11 January 2023

With Labour on the attack, the value of private education has never been more at risk


The recent debate around the charitable status of independent schools has opened up clear, red water between the government and the Labour Party.  For some commentators, such as Sam Freedman, Keir Starmer’s trenchant position on this divisive issue was a political lodestar, an opportunity to test how far the party can explore ‘trailing other ideas on tax and public spending that Blair and Brown held back from’. Or, to put it another way, Starmer can find out how left wing he can be on a number of issues by going after independent schools: they are a low-stakes target, directly affecting a relatively small number of vested interests, but their symbolic association with unmerited privilege resonates with a significant number of voters. Labour’s enthusiasm for this tactic was reiterated today when it announced that it would try to force a binding vote on the tax status of independent schools.

The political threat facing independent schools is real and serious, but it is far from the only one. Four years ago, I co-edited The State of Independence, a collection of essays on the ten biggest challenges facing the sector at the time. I thought the difficulties our schools were facing were considerable in 2019. But that, of course, was pre-pandemic. This week we published the second edition and, if anything, independent schools find themselves facing more complex and dangerous challenges than ever before. I have no doubt that, through a combination of factors, some independent schools will shut down over the next three years, placing greater strain on an already overstretched state sector. Irrespective of how you feel about independent schools, it is in nobody’s interests to see good schools close. 

What might this combination of factors be? Well, for some of our contributors they are many and diverse. Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and former Spad to David Willetts, rightly states that ‘the history of the last 100 years suggests that, as regular as clockwork, independent schools are collectively and significantly challenged once every three decades only a naïf would predict the 2020s will be an easy ride’. For Hillman, the cost of living crisis, plus the ‘torrent’ of critical commentary around the sector, has changed the atmosphere around our schools. It is rare indeed to read an article, or hear a leading politician, defending not just the right for these schools to exist, but defending the excellence they often promote.

Perhaps in doing so, at a time of financial difficulty, would seem ill-advised. And there is no doubt that the political threat is inseparable from the cost of sending your child to a fee-paying school. Indeed, Ralph (Lord) Lucas, editor of The Good Schools Guide, admits that school fees are ‘horrendous’ and, as a result, many schools will disappear into a ‘gentle good night’. But, as Freedman points out, the problem isn’t that the sector is shrinking: 

‘One of the most extraordinary statistics in British education is that in 1960, 7% of children went to independent schools and now 7% of children go to independent schools. Over that period the country has got vastly wealthier…Naturally, one result of this prosperity has been huge growth in consumption of luxury goods… And yet for the ultimate luxury good, private education, the market hasn’t grown at all.’

For Freedman ‘the sector has priced itself into irrelevance’. For Ben Thomas, Principal of Thomas’s London Day Schools, which educates more than 2,000 children in six schools in central London, demand for fee-paying places is shifting, gradually, to London and the South East. At the moment you can probably find an independent school in your area, but this may not continue indefinitely, into the future. The imbalance between the north and the south, and the concentration of opportunities in the capital, might deepen as smaller, more financially brittle, schools close. Again, this social polarisation will only deepen regional divisions.

But for other contributors the real threats to the sector are existential. For Claire Fox the sector is becoming increasingly ‘woke’, a problem that has ‘escalated’ since the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. Leading state school teacher Katharine Birbalsingh goes further, claiming that independent schools are the authors of their own fates, sinking into a sea of guilt about their own privilege. Such a vision is bleak for all of us who work in schools which, for many people, remain world class. Indeed, UK independent schools have proven highly adaptable, not just at home, but overseas, and there are many which have opened branches overseas with great success. Labour MPs may not like us, but there are plenty in the UK , as well as outside, who do.

But the sector will inevitably have to change, and it will do so in response to the challenges it faces. Perhaps, as contributors such as former government special advisers Jonathan Simons and Jamie Martin argue, new independent school models will and should develop. Perhaps there will be more convergence between the sectors. Simons reminds us that ‘United Learning, the biggest multi-academy trust in the country, also runs 12 independent schools’. Other models, such as James Tooley’s low-cost prep school in Durham, might offer some light among the darkening skies.

We retained very few essays for this second edition of The State of Independence, and for the final chapter – the Political Challenge – we republished only one, by Roger Scruton (who died in 2020). Scruton’s essay remains relevant to the political challenge independent schools are facing today. The heart of his argument is that an independent school should remain independent, be a centre of excellence and prepare young people to be the educated elite that, in his view, all societies need. For Scruton, the relationship between teacher and pupil should remain, essentially, apolitical. Scruton writes, ‘whether I make a sacrifice by offering my knowledge gratis, or they make one in paying for it, the important thing is that the deal between us is a free transaction, in which the state plays no part’. That independence from the state, that politically neutral space reserved for knowledge, the freedom to teach, largely, what we want and how, remains one of the most valued qualities of the sector. If we lose it then we lose something precious indeed. Now, more than ever, it is at risk.

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Dr David James is the deputy headteacher of an independent school in London.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.