Charity cases: an assembly at Eton College. Photo: Getty
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Forget Tristram Hunt’s tinkering: private schools should have their tax breaks scrapped altogether

Private schools allow the privileged to buy their way into every structure of power in this country with barely a whisper from the rest of us. Why give them tax relief as charities when so many do next to nothing to earn it?   

Last night, it emerged that Labour plans to tell private schools to do more to help state schools - or lose the £700m tax relief they get for supposedly doing that already. This morning, the Telegraph opted for a front-page splash declaring “class war”. Hmm, I wonder why politicians don’t address the issue of private schools more often.

Last year I called private-school tax relief – and their wider charity status – characteristic of the “collective amnesia”  this country has around the private-school system: we are fully aware of the unfairness but few of us are willing to do anything about it. If there was any doubt, have a glance at the coverage of Labour education spokesman Tristram Hunt’s proposals this morning. Forget the existence of private schools generally, even discussing the tax relief given to them gets the right-wing media into the sort of frenzy that should be saved for full-scale communism with a black lesbian president. 

But then, why wouldn’t they? When the status quo is working out well for you, the thought of losing even the smallest crumbs of your cake is going to be terrifying. And let’s not underestimate this: the status quo is working out really well for some. Just 7 per cent of the British public attended private school. But they make up 71 per cent of senior judges, 62 per cent of senior armed forces officers, 55 per cent of Whitehall permanent secretaries and 50 per cent of members of the House of Lords – and 43 per cent of newspaper columnists. Private school pupils are 55 times more likely to be offered a place at Oxbridge. Those who went to a fee-paying school are currently earning almost a fifth more than those whose parents did not pay for their schooling, according to a recent study by the Sutton Trust. In essence, already disadvantaged children are being priced out of university places, influential jobs and high incomes. But clearly, removing a tax exemption and thereby adding a couple of hundred pounds a year to private school fees is the real injustice

Tristram Hunt’s proposals do not even threaten a complete removal of tax exemption from private schools. He is simply saying they have to start doing more for the privilege. As it stands, a private school can claim up to an 80 per cent cut in its business rates (conditional on meeting minimum standards of partnership with the state sector). Yet just 3 per cent of private schools sponsor an academy and only a further 5 per cent loan teaching staff to state schools. Two-thirds don’t even share facilities. We are, I assume, simply not supposed to mention this. To throw them their tax breaks with a respectful and chipper tip of the hat. Private schools buy their way into every structure of power in this country with barely a whisper from the rest of us. It seems entirely consistent to give them tax relief status while letting them do next to nothing to earn it.     

As the BBC points out, Hunt’s proposals are one thing but the bigger challenge is removing private school’s charitable status altogether. I am not sure how schools that actively harm less advantaged children have convinced the rest of us they are charitable. Perhaps my definition of charity is different – although there is something suitably patronising about the old network bestowing treats for the deserving comprehensive poor (a sponsorship there, a loaned science lab here). Forget politely asking them to help out the working class when they get a minute, any government that has the slightest concern for inequality should remove the private school system’s tax breaks altogether.

After all, tax relief for private schools is essentially like watching a thief take your TV and asking him if he’d like your iPad. “You’ve only prevented my chance to watch television. Are you sure you wouldn’t like to have a go at my internet, too?” 

Private schools are mechanisms of vast inequality that actively worsen the life chances of already disadvantaged children and they want us to thank them for it. This might be a sign of their view of state education but – exactly how stupid do they think we are?

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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How did I, obsessed with non-places, not know about the Trafford Centre?

My wife had booked us all in to a showing of the latest Bond film at the IMAX Cinema at the Trafford Centre. “Why the Trafford Centre?” I taxed her. She looked at me as if I were a complete ass, but refused to enlighten me. 

Last year I bought a copy of J G Ballard’s last novel, Kingdom Come, a dystopic tale of the near future in which bored suburbanites descend into anomic violence as they retreat inside a giant shopping mall. Predictably, I bought my copy at the Bluewater shopping mall in north Kent, on the outskirts of London. Bluewater held the title of Britain’s biggest shopping mall for a number of years and it is surpassing large: a huge circular corridor that has become a destination. I asked a police officer where the Waterstones was and discovered she was a good old-fashioned bobby-on-the-beat – her beat having been, for seven years, to walk slowly around and around . . . Bluewater.

