The Independent sector has been under the cosh lately. Threats and attacks from Labour, are par for the course, but Tories have shown an increased willingness to attack and threaten the sector. Mays Education Green paper seeking to improve the number of good school places, was full of implied and direct threats to the sector. More sticks than carrots. Michael Gove, a former (privately educated) education secretary who educates his children in the state sector, used a Times column in 2017 to attack the independent sector in a way that would have been unthinkable by a Conservative politician even a decade ago.The Tories had also proposed in 2017, a loss of charity status , and though they did pause , then backtrack, it has been a deeply worrying period for the sector. The Conservatives approach comes partly from their on-going identity crisis under Mays leadership. Traditional Tory values have been kicked into the long grass, in favour of seeking to target those who feel let down by the system, the disenfranchised and those that are just about getting by. But there is also a feeling that there is more to be gained politically by attacking the sector than by supporting it. After all, relatively few parents have children , or aspire to have children , educated in the private sector. What the Tories havent quite cottoned on to though, is that its all very well seeking to appeal to a different target group and to broaden your base, but its not very clever to do so if you concurrently upset your traditional core support base, whether that be parents with children in the independent sector, or, for that matter, the self-employed and small businesses.
As for Labour, abolishing the VAT exemption for private schools was a pledge in their last manifesto. It wants to add VAT to private school fees to pay for free school meals for state primary pupils. Few doubt that Corbyn and his leading advisers (ironically many privately educated) want to abolish private schools.(although the legal and political difficulties of doing so are very significant)
In short, Ed Dorrell of the TES was probably fairly close to the mark when he said ‘The scale of the PR and political challenge faced by the independent sector is Leviathan. Something radical needs to be done to avert disaster.’
The sector clearly feels, more generally ,that it is poorly represented in the media ,which takes little account of the good work it is doing in communities, through partnerships with local state schools (which have increased dramatically over the last 5 years), in support of academies, in providing support and access to specialist curriculum subjects, and extra curricular support, in sharing its facilities, in offering bursaries and scholarships to the disadvantaged and last ,but by no means least, in exporting British education. Indeed ,its arguable that there are very few areas where the UK is seen internationally to still have a competitive advantage, and to be a centre of excellence ,but private education is still one and so should be cherished.
This year’s Independent Schools Council Annual Report attempts to redress some of the balance, robustly asserting the financial benefits of fee-charging schools and the good they are doing for society.
The schools bring economic benefits and taxpayer savings totalling more than £20 billion a year by educating pupils who would otherwise need state places and by providing employment, community facilities and tax contributions, according to their analysis. Oxford Economics found that private schools saved the taxpayer £3.5 billion last year because children were not taking up state school places. In addition, they and their suppliers paid £4.1 billion in tax.
Their gross domestic product, the value of the work they supported across the economy through their spending, was £13.7 billion. They also supported 302,000 jobs, more than the city of Liverpool, the analysis claimed. The ISC said that families received more than £1 billion of help with fees. Of the £864 million provided by schools themselves, £422 million went on means-tested bursaries and scholarships, £24 million more than in 2017.
Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the ISC, said: “It is hugely encouraging to see an increase once again in means-tested bursary provision for lower-income families. We have seen schools embark upon ambitious fundraising campaigns to support this important work.”
However above inflation, yearly increases in fees is creating the perception that the sector is ,if anything, becoming more elitist and inaccessible, to all but the very wealthiest in the UK. . Scholarships may be helping a few but hardly disrupt the bigger picture .Families using private schools pay an average £14,289 a child, and boarding fees in London have reached £40,000 on average.
Some in the sector are doing what they can not just to cap fee rises, but to row back. Millfield, for example, has just reduced its fees by 10%, but they are the exception not the rule . Most of the top schools still seem to be in a never ending facilities race which impacts on fees and the pockets of alumni. Again, more and better facilities creates an even greater perceived gap between the state and independent sectors, with state schools under funding pressure.This is hardly helped by independent schools poaching some of their best pupils and teachers . It is also true that too many bursaries, in the past, have been offered not to the poorest children, but to those middle class families who are just about making ends meet. Its pretty clear that a significant minority may have lost sight of their original charitable purposes and the founding principles of their schools.
The Times quotes Tom Richmond, a former ministerial adviser and director of the new education think-tank EDSK, who said: “While it is welcome in principle to see an increase in the level of ‘fee assistance’ being given to pupils in independent schools, the census provides no evidence to show that this money is directly benefiting poorer families as opposed to subsidising middle-class families who are struggling to cope with above-inflation fee rises.”
That said, its undeniable that the sector is taking its public benefit requirement very seriously. Not just because of the legal requirement ,under charity law, to do so. It sees mutual benefit in closer ties between the sectors. 86% of ISC schools are in mutually beneficial partnerships with state schools, sharing expertise, best practice and facilities to the benefit of children in all the schools involved.
Of course, not all private schools seek charity status, and about a third of schools plough their own furrows, free from potential interference from politicians. Perhaps more should be trying to do this. But it is important for the sectors to build bridges and to continue to create the kind of partnerships that add value for both parties and to identify and share best practice. There also needs to be a more adult and better informed political conversation about the benefits (and dis benefits) of private education, and more innovative solutions to making these schools more inclusive, rather than, as is perceived ,by some at least, as ever more elitist.
Note For those interested in the Independent Sector, and its future, it is worth taking a look at a new book, a collection of essays, just launched ‘The State of Independence-Key Challenges Facing Private Schools today,’ edited by Dr David James and Jane Lunnon. James is a former teacher in residence at DfE, taught at Wellington College, and was Director of its Education Festival and is now deputy Head at Bryanston. Lunnon was Deputy Head at Wellington College, and is now Head of Wimbledon High (GDST)