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  1. The Weekend Report
4 November 2023

What are private schools really selling?

They no longer have a stranglehold on Oxbridge and would lose tax breaks under Labour. Can elite education survive?

By Melissa Denes

On a warm evening in south London the families stream down sunlit lanes and through the school gates. The light is golden, the children are golden, piling out of Range Rovers with tinted windows. The families are taken two-by-two on a tour of the architect-designed, multi-award-winning campus, through the new concert hall with its vaulted ceiling and the gardens tended to National Trust standards. Afterwards they gather for tea and a chance to quiz the teachers. Many of the children know each other from prep school, their parents from their jobs in finance and the law – futures which the children will one day inherit, all being well.

This is what British private schools sell, and have sold since the wealthy began educating their children independently of the Church at the end of the 14th century: the promise that privilege can be handed down from one generation to the next. At a thousand recent open days like this one, headteachers have reassured parents that this gilded form of education will continue unchanged.

But change seems unavoidable. If Labour wins the next general election, Keir Starmer’s cabinet (as it stands) will be the most state-school educated in history. Labour has also promised to remove the tax exemptions on VAT and business rates that currently save the richest schools millions of pounds a year. Meanwhile, the disproportionate number of private-school pupils admitted to Oxford and Cambridge universities continues to fall – from more than 50 per cent in the 1980s and 1990s, to 32 per cent (Oxford) and 27 per cent (Cambridge) in 2022.

This autumn I attended open days at three of England’s most exclusive schools, two day and one boarding, to understand how they plan to cope with these changes. What, in 2023, makes them worth fees of between £15,000 and £60,000 a year? To protect their privacy I have not identified the schools, and have anonymised details here. But their core promise is much the same: invest in your child, and they will succeed.

If they lose their exemptions, private schools will either pass the cost on to parents, split the difference, or absorb it completely. The wealthier institutions might sell off a playing field, host more weddings and summer camps, or open another branch in China (private schools made £29m profit from overseas franchises in 2021-22).

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But most of all, they will need to persuade parents that a privileged future can still be bought – that the 7 per cent of British pupils who attend fee-paying schools will get the best grades, the best universities, the best-paid jobs, the best connections, even as society around them strives to become more equal. Addressing a hall full of small boys in blazers, one master told them that their greatest challenge in life would be people thinking they were entitled: they would need to prove that they were not.

Over tea and mini quiches in the airy school canteen, the Oxbridge question came up quickly. What was the school doing, one father asked, about the fact that pupils from state schools now stand a better chance of getting into England’s two most prestigious universities?

It was more of a challenge than it used to be, was the way one teacher wanted to put it. Another described the falling percentage of private-school admissions, without irony, as “social engineering”. But Oxbridge was not the be all and end all, insisted another. Behind him a list of university places secured by recent leavers was displayed on a map of Britain that showed Oxford and Cambridge at a hundred times their actual size. Students were also headed to Durham, University College London, Bristol and, increasingly, American universities, where a private education is seen as a bonus and not an impediment. In the end, it was about producing good humans, the teachers agreed. It was about who you would be at 25 rather than 18. Admittedly, that was harder to track.

[See also: Does Labour now support private schools?]

For many schools the big worry about paying VAT, and therefore charging higher fees, was that they would lose the crucial middle tier of parents – the doctors, solicitors, civil servants, those in the creative industries. These people, one teacher said, were "the glue". Without the middle classes, pupils would be either extremely wealthy or on bursaries; already an increasing percentage come from overseas. Nobody said it, but while private schools retain their charitable status (Labour has given up an earlier pledge to end it), they will need to look like the “aspirational” choice – something within reach of the totemic hard-working parent who has made great sacrifices. Could a pharmacist and a GP today afford five years at Winchester (£250,000), as Rishi Sunak’s parents did? Possibly not ­– and private education is more vulnerable to reform if it becomes a marginal project for the super-rich. 

Added to this was the prospect of a cultural shift, and a putative Labour government in which just 13 per cent of ministers attended private school. (Sunak’s current cabinet is 63 per cent privately educated, while Boris Johnson’s first was 64 per cent; Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s initial cabinets stood at 32 per cent.) This is becoming a hostile environment for the independent sector and, worse still, an argument against its existence: if the women and men who run the country don’t need a private education, who does?

Rumours of the death of private schools have been either greatly exaggerated or a long time coming, depending on your point of view. Graham Greene, who was miserable to the point of a suicide attempt at Berkhamsted, where his father was headmaster, declared private schools “doomed” in 1934. George Orwell recalled his time at the brutal, loveless St Cyprian’s prep school in Eastbourne as if it belonged to another era, writing in an essay published in 1952 that “the society that nourished it is dead”.

