What have independent schools ever done for us?

Those who dismiss independent schools as exclusive bastions of privilege have never visited the Fylde Coast. Were they to do so, they would find a wonderfully diverse community committed to serving local children and supporting charitable initiatives. Last week, The Sunday Times published an article that highlighted the fantastic level of bursarial support offered by schools like Christ’s Hospital and Eton. Both schools are very generous but they are also incredibly rich. Eton’s assets are worth almost three quarters of a billion pounds and Christ’s Hospital has long term investments of £475 million (2022). As a percentage of gross fee income, schools like Rossall provide a much greater level of support than many of  their richer counterparts. However, few are interested in telling the story of schools that produce negligible surpluses and yet provide such extensive support to those who would not otherwise be able to access a private education. 

A very significant number of our pupils receive some form of means-tested bursary support. The Labour Party has argued rather disingenuously that, ‘schools would not be compelled to pass on the cost of VAT to parents’.  Of course, schools would do all within their power to minimise the impact, but only the richest of schools could afford to avoid very significant fee rises. Consequently, the imposition of VAT on school fees is a regressive measure that would penalise hard working parents and those local community schools most dedicated to widening access. By contrast, a few extraordinarily wealthy schools may well benefit from the potential demise of local competitors. The independent sector would become markedly more elitist as a direct result of this policy. The vast majority of the wealthiest schools in the sector are in London and the South East. 

The regional discrepancy in terms of educational achievement is a national disgrace and all politicians should be focusing their attention on driving up attainment in both the North-West and the North-East rather than launching an ideological assault on schools in those areas that are committed to serving their local communities. As a southerner living in the north, I am still shocked by the very obvious divide in our country. There are plenty of metrics and reports to suggest that this should be the number one challenge of any incoming administration. 

Of course, Sir Keir Starmer tells us that the money raised from removing tax breaks for the independent sector would be used to help the most disadvantaged in the state sector. This is shameless politicking given that one could raise significantly more from placing a windfall tax on energy companies or increasing tobacco and alcohol duty by less than 5%. Public sector tax receipts for the year 2021/22 stood at £916 billion. Within that context, the amount that could potentially be raised by VAT on school fees is hardly transformative – it is a drop in the ocean.   

The economics of VAT on school fees renders it a nonsensical policy. The Labour Party have repeatedly attacked the basis of the Baines Cutler 2018 report but yet, to the best of my knowledge, they have offered no analysis to support their contention that the measure would raise £1.7 billion for the Treasury. 

There are 435 children with FY7 postcodes at Rossall. It would cost the government an additional £3.5 million to educate them within the state system – a system that we are repeatedly reminded is already struggling. Our parents pay taxes like everyone else and yet their children do not benefit from the state system. Independent schools save the state over £4 billion a year and, as we all know,  school fees constitute a very real sacrifice for all parents. 

How one spends one’s income should be a matter of personal choice. Some parents decide to use their wealth to play the system and buy expensive houses in desirable catchment areas. Sir Keir Starmer is fortunate enough to live in a catchment area with an outstanding state school – others are not so fortunate.  However, we all do our best to provide our children with the best possible opportunities in life regardless of the type of school that they attend. 

As Peter Green, the Executive Headmaster of Rugby argues, the reality is that this policy will damage the independent sector’s ability to support the most vulnerable. The fact that a school like Rossall is able to step in and help those fleeing conflict or struggling to overcome significant issues in their home lives is one of the strongest arguments for our existence. Very often, we are providing an invaluable service on behalf of the state. Sometimes we are doing the work of the state. We do so willingly and because we are here to serve others rather than entrench elitism or provide an unfair advantage in life. 

People who visit Rossall describe us as friendly and ‘refreshingly down to earth’.  This should not come as a surprise given our incredible diversity and our ideological commitment to serving those most in need of our help. 

