eventually settles, he should be mindful of implementing a policy that will limit the chances of the very children whose interests he claims to represent.