And yet they have survived, embraced by Conservative governments staffed by Old Boys and largely untouched by Labour governments, whose Old Boys have feared the charge of hypocrisy and focused instead on the state sector. For decades after the Second World War there was a stubborn belief on the left that private schools would become an irrelevance all on their own, just as soon as state schools became equally world-beating. Clement Attlee was too fond of his alma mater Haileybury to interfere, and Harold Wilson, a grammar school boy, was not much interested in reform.

In opposition, Wilson’s future education secretary Anthony Crosland had advocated the radical step of assimilating the private sector into the state. “The public schools offend… against any ideal of social cohesion and democracy,” he wrote in 1956. In power, however, Crosland’s 1968 Public Schools Commission settled for a less epoch-shattering proposal of 47,000 state-assisted boarding school places. As David Kynaston and Francis Green write in Engines of Privilege, their absorbing history of British private schools, public opinion was against Crosland: a Sunday Times poll “demonstrated a clear majority – 67 per cent of voters – in favour of leaving the public schools as they were”.

Since then Labour policy has veered between abolition (Michael Foot, Roy Hattersley), integration and agnosticism (New Labour). Michael Gove, the former Conservative education secretary, has attacked private schools more than Tony Blair ever did, writing in 2017 of his “continuing surprise [that] we still consider the education of the children of plutocrats and oligarchs to be a charitable activity”. Like Starmer (Reigate Grammar), Gove (the fee-paying Robert Gordon’s College in Aberdeen) made the case for an end to VAT and business rate exemptions; like Starmer, he was accused of launching a class war, a tax raid, a purge of the posh.

This is a constant theme: that the critics of private education are driven by ideology and envy, rather than any genuine desire to improve social mobility. In this sense, some argue, the two main parties are as bad as each other. Sir Anthony Seldon, the headmaster of Epsom College, told me he hoped for an end to party politics: “After ten education secretaries and 13 years of muddle and underachievement, the country needs a coherent, long-term policy.” By this, he meant ideas such as those proposed by the Times Education Commission, which he recently chaired, among them a British baccalaureate and a laptop for every child. Seldon felt there were bigger issues at stake than charitable status, such as a shortage of teachers and a failure to embrace AI technology: “It would be a terrible shame, when there is an ocean of accumulated needs, if political priorities continued under Labour to trump educational ones.”

But can a new government in urgent need of money afford tax breaks while the gap between spending on private- and state-school pupils widens? This summer the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) calculated that average private-school fees were 90 per cent higher than state school spending per pupil; in 2010 that gap was 40 per cent. The Times Education Commission had less to say about this, remarking that “some blame the existence of fee-paying private schools for the social divides in education but… the real problem is the failure of the state system to get the best out of every pupil”. It did, however, commission a YouGov poll, asking respondents if they would support ending charitable status for private schools. The result was one Crosland could only have dreamed of 55 years ago: 64 per cent said yes.

[See also: The original woke capitalists]

Ask most teachers at an independent school why private is better than state, and you will get a blank look: you might as well march into a Porsche showroom and ask what’s wrong with a Skoda. As one parent recently posted on Mumsnet (cars are a popular analogy): “People pay the fees for a reason. Would you drive a BMW or a Nissan? If money is no object, possibly a BMW, right? People pay for a BMW for two reasons. One is they can afford it and two is they like it.”

Parents can tell themselves it’s a free market, and their children are worth it. But the sector also sees itself as delivering a social good: the Independent Schools Council (ISC) argues that private schools earn their charitable status because, among other things, they take the pressure off a challenged state system and run partnerships with the less fortunate. They are, however, allowed to define for themselves what constitutes a “public benefit” having established in 2011, after a long legal battle with the Charity Commission, their right to judge their own social worth.

But private schools do cost the rest of us money, through “tax expenditure” – the money the state doesn’t get to spend on other schools (or paramedics, or buses) because it has allowed major participants in the economy to avoid paying tax. This sum – an estimated £3bn a year – could, for instance, more than quadruple the national libraries budget of £780m. In the 2021-22 financial year Eton College (which I did not visit) would have paid more than £10m in VAT were it charged at 20 per cent on the £50.6m in fees shown in its accounts. Add in exemptions for business rates, corporation tax on tens of millions in investment income, and gift aid on millions more in donations, and the taxpayer effectively subsidises an Eton boy at a much higher rate than the average state-school pupil.

