Education notes - Eton College on Benefits Street

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 237 February/March 2014

The unemployed and the working poor have been the targets of a vicious hate campaign whipped up by the ruling class and its servants in the British media, most recently with the furore over the Channel 4 documentary Benefits Street. This is ‘class war from above’. Combined with the racism directed against migrant workers from Eastern Europe, an atmosphere of hate, rivalry and fear dominates large sections of society. The ruling class is confident that it has defeated any challenge to cut state welfare to the bone, can blame the poor for the crisis and secure its privileged way of life. With silence and cunning it covers up the huge transfers of public money, massive subsidies and tax relief to their private finances.

Any real discussion of Benefits Street should start with the 7% of the age group who are educated at private schools like Eton College which has provided 19 British Prime Ministers, including Cameron. Together, these schools provide 70% of the top judges, 62% of the House of Lords, 55% of senior solicitors, 54% of company chief executives and 54% of the best-paid journalists in this country. This elite is handsomely paid, in many cases from public funds, enabling them to send their own offspring to Eton and other ‘public’ (private) schools and so repeat the cycle of privilege. These private schools are registered with the Charity Commission and gain tax benefits which aid the fee-paying parents of Eton College by about £2,000 a year. Further public money is transferred to this privileged sector by a range of pay-offs including the 1995 National Lottery grant of £4.6m towards a sports complex for a school that already had 30 cricket squares, two swimming pools, 24 football, rugby and hockey pitches and a gym. The College paid £200,000 and contributed 4.5 hectares of land in return for exclusive use of the facilities during the daytime.

‘Free’ schools built on Benefits Street

State-funded ‘private’ schools, or ‘free’ schools and academies are a major conduit of public finances into private hands. Since 2010 more than 3,444 schools – including more than half of secondary schools – have taken on academy or free school status. Education Secretary Michael Gove wants to destroy the state education system and break up Local Education Authorities (LEAs) because he is ideologically opposed to state welfare. Gove is also keen to divert as much school funding as possible into the hands of big business. In January The Guardian led with the headline: ‘Revealed: taxpayer-funded academies paying millions to private firms’. Documents obtained from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests ‘show that taxpayer-funded academy chains have paid millions of pounds into the private businesses of directors, trustees and their relatives’. One example given is Grace Academy which runs three schools in the Midlands and was set up by Conservative donor Lord Edmiston. Payments include £533,789 to Edmiston’s company International Motors Limited and £4,253 to Subaru UK Ltd where he is the controlling party. More than £173,000 was also paid to the Edmiston charities Grace Foundation and Christian Vision. In addition, £108,816 has been paid to a company controlled by the son-in-law of one trustee. Grace Academy also employs Gary Spicer, the brother of Lady Edmiston, as its executive director on a salary of £30,000 plus pension. Spicer’s own company received more than £367,732 from Grace Academy for consultancy work. Leigh Academies Trust, run by Michael Gove’s newly appointed schools commissioner Frank Green, has paid £111,469 as consultancy fees since 2010 to Shoreline, a private company he had founded. Gove’s cash bonanza can only be described as ‘crony capitalism’.

FoI at DfE

Requests for information about bidding for ‘free’ school financing from the Department for Education (DfE) under the FOIA have been treated like acts of spying and treason by Gove and his goons. You would think that it was his personal budget, not public money, although we know that Gove was capable of claiming MPs’ expenses for a £34.99 foam cot mattress from Toys ‘R’ Us in 2006, a small addition to the £13,259 he claimed for the cost of moving to his Kensington home. A recent National Audit Office report says that £1.1bn has been given to ‘free’ schools but information is hidden about who receives it, who is bidding for ‘free’ schools and what the criteria are for who gets the money and who does not. Gove runs the education department like his personal fiefdom with no accountability, transparency or honesty. A Twitter account, @toryeducation – that seems to have been run by at least one of Gove’s special advisers – carried such abusive messages to journalists and opponents of Gove’s policies that the number of complaints received about it forced DfE officials to look into ‘cleaning it up’ last year.

BIS in a mess

A £200m cut in the funds that allow disadvantaged students to attend university is being planned by Chancellor Osborne. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) a relatively new government department, was set up to help secure Britain’s place in ‘global competitiveness’ and the digital economy. One purpose was to reduce the domination of wealthy private sector kids by encouraging ‘social mobility’ and supporting bright working class students into higher education with direct government funding.

Vince Cable, the loud-mouthed Secretary of State for BIS, is the minister responsible for selling-off the Royal Mail, at a loss to the tax payer of £2.8bn, due to grossly undervalued shares. His department’s finances are in chaos, apparently caused in part by an explosion in course fees paid to private education providers which is wrecking the ‘student opportunity fund’. Cost savings at BIS will be at the expense of poor students and ‘safeguarding future British prosperity’ will be restored to the usual privately educated elite.

It is reported that in May 2013 Eton College set a scholarship exam question asking candidates how, if they were Prime Minister, they might defend using the army against protesters after two days of violent protests attacking public buildings and killing several policemen. The ruling class knows that it faces trouble for living off Benefits Street and that tolerance for wealthy scroungers will not last for ever.

Susan Davidson


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