There is gross inequality in our education system and that is simply unacceptable. However, the Labour Party risks attacking agents of change rather than grappling with the root causes of disadvantage. In a letter to The Times, Patrick Derham highlights the work of the Royal National Children’s Springboard Foundation writing, ‘a groundbreaking charity that provides access to the right school, both independent and state boarding schools, for young people in or on the edge of care, or growing up in homes or areas where their potential is not being fulfilled’. He warns that the work of organisations like this “cannot be allowed to suffer as an unforeseen consequence of Labour’s plans regarding VAT and the charitable status of independent schools”.

Of course, independent schools do much more than provide scholarships and bursaries. Their existence contributes a huge amount to the local economy. Annually, Rossall contributes an estimated £10.3 million to the local GDP. We employ almost three hundred local people; the majority of whom live very close to the School. 

Our facilities such as the sports hall, playing fields, swimming pool and performance spaces are all used by local community groups and primary schools throughout the year. 

In January, we are relaunching the Da Vinci Academy. This provides masterclasses and enrichment opportunities to local primary children in Years 4 and 5.  Children from all over the North West visit our Astronomy Centre and our science department offers workshops to children from local schools. 

The Ukrainian Hub, set up in the aftermath of the conflict in Eastern Europe, now receives support from Lancashire County Council and is recognised as an exemplar of good practice.  It is an invaluable service for displaced people living on the Fylde Coast. Our children raise thousands of pounds each year for local causes such as Donna’s Dream House and Brian House Children’s Hospice. We are involved with both the Fleetwood Trust and the Fleetwood Town Community Trust and we host the Fleetwood Music and Arts Festival. The Fylde is our home; it is where we live and bring up our children. Consequently, our personal  and professional investment in this part of the world is absolute. 

We are proud of the partnerships that we are building with friends locally. We have much more in common with our state school partners on the Fylde than we have with independent schools in the home counties. The current argument about the tax status of private schools is a political game played out in the Palace of Westminster. It is played by those who are remote from the lived experience of those on the ground in areas such as the Fylde. It is played by those who stereotype and ‘other’ the sector as a stomping ground for Hooray Henrys. It is played by those who frenziedly applauded the audience member on last week’s BBC Question Time who argued that the government should ‘close the damn things down’. Class war is never attractive. It is always easier to tear down than build up. History is littered with examples of such wonton destructiveness.  

I am confident that, over time, common sense will result in a more nuanced position. It would make much more sense for any future government to place very clear expectations on independent schools requiring them to deliver very significant charitable value, rather than restricting their capacity to do so. I am confident that Rossall would easily fulfil any such expectation. As I noted last week, we are not the problem but we are most likely part of the solution.

The ISC and member associations have commissioned research into the economic impact that independent schools have across the UK. The new report by Oxford Economics provides national level data to quantify the economic contribution of our schools – both their direct activities and the ripple effects this has through supply chains. The numbers are substantial, and all the main indicators have increased since the previous research was published in 2018.

In 2021, according to independent economic analysis as set out in the report:

• Schools affiliated to the Independent Schools Council (ISC) made a £14.1 billion contribution to the UK economy. That is equivalent to 0.7% of total UK GDP in that year, and to the total economic activity generated in a city the size of Sheffield.

• The activities of ISC schools also have a significant impact on UK employment. In 2021, they supported around 282,000 jobs across the country, equivalent to the total employed population in a city the size of Liverpool.

• ISC schools also supported £4.3 billion in tax revenues for the UK exchequer. That is sufficient to fund the salaries of 115,000 full-time nurses.

• Scaling the results up to all independent schools across the UK, we estimate their total economic footprint to have been £16.5 billion, associated with over 328,000 jobs, and £5.1 billion in tax revenues.

• The study also found that independent schools save the taxpayer £4.4 billion every year by providing places for pupils who could otherwise be expected to take up a place in the state-funded sector. The ISC schools’ share of that total is £3.8 billion.

Jeremy Quartermain
Headmaster of Rossall School