It was hard, sitting in the wood-panelled halls with their oil paintings of alumni and state-of-the-art sound systems, to think of the primary school fighting closure near me in east London, its modest playground never completed despite the years of cake sales and bingo nights, and not feel a kind of rage on behalf of the 93 per cent. It was hard to see the posters for Black History Month, advertising an ambitious talks programme and series of workshops, and not notice that, in the heart of London, few of the children or staff were black. Some people will tell you the differences between state and private are exaggerated, but at the elite end there is a canyon between them.

Beyond the prospect of paying more tax, private schools now face the deeper question of what place they occupy in the culture. Institutions that once sold themselves as socially and financially exclusive have discovered a new interest in diversity and inclusion. Many private schools are still recovering from the triple shock of 2020, which as well as Covid saw the institutional challenges of Everyone’s Invited, the student-led movement to expose sexual harassment in schools, and Black Lives Matter. In their wake came new African-Caribbean societies, decolonised curricula, LGBTQ clubs and feminist sororities.

Last October students at King’s College School Wimbledon (£26,000 a year) and Wimbledon High School (£23,000) convened a conference at which 22 schools met to discuss “inclusive communities and civil discourse”. In the speeches there was a sense that the children were compromised by the privilege their parents had paid for: how do you square social justice with your own deliberate (and expensive) social exclusion? This new progressive mood was a problem throughout the sector, Katharine Birbalsingh, headteacher of Michaela Community School, a free school, warned the National Conservative Conference in May: “If you don’t like the woke agenda, then you had better avoid private schools like the plague. As sure as night follows day, the more privileged the space, the more woke it is.”

At more than one school I visited the teachers wanted to place an emphasis on joy and kindness: the children would be stretched far beyond the national curriculum (As and A*s were a given), but they would also emerge as accountable adults. They would take part in community projects – tea with the elderly, mentoring state school children – which had the dual benefit of fulfilling the schools’ charitable obligations and preparing pupils for re-entry to the real world. You will not be in a bubble, said one teacher, though a bubble seemed very much what was on offer.

Gone is the emotional repression and physical violence which produced generations of sadists and spies, the cold baths and beatings of Lindsay Anderson’s If or Rupert Everett in Another Country. Starmer plans to spend a portion of the £1.6bn raised from taxing private schools on adolescent mental health provision (the rest on 6,500 new teachers); in the meantime, on-site counsellors and well-being centres are something only the elite schools can offer. Felsted School in Essex (fees from £29,000 to £44,000) is among many to provide one-to-one therapy for pupils and teachers, alongside a “large sensory room with attractive lighting and soft music”.

If the point is to produce “good humans”, what sort are private schools selling? Once this was clear: the leaders of Empire and captains of industry, the colonels and High Court judges. Could you still hint at all this, while delivering a stronger side of compassion?

For parents who can afford the most expensive private schools, diversity and inclusion are perhaps of less interest than smaller class sizes, well-equipped labs and studios, immaculate sports facilities, overseas trips, higher grades and further education teams (one school I visited had a dozen staff, including three North America specialists, working on university applications). Research has shown that more private-school pupils benefit from extra time in exams (typically awarded for a dyslexia, autism, ADHD diagnosis or other extenuating circumstances), as well as from re-marked papers. Last year North London Collegiate girls’ school (£22,000 a year) was among several private schools to be investigated, after 90 per cent of its 2021 A-level entries were awarded an A* by teacher assessment, exams having been cancelled during the pandemic (the rest got As). An overreach had given them the highest marks in the country.

If exams and university admissions are on some level a game, private schools are very, very adept at playing it. At one school, while children lined their pockets with KitKats behind her, a teacher summed up the benefits of private over state. Could your child thrive in a class of 30? Did they have learning needs that required additional time in exams? Did you want to spend every weekend driving them between activities when everything was right here? She gestured to the pool, the theatre, the athletics track, the sweeping stone staircase up to the great hall. Architecture was another benefit in kind: pupils would be at home in the otherwise intimidating spaces of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges, the Palace of Westminster, the Inns of Court, the Bank of England.

In his brilliantly excoriating book, Sad Little Men, Richard Beard recalls his induction into this world, the “total institution” of Radley College while a boarder in the 1980s, writing: “We passed through the in-between places with their in-between people on the way from one privileged stronghold to the next.” Public schools like Radley and Eton are an education in myopia and arrogance, he argues, and at the Covid inquiry, the callousness of Boris Johnson’s No 10 has proved his point.

