Head Master’s Blog – September

From the Head Master’s Study

It’s a brave Head who enters the realm of politics, but there seemed only one fitting topic for my September Blog.

This week, a long-held view by those on the fringes of the Labour Party has finally been adopted as official party policy at the Labour Conference.

Namely, the Labour Party passed a motion to abolish independent schools.

Nationally, only 7% of pupils are educated in the independent sector, and many cite the power, privilege and position of former independently educated pupils (like Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn) as the moral justification why independent schools should be abolished.

As a teacher and a Head who has worked in both the Independent sector and maintained sector, I passionately believe that all children, irrespective of their background, deserve the best education possible. In fact, I have never met a teacher or a fellow Head in the independent sector who does not wish for the maintained sector to flourish. My total opposition to this policy is based on two beliefs.

Firstly, that the abolition of independent schools will do nothing to help pupils in the maintained sector. If we consider that the parents sending their children to independent schools are taxpayers, contributing income tax to the exchequer to fund, amongst other things, our nation’s schools. If these parents choose to send their children to maintained (state) schools, or indeed have no choice, the number of extra school places that would need to be funded by the taxpayer would be in excess of 600,000. Imagine the impact on class sizes in the state sector, the number of extra teachers that would have to be employed and the number of new schools that would have to be built. Neil Roskilly, chief executive of The Independent Schools Association said: “absorbing private schools into the state sector would push up class sizes and potentially leave a “devastating” hole in special needs provision currently not paid for by the taxpayer.

At a time when the UK faces severe financial pressures, the abolition of independent schools, which cost the state nothing, contribute nearly £14 billion to the UK economy and save the taxpayer £3.5 billion, would do nothing to help any child attending a state-maintained school.

With the exception of a few independent schools nationally, most make only a modest surplus each year, which as either registered charities or not-for-profit organisations, plough their resources back into improving buildings, resources or staffing to create smaller classes. Many independent schools, including Hallfield, offer bursaries to promote social mobility and help families access independent education who may otherwise not afford it. Baines Cutler estimate that 8% of pupils – over 50,000 – are on means-tested benefits within the sector and over 1/3 get some sort of fee support.

Independent schools are not responsible for the failings in state education and abolishing them is not the path to ensuring all schools offer the very best for their pupils.

Secondly, there is a principle of choice that should be afforded to citizens of the UK, who earn their money and pay tax. I believe that we should have the freedom to dispose of our legally earned and taxed income on whatever we want, provided that does not infringe on the freedoms of others. What I find totally unfathomable is the negative attitude that is sometimes afforded to parents who choose to pay fees and send their children to independent schools. My second Headship was of a state-maintained primary school in an affluent suburb of Nottingham. Many parents drove expensive cars, had very large homes and second homes and took many holidays each year. These parents chose to spend their disposable income on consumer goods and no one had anything negative to say about their choices. My third Headship was of an independent school, where many parents made huge sacrifices to pay fees, including downsizing the family home, taking on extra work, foregoing holidays or taking on extra borrowing. These parents, who were also taxpayers, sometimes faced criticism for their choices to prioritise their children’s education.

If we believe in a free and open society, then the decision by Labour to adopt a policy of abolishing independent schools and redistribute their assets is akin to the policies adopted by questionable dictatorships in discredited regimes in some developing economies. Lord Lester, QC, writing in The Times, states that the abolition of private schools will damage the state sector for no gain, and would violate the European Convention on Human rights and its first protocol.

My worry is that with the present political crisis and dis-unity in the two major political parties, that there is a chance that we may be sleep-walking into an educational disaster.