Did Tristram Hunt learn nothing from his private-school education?

The Telegraph, 26/11/14, independent schools already provide a huge amount of help to the state sector and taxpayer – much more than they receive in tax breaks, says HMC member Mark Beard, Headmaster of Tristram Hunt's former school University College School, London

Tristram Hunt, the shadow education secretary, does not like private schools. They aren’t doing their bit, he says, to help those around them. So he wants them to offer their staff, facilities, time and expertise to the state sector, and to the community more generally. If they don’t, they will be punished by the withdrawal of charitable relief on business rates, which saves the fee-paying sector just under £150 million a year. Labour, he insists, will say to these schools: “Step up and play your part. Earn your keep. Because the time you could expect something for nothing is over.” It is time, he insists, to “stop asking politely”.

The strange thing is that Dr Hunt is a beneficiary of private education. He had the great good fortune to go to University College School in Hampstead, the north London school where I have the equally great good fortune to be headmaster. And if the shadow education secretary were to visit his old school, what would he find? A nest of privilege, devoted to raising the children of oligarchs and City financiers in secluded, toffish privilege?

On the contrary. He would find a diverse population of pupils, from all creeds and backgrounds. He would find a school that spends £1 million per annum on fee assistance – the vast majority going towards bursaries covering 100 per cent of the fees (paid for by a combination of donations and commercial activity). He would find a school that has a range of collaborations with state schools – Westminster Academy, UCL Academy, London Academy of Excellence and a number of primaries. He would find a school that is involved in myriad community-service projects and charitable endeavours, which helps raise tens of thousands of pounds annually for local, national and international children in need.

Indeed, if Dr Hunt were to be so tasteless as to try to put a monetary value on the amount of public benefit that UCS generates each year, he might be shocked to find that it comfortably outstrips the value of its charitable status. In other words, the financial cost of endeavouring to be a part of our community is greater than the money we save through tax. And we are not alone. The vast majority of independent schools are doing what they can to share resources, facilities, good practice and staff time via all manner of projects. Add all that up and you reach a significant sum – even before you factor in the value of the bursaries that the overwhelming majority of private schools provide.

Hopefully, Dr Hunt also accepts the contribution that the independent sector makes each year to the nation’s economy. This is about £10 billion in terms of gross value added to GDP – as well as nearly £5 billion a year in tax for the Treasury. That’s before you consider that the 500,000 children being educated in the independent rather than the state sector save the taxpayer £4 billion in schooling costs. The economic footprint of the independent sector is something to be proud of, and something we should want more of – by enabling all children, in all schools, to enjoy a first-rate education.

Dr Hunt’s proposals are deeply depressing – and not just because of the questionable legality of a government in effect removing charitable status for political reasons. (Did he nothing learn from Michael Gove’s abortive attempt to make Ofsted inspect independent schools?) His position is that, if they are unwilling to do more to help the state sector, independent schools will be treated as purely commercial enterprises. Why, then, should they not behave as such? Treat private schools as pariahs and you remove any pretence of encouraging them to play their part in society. Instead, they could simply charge whatever fees they wished – no need to worry about social balance or pupil diversity, no need to waste money on bursaries, no need to share their facilities with the local community.

The good news is that there is not a single independent head who would want this. They know as well as anyone that the only result would be to reduce social mobility massively. But we as heads already have more than sufficient red tape to wade through without being compelled to expend further time and energy on yet more. But how else would Dr Hunt’s plan work, save with an added bureaucracy to invigilate and oversee?

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