Not logical, but ideological

Tuesday 20 August 2019

The independent school sector is under scrutiny like never before. Calls from various quarters to add VAT to school fees, nationalise all independent schools, plus moves to abolish charitable status or, at least, remove all tax benefits should be sources of concern for the sector.

There was a meeting in June this year at the House of Commons proposing the “phasing out of private schools” which covered many of these options. I wrote a blog about it:

New voice

The new Labour campaign, Labour Against Private Schools (@AbolishEton), has been getting a lot of media coverage, in particular one of the teachers behind it, grammar-school-educated Holly Rigby, who teaches in an inner London academy and is a self-described “Corbynista”. When interviewed by the Tes about LAPS, she described it as “class war”. The problem with ideology, of course, is that a one-size-fits-all approach can lead to the lowest common denominator in standards.

The campaign is calling for:

  • Universities to admit the same proportion of independent school students as in the state sector.
  • Nationalisation of historic endowments of the larger independent schools.
  • Withdrawal of charitable status and “tax breaks”.

In a bid to counter the campaign, the ISC has written to Labour councillors at more than 70 different councils to try to explain the consequences of their proposals, including on class sizes and budgets in schools in their area. Some have retweeted the letter, accusing it as being part of “Project Fear”.

Still predictable

So far, so expected. In the latest report from the Sutton Trust, many of the figures quoted about representation of independent alumni in key professions the judiciary and Parliament are lower than the previous report from 2016. The likelihood is that these figures will continue to come down. But also the figures don’t differentiate between pupils whose parents paid the full fees and those who were on bursaries. However, the report does add weight to the growing social shift against the sector.

But the figures quoted by the Sutton Trust also included, for instance, Olympians and pop stars. The successes of independent schools in these spheres are more attributable to the fact that this sector recognises the importance of sport and music (as well as the arts) as key ingredients to nurturing rounded individuals. The fact that the budget squeeze is making it very difficult for state schools to support these activities should hardly be an accusation thrown at the doors of our finest independents.

Could do better

Yes, the independent school sector could continue to do more, offer more to its state counterparts, increase the number on full bursaries from the current one per cent, but there is a limit. Some small prep schools in regional areas have been under strain, with dozens closing or merging in the last few years due to cost pressures.

Independent schools in the UK are renowned around the world for their excellence. The opening of British schools overseas and the huge demand they are getting is testament to this.

If independent schools are “phased out” or attacked with threats of VAT on fees or rates relief removal, while other charities are exempt, then what’s the benefit to education in the UK as a whole? We should be considering investing more in the state sector and aiming to replicate the innovation and excellence in the independent school sector.

Counter arguments:

  •          Rather than trying to abolish independent schools and for the state to incur an additional £3bn+ cost each year to educate their pupils…wouldn’t “£100,000 extra for EVERY state school each year” make a better headline?
  •          Promote partnerships (ref:
  •          Emphasise soft power overseas from the independent brand.
  •          Explain how our schools use their independence to innovate eg Bedales curriculum.
  •          And support the languages needed post-Brexit.
  •          While Eton is not representative of the independent sector as a whole, perhaps the question might be why is Eton so successful at producing prime ministers?

Andrew Maiden is the editor of Independent Insight and organiser of the i25 awards. Andrew can be contacted on