Private schools also justify their charitable status with the claim that they are not only for the elite: means-tested bursaries make them accessible to all (so long as you are very bright, or athletic, or ideally both). The ISC claims that a third of children in private education now receive some form of financial assistance, even if only 1 per cent are on full bursaries. But look at the small print, and the public benefit grows a little hazier: you can apply for a 2024 bursary at St Paul’s Girls’ School (up to £32,000 a year) with a household income of up to £140,000 and property equity of £1.3m, though “where a family owns two or more additional properties, they are unlikely to qualify”. Westminster School (fees of £35,000-£50,000) does not have an upper financial threshold for bursary applications.

But what about the smaller places, Labour’s critics ask – the unflashy boarding schools in under-served parts of the country, the specialist or religious institutions that meet a need the state sector can’t? These will have no choice but to pass the increased costs on to parents, who will look elsewhere, and what then? Is the closure of these schools a generational opportunity to rebalance the scales of inequality – or a disaster?

There is little evidence that higher fees will cause a mass exodus to the state sector – the IFS has calculated that between 3 and 7 per cent of pupils might move, at a cost of £100-300m – a manageable dent in Starmer’s £1.6bn. For the shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson, the status quo of a two-tier system is too bleak an alternative. “It is inexcusable that we give tax breaks to private schools when we could be putting that money into driving higher standards in state schools,” she told the Times in April, the sort of opinion that earned her the disdain of the ISC. In private messages, these normally smooth operators agreed that Phillipson was “very chippy”, ignorant (“she doesn’t know diddly”) and easily outmanoeuvred (“it is very easy to make her sound unreasonable by keeping your cool”). The ISC hosted a forlorn drinks reception at the Labour Party conference a few months after these messages were revealed, but the damage was done: not one of the 40 invited MPs showed up. “We are not the enemy,” one head complained to the Daily Mail.

Private schools and their patrons are on the defensive. By retaining their charitable status, they will keep benefits including gift aid (a £10m donation can still be upgraded into a £12.5m new sports hall), VAT relief on products and services, exemptions from stamp duty, capital gains and corporation tax under a Labour government – but for how long? As de facto businesses, they will have to adapt. Already bursars are on a war footing – taking advantage of tax relief on building projects, or encouraging parents to pay several years’ worth of fees upfront. Many will reinvent themselves as heritage brands for export, with more pupils in Dubai or Mumbai than the Home Counties.

I was a bursary student at a fee-paying school myself, as well as others that were state-funded, and have benefited from their advantages. But as an adult, I reject the inequality and entitlement at their heart; I’m also not sure that privilege and social segregation is the best preparation for life. I don’t blame parents for choosing these schools. I do blame political inertia for allowing the lie that their subsidy is a public benefit.

We should not pretend that private schools are charities, or that they aspire to be truly reflective of society. The implicit promise, at every school I visited and in every brochure, is one of exceptionalism – that wealth will buy your children advantage, as well as (this is unsaid) elevating them away from the wrong sort of children: the disruptive, the unambitious. Private education is a luxury service, diverting money from the state.

Rachel Reeves got one of her biggest cheers at the Labour Party conference when she confirmed the lifting of tax exemptions, but the party could be far bolder. The night before her speech, at a fringe event hosted by the think tank Private Education Policy Forum, two headteachers accused Labour of mere “sniping” and a lack of vision. Where were the big ideas around integrating state and private, for instance, or more vocational schools? Britain had been obsessed with a question it couldn’t answer for too long, said Hans Broekman, the laconic Dutch principal of Liverpool College, an independent school he had transferred to the state sector: it was time for a more radical reimagining of what education could be, for everyone.

At the autumn open days, as the families took their seats in the great halls, the schools played black and white footage of 1930s pupils playing hockey and leapfrog, walking jerkily arm in arm through the cloisters. The headmasters and headmistresses spoke of their love of the school motto, the values these had enshrined over the centuries. (Eton’s is “Floreat Etona”, May Eton Flourish – not Britain, not its pupils, just Eton itself.) The shadows lengthened on the cricket field and the names of the Oxford scholars, inscribed in gold leaf on the walls, gleamed. There was a reassuring sense of timelessness, that nothing had changed in 200 years, and that nothing much would change. This, in the end, was what private schools were selling: a form of insulation, a golden ticket to the future and to an unequal past, one that many others would like to leave behind. The schools will fight to the death to preserve it, and have done since the 14th century. But in power, will Labour push for a revolution?

[See also: Education's inequality curse]

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This article appears in the 08 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Age of Fury