‘Independent schools don’t need lessons from politicians in how to work with the state sector’

TES, 25/11/14, former HMC Chairman, Bernard Trafford, headmaster of the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle responds to Tristram Hunt.

So the Labour Party is having another pop at independent schools: no surprises there. Independently educated shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt has given up on playing the charity card, demanding instead that schools like mine earn their “significant tax-breaks” by supporting neighbouring maintained schools.

Let’s start with the implication, oft-repeated, that independent schools are wallowing – like pigs in muck – in tax concessions. It’s true that we pay reduced business rates and corporation tax. However, as charities we make no profit, merely a prudent modest surplus, so the latter would represent only some 2 per cent of our annual turnover – even if applied. As for the former, that reduction represents less than the same again.

Oh, and while we’re at it, stop thinking we don’t pay VAT. True, VAT is not chargeable on school fees: that’s European law (applying to universities too). But we pay VAT on everything we buy. My school is in the process of paying a whacking £1.4 million to the government, 20 per cent VAT on the cost of a current building programme.

Mr Hunt wants independent schools to send expert or shortage-subject teachers into maintained schools to help out or to share best practice. Well, we already do – and we help with advice and even interview practice for top universities. There must be few independent schools that don’t share experience with their neighbours, and we all know this works in both directions: my school has plenty to learn from the schools it has contact with. All this is just “what we do”, and we don’t need lessons from politicians in how to do it.

But can we actually second, say, a maths teacher to another school that’s short of one? My teachers are fully deployed: they don’t have spare time on their hands. If they are in another school, who covers their teaching? By opting for independent education, parents pay for the maintained system through their taxes and then pay school fees on top, post-tax. If I start lending out my teachers, they might wonder why they are expected to subsidise the other sector a second time.

Both the coalition and Labour want to twist the arms of independent schools to go even further than this and sponsor academies. One of the carrots offered with that stick, perhaps to offset the huge commitment of time and resource that full-blown sponsorship requires, is that our schools can stamp our brand on the academy. That may suit some; for others that is no inducement at all. We have no desire to become some kind of national or global brand.

There is a wonderful and innovative new primary free school in the poorest part of my city, the West Newcastle Academy: I can honestly claim that, without my school’s support, its bid would not have succeeded. We still help now that it’s up and running, more than ever, but it’s not a formal sponsorship, and neither school wants it to be. We do it informally because we believe in it, and it works for us both.

That’s the trouble with the heavy hand of politicians. Mr Hunt is talking about setting “partnership standards”. As with every other government initiative, we can be pretty sure that a simplistic and/or inflexible tick-box scheme will be imposed, constraining the ability of schools to partner as suits them best – and to be able to say with realism and honesty, this much we can do, but more we cannot.

Finally, Mr Hunt demands that independent schools throw open their sports facilities and opportunities to avoid what he described on radio as the “embarrassment” of so many top sportspeople coming from independent schools. He and his fellow politicians should look to their own actions.

Successive governments have sold off playing fields. They exert such pressure on maintained schools to hit exam targets that we see sports fixtures against their Year 11 teams cancelled because pupils cannot miss extra GCSE classes. And they lean on their teachers so hard that there is little incentive to coach teams after school or on Saturdays; those who continue to do so are little short of heroic.

There’s something very British about the way we treat success with suspicion and envy instead of rejoicing in it. Independent schools don’t have all the answers, but this demand that they intervene in the maintained sector demonstrates that we have quite a lot of them. On that basis we are part of the solution, not the problem.

It’s time for our politicians, and particularly Tristram Hunt, to stop resenting our success and instead learn from it, to stop threatening and trying to squeeze us and instead genuinely engage with us.

Unfortunately, I fear that that is still a long way off.

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