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“Let’s have a Royal Commission for a multi-faceted, free school system”

Keir Starmer’s VAT policy is a distraction from the real issues with education and will only drive out diversity of provision, writes Chris Ray

The Labour Party continues to be determined to require independent schools to add 20 per cent VAT on top of the fees charged to parents. 

The party would have us believe that the money raised through this tax would provide an additional 6,500 teachers for state schools.

Although some have argued that the imposition of this tax would lead to an exodus from the independent sector and others deny this, the Institute of Fiscal Studies admitted that no one really knows what the impact of the tax would be.

Hence, the Labour Party appears to be proceeding on an article of political faith rather than on clear objective evidence.

In fact, in order to fulfil Labour’s ambition for additional teachers, parents would have to continue to send their children to fee-paying schools so that the requisite amount of VAT funds would be raised.

So the Labour Party, which appears to disapprove of independent schools, must hope sincerely that its policy will not lead to a downturn in numbers in that sector!

‘Diversity of provision’

There are so many reasons why parents choose independent education: high parental aspirations are just one part of picture. 

Parents are also attracted by inter alia – smaller set sizes, a desire for single-sex education, strong pastoral care, concerns about bullying experienced in state schools, the availability of clubs, societies and facilities for sport, sustained access to art, music, dance, and drama, a wish for their child to have a specific religious education – this list goes on. 

Very few of these parents share the aims or ambitions of those who send their children to schools such as Eton, Winchester, Westminster, St Paul’s, and Marlborough. 

These institutions have high fees – around £45,000 to £50,000 per annum for boarding and above £20,000 for day places – but they are simply nowhere near typical of the wider independent sector. 

Most independent schools are nothing like the larger élite schools favoured by the media in their (wilfully?) misleading narratives. Indeed over half of independent fee-paying schools have fewer than 300 pupils and a quarter have fewer than 155.

An unhelpful fixation upon the Winchesters of this world (which will, anyway, remain largely unaffected by the imposition of VAT) is all too evident not just in the media, but also in the Labour Party’s political rhetoric.

So I would like you to consider four schools listed below. 

In each case there is likely to be considerable resistance to fee increases from low-earning parents.

Moreover, there is no real scope for schools with small numbers of pupils and modest resources to adjust their fees downwards, something which Keir Starmer erroneously seems to think is generally feasible.

  1. Crystal Garden School

This is a primary school in Bradford, rated by Ofsted as outstanding, which provides a traditional Islamic education for some 130 local children which simply does not exist elsewhere; its fee is just £1,750 per year.  

With VAT the fee would rise to £2,100: not a huge increase, wealthier people might say, thereby displaying their lack of understanding of those already at the absolute limit of what can be afforded.

  1. Froebel House School

This is a primary school in Hull, rated good by Ofsted, providing small class sizes for around 140 children, with fees up to £6,000 per annum.

The new fee would be up to £7,200. The only way such a school might be able to survive is likely to involve increased class sizes thereby removing its raison d’être. Smaller class sizes provide a greater focus upon individual pupils and seriously reduce the degree of disruption observed in all too many state schools.

3. The Christian Fellowship School

This is a school in Liverpool, rated good by Ofsted, which provides an evangelical education for around 160 pupils aged from 4 to 16; the school charges between £5,000 and £6,000 with discounts for additional children from the same family.

Parental engagement is a real strength of the school. VAT would mean a fee of up to £7,800. Faith-based state schools do not even come close to providing the strong sense of a focused religious community found in this small school.

4. Newcastle School for Boys

This school provides single-sex education for some 370 pupils from 3 to 18 with fees from £12,000 to £17,000 per annum depending on age. The achievement of boys remains a concern nationally.

At this school, both the achievement and the personal development of the pupils is rated ‘excellent’ by the Independent Schools Inspectorate. Parents would have to pay up to £20,400 when VAT is added which would make it unaffordable for very many in the Newcastle area. 

