Here we go again. Labour is attacking private education for causing a “corrosive divide of privilege.” They want to enforce a “School Partnership Standard” to make these evil fee-paying schools channel more resources towards the greater public good. If they don’t comply, then a Labour government will take away their tax reliefs.
We all want to see more children from less advantaged backgrounds gain greater social mobility, but this kind of visceral proxy class-war needs unpicking.
To be fair to Tristram Hunt, he has identified a problem. All too often, children from poorer backgrounds do not get the education or know-how they need. But while his observations may be correct, his solution is wrong-headed, and panders to pseudo class envy. He knows better than most the benefits of a private education, but his proposals will close the door on children who could access the same advantages he enjoyed.
The savings available to independent schools through tax reliefs are more than recouped through not having to educate their pupils in state schools. Let’s not forget that parents of privately-educated students are, in effect, paying twice for education. First, through their taxes and secondly, through school fees.
Fee-paying schools also provide great help to the wider education landscape. Eton College, in my constituency, provides opportunities for many children from modest backgrounds through summer schools; sponsorship of local colleges; shared access to its world-class facilities and a huge number of full bursaries and scholarships for less well-off children.
Labour’s plans would give bureaucrats licence to criticise schools whose schemes do not fit rigid criteria, and nothing kills a sense of public duty quicker than undeserved criticism. Threatening independent schools with financial punishment for political gain will make the situation worse.
Schools who have their tax reliefs withdrawn will raise their fees or close their doors. Many parents will have no choice but to return their children to the state sector, placing an even greater burden on the education budget.
The “corrosive divide” would be replicated at a higher cost to taxpayers by Labour’s approach, because parents who can afford it will simply pay for private tutors to give their kids the edge. This will further entrench the imperfections that Labour say they want to tackle.
Private education is not just for oligarchs and aristocrats, as some would have us believe. While some parents are indeed wealthy, most make huge personal sacrifices to give their children the chance to attend a fee-paying school. Neither are private schools the preserve of the academically elite. Many specifically cater for children with learning difficulties such as dyslexia, dyscalculia and Asperger’s.
Having grown up in a single-parent household in social housing for much of my childhood, I am determined that we do not allow the circumstances of birth dictate where we end up in life. Blaming fee-paying schools is as simplistic as it is harmful.
I am however optimistic, because there are practical ways in which we can improve social mobility. By allowing the fee-paying sector to grow, we will see a diverse provision of educational services to choose from which will bring down prices. New educational institutions already offer fees close to the current cost of state education, and schools that provide excellent results at affordable prices will continue to attract parents. At the same time we must, of course, continue to push up standards in state schools so that fee-paying schools feel the pressure to deliver even better value-for-money.
And we can open up top-quality education to more youngsters with academic aptitude, regardless of background. Why not significantly increase the number of bursaries and full scholarships for less well-off families?
In the same way that wealthy entrepreneurs have donated large sums of money to academies in areas in which they have a personal connection, philanthropy has a role to play in boosting scholarships and bursaries. The Royal National Children’s Foundation already does excellent work in helping thousands of at-risk children into top boarding schools. This scheme can be expanded further and the criteria widened.
We must remember that education is a public good in its own right. Independent schools must of course continue do their bit to retain charitable status but do we really want institutions that equip children with knowledge and skills to receive no better tax treatment than a commercial firm?
There is much more to do to open up opportunities to disadvantaged children. The expertise of fee-paying schools is a key tool in the fight and it would be disastrous to endanger this progress.
Schools, independent and state-funded, must work together, yet challenge each other, to shape better teaching. We must put prejudice aside and recognise the positive role that fee-paying education can play in creating a rising tide of social mobility that lifts all boats.
Adam Afriyie is Conservative MP for Windsor. He was shadow minister for science and innovation from 2007-10 and now chairs the Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology (POST) and the Parliamentary Space Committee