Keir Starmer and I have a good deal in common. Keir attended Reigate Grammar School (where he was good mates with Fatboy Slim) and I attended Colchester Royal Grammar School. Furthermore, both of us had the good fortune to progress to Oxbridge. We were immensely privileged and all children deserve access to the opportunities that we were granted.
As is so often the way, political decisions taken in Westminster impacted upon both of our educational experiences. In 1976, the Labour Party abolished grammar schools and introduced the comprehensive system. Reigate Grammar converted from a voluntary aided grammar school into a fee paying independent school. Keir was able to remain at the school due to the local authority’s decision to meet the cost of his fees. Twelve years later, I entered the First Form at Ipswich School as a beneficiary of the government’s assisted place scheme. This scheme was abolished by Tony Blair in 1997. Yes, that is the same Tony who attended Fettes. Hence, at different times, both Keir and I had the privilege of attending academically selective independent schools – albeit with financial support from the government. If that is not enough, we both attended the Junior Guildhall School of Music and Drama where we benefited from truly world class musical tuition.
In reality, our backgrounds were neither posh nor working class. Keir likes to play up his working class credentials but his parents owned their own house and he benefited from a superb education. Keir’s parents were clearly hardworking people and I get the impression that they instilled a fantastic work ethic in their children.
I have no interest in tribal politics and I might best be described as a ‘floating voter’. However, it is difficult to avoid engaging with the current debate about private schools and VAT which is being played out in the media. Despite the predictable headlines and lazy rhetoric, VAT on school fees constitutes a depressingly vindictive tax on aspiration and would do absolutely nothing to enhance social mobility within the country at large. Indeed, it would make the independent sector increasingly elitist and undo a huge amount of good work that is being done within our local communities. Super rich parents and schools in the south-east with vast endowments would barely notice the imposition of VAT but many standalone preparatory schools or small single-sex schools would be forced to close. Indeed, it is estimated that scrapping charitable status would result in the closure of over two hundred schools.
Far from being a burden on the state, private schools are estimated to add £16.5 billion to the economy with £5.1 billion of tax contributed each year. Private schools employ more than 328,000 people and, crucially, save the state-funded sector an estimated £4.4 billion a year. Labour argues that VAT would raise a further £1.7 billion for the Treasury but the 2018 Baines Cutler report suggests that, by year five of implementation, the policy would actually cost the Treasury well over £400 million annually. This is because the state would have to pick up the cost for educating the tens of thousands of children who would no longer be able to access private education. It is a bonkers policy.
The education system will not be fixed through ideologically driven policies that crush aspiration. There is less appetite than one might imagine for such policies and it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Keir has warmed to this topic because he thinks it will bolster his rather flimsy left-wing credentials. It is interesting that the Labour Party tends to focus its attention on Eton, Harrow and Winchester whilst conveniently forgetting the other 1,385 independent schools in the country. Of course, it suits their purpose to highlight those schools which are least representative of the sector. This peculiar obsession with such a small number of schools demonstrates a lack of knowledge and/or interest in a sector that, in reality, is remarkably diverse. Furthermore, it highlights the metropolitan elite’s enduring preoccupation with the south-east. For many of the Islington set, the rest of the country may as well not exist. One polemicist argued that private schools should simply absorb the cost or increase class sizes. This suggests that schools have adaptable spaces and vast surpluses whereas a quick browse through the Charity Commission website confirms that most schools are just about making ends meet.
It is time for the showboating to stop and the serious grown up conversations to begin. If we work together then we can achieve great things. I have yet to meet someone who does not believe that all children deserve the best start in life. Dodgy economics and ideological dogma are no substitute for the fantastic work achieved by state and independent schools working together in positive partnership. Independent schools are not the problem but we should commit to being part of the solution. Those who have had the good fortune to benefit from an outstanding education should be doing their very best to extend that opportunity to all children. Progress is rarely achieved off the back of a spiteful desire to deny others that which you benefitted from yourself.
Headmaster of Rossall School