How is it possible that, as an independent school Head, I prefer the Secretary of State for Education to be State school educated? The reason is because I know that if they are not, the decision made by parents decades ago to send their child to an independent school will be held against him or her by the media, and that minister will feel obliged to bash the independent sector in order to prove his or her politically correct credentials. It is a hackneyed routine, and one played out with depressing frequency. More important, it gets in the way of serious progressive educational thinking of the kind Britain needs.
Tristram Hunt may not yet (or indeed ever) be Secretary of State for Education, but in anticipation of the role he has – true to form – turned on the independent sector. Dr Hunt of course went to the independent University College School, Hampstead; the current Head wrote an excellent response in the Telegraph.
Dr Hunt has called for private schools to be stripped of some of their tax relief because the time when they could “expect something for nothing is over”. Given that the majority of independent schools in fact do a great deal for the good of the local community, the media is currently awash with people trying to set the record straight. That work includes: the provision of free or subsidised places for children whose families could not otherwise afford the fees; partnerships with State primary and secondary schools where the independent sector provides teachers, resources and expertise for the benefit of State pupils; and free or heavily subsidised facilities for State school use.
Current arrangements are a good deal for the tax payer; they are even better when the £3.9billion saved as the result of parents choosing to educate their children privately rather than at the expense of the State is added into the equation.
Dr Hunt’s proposals do not add up, even leaving aside the fact that current good work evidently does not amount in any sensible calculation to ‘nothing’. Without tax relief, independent schools would be forced to increase their fees, pricing some hard-pressed families out of the independent sector for good. Where will the children go? Into the maintained sector of course, transferring the cost of their education from parental pockets to the State at a time when it is seriously short of money. (On the day that Dr Hunt launched his attack, the Independent was reporting that the majority of State schools will be forced to make budget cuts next year). The net result of more pupils in the maintained sector may well be per capita funding cuts and falling standards.
Where might the money previously used for school fees go? Possibly into an expensive mortgage for a house in the catchment area of a good State school. If that results in even higher house prices around good State schools it will be the poorest – arguably those with most to gain from an excellent education – who miss out. Dr Hunt risks creating a situation whereby families who once paid for independent education are now costing the State money and potentially pricing out the poorest in society from the best State schools. What remains of the independent sector will finally be the much talked about preserve of the oligarchs or so impoverished that it cannot finance all the existing good works from which society currently benefits.
Investment in education is investment in the future. If we want the best for our children and our country then we need to spend more on our schools. This money cannot be found by the State alone; public-private partnerships are needed. If they put their prejudices to one side, there is no reason why politicians and independent school Heads should not work together for the good of future generations.