Keir Starmer’s pledge earlier this week to end lucrative tax breaks for private schools has predictably brought out the usual criticisms.
The Executive Director of the Independent Schools Council, Julie Robinson, told The Times that it was wrong to “put politics before the interests of young people.” Presumably, Robinson didn’t mean the interests of most young people – just those whose families can afford tens of thousands of pounds in tuition.
The “charitable status” of private schools has been a long-standing oxymoron. These institutions amass benefits for the rich – and then are 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, of the idea that private schools deserve tax breaks because they provide scholarships to the poorest children (in fact, “financial aid” is considerably. more likely to go to affluent middle-class families), to the claim that tax breaks allow ordinary families to purchase elite education (the average annual fee for independent schools is £ 15,191, by some estimates half the average UK wage, before tax). It is a testament to the hold that class privilege has in this country that even such a modest attempt to keep private schools under control is repeatedly met with resistance.
There is a chance that the pandemic will be the turning point. More than a year of unprecedented disruption in schooling has exposed – and widened – the gap between fee-paying school youth and the public sector. Pupils in private schools were handpicked for higher results at level A, with independent schools in England giving 70% of pupils the best marks compared to 39% for comprehensive pupils. The lockdown saw wealthy families hiring housekeepers while the poorest struggled without lessons; A UCL study found that students in private schools were five times more likely to have near-full-time online education than those in the public sector. In an age when kids with 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 supporters as if it were harmless, but the advantage does not exist in a vacuum. Whether it’s siphoning off brilliant classmates and influential parents from the public sector, or depriving the state of resources through tax breaks, every perk that private schools enjoy erodes the life chances of lesser students. fortunate. This is, after all, their goal. Starmer’s decision to end the £ 1.7bn annual tax break for private schools as a way to fund the public sector is a useful narrative: tackling unfair benefits will mean better education for all children .
The end of charitable status could be the start of a greater willingness to tackle our two tier education system. This will require more funding for struggling public schools, which have long been starved of resources, including catch-up funds for working-class students who fell further behind during the lockdown. It should also include support for students with special educational needs and disabilities (Send) who face constant cuts in aid from underfunded local authorities. Parents of Send children who can afford it are too often forced into the private sector as their only hope, while low-income families with disabled children are simply left without. Reports this week that Chancellor Rishi Sunak will hit the education budget the hardest when reviewing spending, including giving only “minimal” support to children who have weathered the pandemic, do not bode well.
Any attempt to make education fairer must also take into account society at large and the growing divide between rich and poor families. Address economic inequalities outside the classroom, reducing child poverty through higher wages and social security, and building affordable housing to prevent children from growing up in temporary and overcrowded homes . As long as some parents have enough income to pay Eton’s fees while others cannot afford to buy nutritious food, the children of this country will never have a chance to move forward.
None of this will happen easily. Even the slightest attempt to tip the scales in favor of public school students is too often met with private school hysteria. Those who are used to having a virtual monopoly on university places, high-level positions and power will not willingly relax their hold. But progress, slowly but surely, has a way to break through.
The pandemic has brought out the unfairness of the circumstances, which some families have so much and others so little by nothing more than a birth oddity. In a society where life is so often rigged by the class, education should be a loophole, not a way to entrench unfair advantage. If there are sensible steps we can take to begin to treat students more fairly, they certainly should be taken. You might call it the charitable thing to do.