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Labour’s pledge to abolish independent schools is toothless and implausible

Stephen Spriggs, Managing Director, William Clarence Education
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Labour’s pledge to abolish independent schools is a headline-grabber but if you look at the detail you’ll see it’s toothless and implausible.

There are 600,000 students being taught independently and thousands of staff.

Where do they go? Is the state sector – already stretched to the point some schools close Friday lunchtime to save money – expected to take on these pupils overnight?

Do we build 400 schools overnight?

Uprooting happy children, closing good schools and sacking skilled staff doesn’t help anyone and it strips parents of their ability to choose what they believe is best for their child.

Like many things in life, such as property, cars, holidays and eating out, independent education is not available to everyone.

Does that mean it has to be denied to everyone?

Should no-one book a holiday to Tenerife until we can all afford to go?

Why should the government decide who can opt for private products?

Will they close down Sky and insist we only tune into the BBC?

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By saying independent education is unfair, Labour is saying the state system isn’t good enough. But rather than bring standards down to match the lowest, surely the government has a responsibility to bring state education up to match that of the private sector. Because right now, fee-paying schools contribute a lot to the education system. According to the Independent Schools Council (ISC) annual census, 99% of independent schools raise money for charity to the tune of £10-15million (m) a year. These schools provide more than £680m in fee assistance with 34% of pupils receiving financial help.

The image of all fee-paying schools being full of mini Boris Johnsons and David Camerons (themselves old Etonians) is disingenuous and a clear shot to a voting base, but it’s almost as dishonest as the 350m to the NHS that was touted before the referendum. They’ll be slapping it on a bus next. Labour focuses on Eton and refers to it as a catch all term for all schools because firstly, it’s the most famous school in the world so it registers with voters and secondly, it’s a dig at the Tories.

The fact is there are 1,400 schools in the UK charging fees and the vast majority are full of kids from hardworking families whose parents make sacrifices to cover the cost. Often grandparents shoulder much – or all – of the financial burden. Yet through their tax, these families still pay for state schools. You don’t opt out of contributing because you’ve chosen to pay elsewhere, just as you don’t stop funding the NHS if you choose to be treated by Bupa. The ISC calculates that by not using the state sector they’re saving the taxpayer £3.5billion (b) a year, generating 4.1bn in tax revenue, contributing 13.7b in GDP and supporting 302,910 jobs. Labour should be thanking them, not berating them.

If Labour achieves power, it plans to take property and funds from independent schools and redistribute them ‘democratically and fairly’ across all schools. Stealing property because you want someone else to have it is simply not right. Anyway, the majority of schools are already in partnerships with state schools and more than 2,000 facilities are shared. Can’t they see it’s already working? Let’s build on what we’ve got. Not bring it crashing down.

Labour’s announcement comes days after a new organisation, Private School Policy Reform (PSPR) launched a report on how to reform the sector. Shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner said its aims to tax fees, remove schools’ charitable status and force them into being nationalised ‘match our own plans and ambitions’. Rising running costs, a hike in teachers’ pensions as well as business rates and lack of financial reserves, means most schools are struggling and even one vacancy can seriously dent their coffers. Follow through on even one of these plans and you kill the industry stone dead.

Barnaby Lenon from the ISC says the report:

‘prioritises ideology over what is best for children’ and I couldn’t agree more. Instead of demolishing one aspect of British schooling, as Lenon adds, we need to ‘work together to best improve our education system, embracing choice … to provide excellent education for all children.’

Getting rid of fee-paying schools might be a crude vote winner for some but it would take years of court cases to implement – just like compulsory purchasing someone’s house in order to build a train track. It’s a serious threat to our education system and a serious threat to independent choice.

Stephen Spriggs, Head of Education, William Clarence Education

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