As Head of Leicester Grammar School, one of the leading independent schools in the Midlands, I’ve been on the hunt today for some of the plutocrats and oligarchs Michael Gove says populate my school with their children. Strangely, I found not one, but I did find hundreds of hard working parents, making substantial financial sacrifice to send their children to my school because they see the quality that lies within it. My parents have a choice, and I am enormously grateful that they come down in favour of my school. In recent years we have been the fastest growing independent school in the country. I would wish even more children could benefit from such an education that I offer and I wish the children of Sunderland and Knowsley could also come to my school. Sadly, lack of geographical proximity prevents this so they must rely on the government to provide such an education. Michael Gove sees it as the job of independent schools to fund and run schools where the state should be doing its job. A policy based on ignorance of what the fee paying sector is really like and what it offers leads to proposals which will damage the very best schools in this country but add nothing of real substance to state schools. Fund the education of all children at the same level as the average independent school and then you will see a real difference Mr Gove. Perpetuating and embellishing prejudice is rhetoric of the worst kind. He is welcome to come and play ‘hunt the oligarch’ at my school any time he feels like wasting his time.
Christopher King, Headmaster & Chief Executive, Leicester Grammar School, Vice-Chair HMC
Mr Gove makes an emotional appeal for tax to be added to independent school fees in order to raise money for central government by 'soaking the rich'. Our parents will have their own views about such inflammatory headlines, and there are libertarian, educational and indeed moral arguments he ignores. But in purely financial terms, he surely cannot be allowed to ignore the other side of the ledger. In the city where I am proud to work, there are three independent schools educating secondary-aged students. Just over 2,000 such young people are educated with no cost to the state. The addition of VAT on their fees would raise approximately £5.5 million per year, but the cost of educating them in state schools would be £9.24 million according to the latest available figures. Mind you, since there are not 2,000 available places, the requirement (a new school) would be rather more costly to the taxpayer.
It seems odd that Mr Gove's party should be becoming the party of dogma and fiscal illiteracy.
Chris Ramsay, Headmaster of The King's School, Chester
Talented polymath that he is, Michael Gove will be the first to admit that he's a more successful journalist than politician: his entertaining volte-face on the tax advantages which private schools enjoy is a clever foray into a well-worn debate with its contrast of deluxe equestrian centres with Dickensian descriptions of Sunderland and Merthyr Tydfil; in the same column Mr Gove has admitted, however, that he was, well, taxed when it came to implementing educational policy (Comment, 24 February 2017). Nonetheless, this is the same erstwhile Secretary of State for Education who presided over the a policy on free schools which led to the opening of the London Academy of Excellence in Newham, Sunday Times Sixth Form School of the Year 2016, by a consortium of private schools led by Brighton College and including Eton College and Highgate School. A sister school opens in Tottenham in September 2017 spear-headed by Highgate and another consortium of private schools. On this Mr Gove is strangely silent but these, and other schools such as the Halle Music Free School, are or will be a fine legacy of his time as a Minister.
If one takes the red pen to his arguments one would remind him that the private schools he cites are not typical, anymore than the excellent metropolitan state schools he points to: the majority of independent schools are day schools which offer means-tested bursaries to children from local disadvantaged families. Doubtless the exodus from selective, fee-charging schools by parents priced out of an independent school education through VAT would lead to schools in the catchment areas of these more affluent families becoming de facto selective: the ability to pay, albeit for property, would still determine entry to very good schools.
Private schools have never asked to be charities - it is a historic accident - but they are as charities unable to divest themselves of their charitable status without losing their assets, the buildings in which they teach. By all means re-write tax laws so that there is no eye-catching cross-subsidy by the state; charge VAT if you will, but remember to re-calibrate those same laws with the reality that fee-paying parents are not taking up hard-pressed school places in the state sector; that independent schools are, we had understood from Mr Gove, a national resource of expert, academically minded graduates whose expertise is informing and assisting the state sector in myriad forms of partnership and sponsorship, all of which could stop as there would be no need to benefit the public. There would inevitably be some very good schools, most probably those without pony clubs, who would go to the wall, but I am not convinced the sums 'saved' would have the Exchequer rejoicing.
The truth is that this isn't about the taxes: criticism of so-called tax breaks is a token of our anxiety at the reality of educational systems around the world, that socio-economic advantage is the greatest determiner of a child's success. So it is about the money. It's about inequality. I had thought Mr Gove had nailed this by galvanising all - private schools, universities, businesses and now orchestras - to put their shoulders to the wheel to re-write the script, creating new opportunity and capacity wherever the educational mountain is higher to climb.
Adam Pettitt, Head, Highgate School