Keir Starmer’s pledge earlier this week to end lucrative tax breaks for private schools has, predictably, drawn the usual criticism.
Independent Schools Council chief executive Julie Robinson told The Times it was wrong to “put politics before the interests of young people”. Presumably, Robinson was not talking about the interests of most young people – only those whose families can afford tens of thousands of pounds in school fees.
The “charitable status” of private schools is a long-standing oxymoron. These institutions accumulate benefits for the wealthy – and are then rewarded for their “good work”. And yet, the debate on this status rarely progresses. We’ve been stuck listening to the same old myths for years, from the idea that private schools deserve tax breaks because they provide scholarships to the poorest kids (in fact, “financial aid” is dramatically more likely to go to affluent middle-class families), to the claim that tax breaks allow ordinary families to buy an elite education (the average annual fee for independent schools is £15,191, by some estimates half of the average UK salary, before tax). It is a testament to the grip of class privilege in this country that even such a modest attempt to control private schools is met with repeated resistance.
There is a chance that the pandemic will be the turning point. More than a year of unprecedented schooling disruption has highlighted – and deepened – the divide between young people in fee-paying schools and the public sector. Pupils from private schools were selected for higher A-level results, with independent schools in England giving 70% of pupils the top marks compared to 39% for comprehensive pupils. The lockdown saw wealthy families hire governesses while poorer ones struggled without classes; a UCL study found that students in private schools were five times more likely to take full-time online education than those in the public sector. At a time when children on free school meals have lost months of learning because they can’t even afford the internet, giving tax breaks to families in private schools seems particularly unfair.
The private school system is often referred to by its proponents as harmless, but advantage does not exist in a vacuum. Whether it’s siphoning off bright classmates and influential parents from the public sector, or depriving the state of resources through tax breaks, every advantage private schools enjoy erodes the chances of the poorest students. less lucky. This is, after all, their purpose. Starmer’s decision to frame the end of the £1.7billion annual private school tax break as a way to fund the public sector is a helpful narrative: Tackling unfair benefits will mean better education for all the children.
Ending charitable status could be the start of a greater drive to tackle our two-tier education system. It will require more funding for struggling public schools, which have long been starved of resources, including catch-up funds for working-class students who have fallen further behind during the lockdown. It should also include support for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (Send) who face continued cuts in support from underfunded local authorities. Parents of Send children who can afford it are too often forced to look to the private sector as their only hope, while low-income families with disabled children are simply left behind. Reports this week that Chancellor Rishi Sunak will hit the education budget the hardest in the spending review, including providing ‘minimal’ support for children who have struggled during the pandemic, n does not bode well.
Any attempt to make education more equitable must also take into account society at large and the growing gap between rich and poor families. Economic inequalities outside the classroom must be tackled, reducing child poverty through higher wages and social security, and building affordable housing to prevent children from growing up in temporary, overcrowded homes. Until some parents have enough income to pay Eton fees while others cannot afford nutritious food, the children of this country will never have a chance to move forward.
None of this will come easily. The slightest attempt to tip the scales in favor of public school students is too often greeted with hysteria by private schools. Those used to having a virtual monopoly over college places, leadership positions and power will not loosen their grip of their own free will. But progress, slowly but surely, has a way to break through.
The pandemic has brought home the injustice of circumstances, which some families have so much and others so little thanks to nothing more than a whim of birth. In a society where life is so often rigged by class, education should be an escape, not a means to entrench unfair advantage. If there are sensible steps we can take to start treating students more fairly, they should definitely be taken. You might call it the charitable thing to do.