These are the type of schools which are likely to be most challenged by the implementation of Labour’s policy and many of these may well be unable to survive, thereby putting greater strain on the state sector and significantly reducing the expected revenue from VAT. And such schools make up the vast bulk of independent schools in this country. 

The large day school of which I was head is currently charging just over £15,000 per annum (noting that there are some 200 pupils on means-tested bursaries) and I suspect there may be some difficult decisions ahead. Smaller schools with low fees are likely to face massive challenges.

The proposal to impose VAT – like the current prime minister’s advocacy of mathematics and English for all until age 18 – serves only to distract our attention from far more important educational matters.

‘Wider and more impactful reform’

There is so much wrong with education in this country. 

The time is right for a thorough open-minded and wide-ranging review by means of a Royal Commission, which should bear in mind what politicians and civil servants so often forget: children should not be forced into the single moulds preferred by narrow-minded pundits and policy makers of all political shades. 

If the consequence of this were to be a wonderful, multi-faceted, and free education for all, I would be the first to rejoice.

Onto wider and much more impactful reform, then. What might be considered by the kind of Royal Commission I am suggesting? 

We may find some of the answers in the many reasons parents consider independent education. 

Although some state schools are not a huge distance from the best of the fee-paying sector, the truth is that very few match even its middle ground. 

Here are just a few thoughts:

  1. The state sector needs to move much closer to matching the independent sector’s commitments to activities, clubs, societies, and sport, and to art, music, dance, and drama; and not just in a few specialist academies.
  2. We need to see significant funding to replace the 10,000 playing fields sold during the Thatcher and Major years: increased outdoor physical activity is one of the key answers to addressing growing mental health concerns.
  3. Teachers in secondary schools should not be asked to teach subjects in which they have little or no expertise: the Institute of Physics has indicated that this is a far more serious obstacle to recruitment for ‘shortage’ subjects than current pay levels.
  4. The hegemony of large comprehensives should be re-evaluated: smaller schools are likely to be more agile and responsive to local needs and interests and might provide better pastoral care.
  5. A one-size-fits-all curriculum simply does not work for many children and may seriously undermine their development and talents. Rather than focus upon the strengths of individual pupils, for example, most schools have required all pupils to study all three sciences to GCSE thereby reducing the time which might be spent for some on developing further expertise in other subjects of greater interest to some children such as art, sport, or computing; and in focusing upon the so-called ‘broad and balanced curriculum’ (an article of faith?) they have failed to promote, for instance, excellent and free musical education for those with special talents in this area. 
  6. It may be time to reconsider the length and character of the school day and the number of staff training days: the imbalances between state and independent schools are all too obvious.
  7. It may also be time to think more coherently about selective education, noting the incredible success of the three-tier but flexible approach taken in Singapore and avoiding the fatuous and erroneous reasoning (often seasoned with ad hominem attacks) favoured by opponents of selection in this country.
  8. The expansion of the university sector, together with the consequential negative financial impact upon very many students, has been a disaster and must be reconsidered urgently: for many older students in schools, the uncertainties about life after school are a significant source of anxiety.
  9. Teacher recruitment – those considering the future of education should also bear in mind that the recruitment of new teacher trainees has reached current targets only once in the last eight years. And at a time of rising demand for English-speaking teachers overseas, many more of those who do complete their training might decide to seek more rewarding work elsewhere. Thinking that we can recruit 6,500 new teachers on top of current (missed) targets is sadly rather laughable if not an indication of downright incompetence. 

There are no easy answers and some of my ideas might turn out to be daft. But that is why it is time to focus our attention far more carefully and forensically on all the systemic problems before us through a politically neutral review. 

In the meantime the politician’s urge to tinker to achieve short-term political gains must stop now. 

We desperately need the light of reason to guide us towards long-term solutions. 

Chris is the former High Master, The Manchester Grammar School, and former chairman of the
Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference.

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