An unreasonable attack on excellence?

Headmaster’s Blog 2 December 2019

The Christmas holidays are nearly upon us and it is my hope that by the time they arrive, we will have a better understanding of the political situation in the country. Private education has found itself in the spotlight, and it is interesting to read that a certain political manifesto outlines changes that could significantly affect independent schools. The imposition of VAT on fees, the removal of the rates relief for charities (most independent schools are charitable trusts) and the integration of independent schools into the state system could, if introduced, cause financial heartache for many smaller independent schools. Julie Robinson, the chief executive of ISC, feels there is a prioritising of ideology over improving educational outcomes for children and young people. She feels we should all be working together to improve outcomes for children. “Abolishing independent schools through integration/nationalisation would be an attack on the rights and freedoms of parents to make choices over the education of their children, while punitive financial measures will harm families as well as school staff and communities, heap more pressure on the state sector, swell class sizes and result in higher costs.”
It is interesting that European law currently exempts education from VAT because of the value of learning to society. Independent schools are not treated as a special case in this respect. Imposing VAT on school fees would penalise parents who are choosing to do what they believe is best for their children. It would be a tax on learning.
There is still a belief that independent schools are elite institutions where wealthy boys wear top hats and schools are mostly supported and funded by international students. This is a complete myth. Ms Robinson has warned that we need to bust this myth. The reality is that most parents work extremely hard to pay for their children’s education. They make sacrifices because they place a great deal of value in providing a good education for their children. This is their prerogative and their choice. Ms Robinson complained that the sector is up against a stereotype of independent school pupils. “Our experience is that there is a kind of a tokenism around at the moment, partly, possibly around the new prime minister…possibly that has made things worse for us. But the reality of our sector is it’s very inclusive, it’s very diverse,” she said.
There are 600,000 students in the independent sector who are not being educated at the cost of the state. Over 90 per cent are paying fees out of taxed income which means they are paying for state school places they are not taking up. In effect, our schools are contributing to a saving of £3.5 billion a year, as well as paying taxes and supporting over 300,000 jobs. This is quite clearly a good thing so it is quite frustrating to have to make this case because it has become a subject of debate. My hope is that sanity will prevail and that there will soon be a reasonable conclusion to an unreasonable attack on excellence.