But I wasn’t fettered by Bluewater’s surly gravity, any more than I was galvanised by rampant consumerism. Novel purchased, I took a cab over the soaring Queen Elizabeth II Bridge to Essex, where I alighted at Bluewater’s twin establishment: the Lakeside shopping mall in West Thurrock. I headed for the Lakeside branch of Waterstones, where I . . . well, you guessed it: I returned my copy of Kingdom Come. This surreal little exercise was undertaken for the BBC Radio 4 documentary Malled: Sixty Years of Undercover Shopping, and I’ve detailed it here purely in order to illustrate this point: I have more than a passing interest in shopping malls.

This is why the events of a fortnight ago, when Family Self went up to Manchester for what is termed, I believe, a “city break”, seemed quite so bizarre. My wife had booked us all in to a showing of the latest Bond film at the IMAX Cinema at the Trafford Centre. “Why the Trafford Centre?” I taxed her. “It’s in Trafford, which is five miles from the city centre.” She looked at me as if I were a complete ass, but refused to enlighten me. My revelation came later, when we were wandering the rococo halls of the Trafford Centre, marvelling at the lashings of gold leaf applied to the serried columns as our soles slapped on the Italian marble flooring. My wife couldn’t believe that one such as I, obsessed by what the French philosopher Marc Augé has named “non-places”, didn’t know about the Trafford Centre.

But I didn’t – it was a 207,000-square-metre hole in my map of the world. I knew nothing of the bitter and protracted wrangling that attended its inception, as successive planning applications were rejected by ever higher authorities, until our Noble Lords had to step in to ensure future generations will be able to buy their schmutter at TK Maxx and then sip their lattes at Starbucks without having to brave the harsh Lancashire elements. Did I feel small as my savvier spouse led me through these storied halls? You bet your waddling, wobbling, standing-still-on-the-travelator bum I did. How could I not have known about the great central dome of the Trafford mall, which is bigger – and statelier – than that of St Paul’s? How could I have been unaware of the Orient, Europe’s largest food court, with its seating for 1,800 diners, served by a plethora of exciting outlets including Harry Ramsden’s, Carluccio’s and those piquant bun-pushers, McDonald’s?

Actually, the Orient completely bowled me over. The Trafford Centre’s imagineers point to the nearby Manchester Ship Canal as influencing this wholly novel and utterly weird space, which is formed by a sort of Möbius strip of 1930s ocean-liner design, being at once superstructure – railings, funnels, tables arranged to simulate the deckchairs on a sun deck – and interior. However, nothing like this ever cruised by Runcorn. Not that I object to this, any more than I objected to the cluttered corridor full of orientalism – noodle bars, sushi joints, all-you-can-eat Chinese barbecues – that debouched from it and led us back into the weirdly glistering main retail areas, with their ornamental griffins and neoclassical columns bodged up out of medium-density fibreboard.

The Trafford Centre’s imagineers also make great play of design features – such as the aforementioned griffins – that are meant to tie the humongous mall to its hinterland (these are the heraldic symbols of the de Traffords, who used to own hereabouts), and to the north-east’s proud industrial heritage. But this is all ornamental balls; the truth is that the Trafford Centre’s ambience is so sumptuously wacky, it could quite reasonably be twinned with Las Vegas.

While the rest of the family went in search of retail opportunities, I watched the Mancunians process. It occurred to me that if there were any influences at work here – besides the Baudrillardian ones of hyperreality and simulation that underpin so much of the contemporary built environment – it was the presence of a large British Asian community. The only people who didn’t look out of both place and time, wandering about among all the gilded pomp and crystalline circumstance, were women wearing saris, shalwar kameez and burqas. Tracksuit bottoms and hoodies just didn’t cut it – although, I concede, come the breakdown in civil society anticipated in Kingdom Come, this pseudo-sportswear will come into its own as the perfect pillaging outfit.

Next week: Lives of Others

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State