Private schools hit back at Labour’s threat

The Financial Times, 25/11/14, private headteachers have warned that Labour’s threat to strip tax privileges from independent schools will harm rather than advance social mobility by sapping funds available for bursaries and scholarships and increasing fees. HMC Chairman Richard Harman, Headmaster of Uppingham School and HMC member Joe Spence, Master of Dulwich College are quoted.

Tristram Hunt, shadow education secretary, was accused by Conservative colleagues of initiating class warfare as he announced that a Labour government would remove business rates relief worth £165m a year from private schools that were not doing enough to help neighbouring state schools.

Mr Hunt – who was himself privately educated – called on independent schools to “earn [their] keep” and “live up to [their] founding ideals”, urging more of them to justify their charitable status by running summer schools, sponsoring academies, supporting teacher training and helping to prepare disadvantaged pupils for university interviews.

Despite arguments that independent schools are a valuable export industry, Mr Hunt also suggested that those schools which profited from overseas pupils without helping local state schools were “asking the taxpayer to bankroll opportunity for the global plutocracy”. Joseph Spence, the master of Dulwich College, defended his school’s links to overseas institutions such as Dulwich College Shanghai as a business that “really helps us to sustain our bursaries”.

While Labour clearly benefits politically from attempts to erode the benefits afforded to private schools, both main parties have expressed a desire to bring the best of independent education into the state sector. But Richard Harman, chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, which represents more than 250 private schools, said that Mr Hunt’s strategy was a “wrong-headed way” of achieving more partnerships.

“I agree entirely that we all have social responsibilities, but a one-size-fits-all solution imposed from the top down on independent schools is not the right way to go about encouraging those,” he said. “Instead, we should together be building on the best examples of the extensive partnership work that’s already being done.”

Critics of the private schools’ position point out that the business rate relief which Labour has suggested removing is equivalent to just over 2 per cent of the sector’s fee income. However, Mr Harman suggested that if business rate relief were to be removed, independent schools would have to increase fees or cut back on some areas.

“There may even be a perverse result in that some schools may end up doing less rather than more outreach work, which does have a cost.”

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