Why is it that those who pay for private education are often criticised? The answer is that they are suspected of buying an unfair advantage for their children which exaggerates inequalities in society. However, significant inequalities already exist within state education which is why some schools are massively oversubscribed. Parents use indirect means to take advantage of such inequalities, for example by paying inflated prices for houses in the catchments of good state schools. When these indirect means are included, far more parents are paying for their children’s education than the 7% who buy the services of a private school.
Is it really a bad thing to buy a service that is also provided by the government? I would argue no. Indeed it can be a very good thing, as it reduces the demand for public services, allowing the government to increase the per user spend and improve the educational provision for those who remain in the state system.
Nationally only about 40% of those families who could afford a private education choose to buy one. If this figure was increased, the £2-3 billion annual savings resulting from the current 7% of the school age population attending independent schools could double. An additional incentive would need to be given to persuade more parents to start paying for what is also a free good, and this could take the form of a tapered tax relief on private school fees. (The relief would be greatest for those on lower incomes). There is clearly a balance to be struck between money saved by the government through parents using private schools and the cost of tax relief. The balance needs to be in favour of the government, so that the net savings can be used to improve state schools and pay down the national debt.
The economics of this idea are attractive but the politics are problematic. Independent schools are red rags to left leaning political bulls, and some politicians are still suggesting that independent school should be stripped of the tax benefits (circa £100 million per year) that stem from their charitable status. These benefits are far outweighed by the bursaries the sector provides to families who otherwise couldn’t afford the fees, and the peppercorn rents independent schools charge to a whole host of community groups who use their facilities.
In some corners of the media, the closure of private schools in the current recession is a cause for celebration. However, each time a private school closes it represents a net transfer of pupils and cost to the state, and a further per capita dilution of an already stretched education budget.
This autumn could be a bad one for schools with the NUT and the NASUWT threatening co-ordinated industrial action over the erosion of pay and working conditions for teachers. Such action could paralyse the state school system.
We need to invest more in our teachers, as they are the key determinant of school success, but money is in short supply. Thinking the unthinkable and encouraging parents to go private could be one of the answers…