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In defence of independent schools

If they ain’t broke, don’t fix ‘em

Artillery Row

I returned to my old school recently. The prompt was an invitation to speak; I should have anticipated the inward rush of memories. The chatter of curious minds striding purposefully towards classrooms was the same. So too were the calls and yells from far-off sports pitches, faded almost into melody by the distance. School scarves and house ties swung into view, jogging reminiscences of communal dining, the Tuck Shop, of dormitories and beeswaxed corridors, of Elton John and Pink Floyd blaring out from 3-man studies, and the clock, which interrupted one’s thoughts with a strident chime every fifteen minutes.

Before I made a conscious effort to reconnect with a different life of 45 years earlier, I let these recollections, mostly good, wash over me. Then, I visited the names. Mine does not feature on any of the oaken boards tattooed into the living fabric of the school. During my five years there I did not shine. In transactional terms, I did not bring much glory; I was not one of its more impressive pupils. However, it gave me much I would not have received from remaining in my previous school, which, by the age of 13, I had long outgrown.

Many varnished wooden plaques, like those in the main buildings, record those destined for the great universities, the ones who were awarded scholarships or prizes. Other panels list those, picked out in gilded lettering, who went straight from school to khaki and never returned. They are listed alphabetically, from Captain Harold Ackroyd, a medical doctor who won a Victoria Cross in 1917; to Second Lieutenant William Wright, killed the same year. There are 320 of them, reminders of duty and sacrifice, as one enters and leaves the chapel. More names are etched indelibly into a low stone wall, 130 marks of a later generation, contemporaries of my father, who departed to fight other foes and succumbed in their travails. They are surveyed by a bronze armour-clad likeness of Sir Philip Sidney: Renaissance soldier, statesman, linguist, diplomat, poet (it was easier to be a polymath in those days) and former student, who died in battle in 1586.

Shrewsbury School was already 34 years old when Sidney expired on the field of Zutphen, aiding the Dutch against the forces of Spain. Since then, this place of learning has survived the vicissitudes of successive rulers and their faiths. A few hundred yards away a different former pupil observes the world he turned upside down in 1859 with his On the Origin of Species. Charles Darwin knew his theory of evolution would challenge the foundations of western civilisation and pondered for 20 years before writing his book. Its publication, he felt, was “like confessing a murder”, but an example of moral courage and self-assurance.

I was unaware of any of this when my younger self arrived in the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis, resignation of Richard Nixon following Watergate, the Yom Kippur War, and Turkish invasion of Northern Cyprus. I reported to my new school, shy and retiring, sent by shy and retiring parents. I was not upset at leaving them, and I suspect the feeling was mutual. They were good, middle class Anglican folk, whose worlds gravitated around church and orchestra. Both had benefited from independent education and wished the same for me. That day in 1974, many young fellows like me squared their shoulders and left the day-school nest for the unknown world. Though I was a late developer with pen and ink, I managed well enough and in due course headed for the officer school of Sandhurst.

Now, as never before, that world is under threat. During my recent visit, the main topic of conversation in every housemaster’s study was Value Added Tax. The shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson, has revealed a future Labour government policy to apply a VAT surcharge of 20 per cent on fees charged by independent schools. It is thought that few establishments would be able to afford to absorb this tax hike without passing it onto parents. Much political attention was previously directed at stripping charitable status from independent schools, with similar results. However, the Charities Commission itself concluded that schools with this status were meeting their legal obligations as charities. “The advancement of education” has been viewed as a charitable purpose since 1601, and it remains one of 13 permissible charitable purposes in the 2011 Charities Act. It is hard to imagine the success of any politician in arguing that independent schools do not advance their pupils’ education. To remove the clause would be morally and legally questionable.

Private education is low-hanging fruit for an incoming Labour government

Defeated by the Charities Act, Labour instead proposes a VAT attack. Independent schools expect the resultant exodus will force many to shut their doors. Estimates of closures range between 50–70 per cent, but few can predict the true outcome. Private education is admittedly low-hanging fruit for an incoming Labour government, but the surcharge is seen by many as a device that removes for them the political embarrassment of independent schooling, without actually banning it. Presented as a win-win for the Labour movement, the erosion of non-state colleges would amount to a no-win for the country, as the burden of educating students and employing staff will pass back to the state.

Through the worthy philosophy that “excellence must be for everyone”, Labour claims the new tax will raise about £1.6bn a year, although the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimate a more modest £1.3bn. In justification, Phillipson continued, “The next Labour government will invest in more teachers to fill gaps in STEM, providing expertise in subjects like maths and physics, paid for by ending tax breaks for private schools.” All very laudable, but this arithmetic makes no sense. The £1.6bn figure dates back to an article in the Fabian Review, published by the Fabian Society in 2011. Even twelve years ago, it was highly contested, at best a variable arising from the number of pupils, amount of fees and outgoings of each school. A more sober 2022 projection has concluded that with a huge influx of private pupils into state schools, or vice versa, and required infrastructure and teacher alterations, a revised net figure is more likely to be £486m and possibly as low as £19m. Big numbers painted on the sides of campaign buses should make us wary by now.

Whatever the sum raised, it won’t be much at all in terms of government expenditure, certainly not enough to help the schools budget in any noticeable way. In terms of human resources, most of the seven per cent working in private sector schools will not transfer. Training new state teachers takes time. Meanwhile the long hours, low pay and poor morale of those already in the state sector is causing the outflow to greatly exceed the incomers. In terms of infrastructure, an official survey of 22,000 state schools has revealed a repair bill of £11.4bn, to be enhanced by corrective measures needed for 174 schools built between 1961–80, most in danger from RAAC (Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete). Demolition of the latter and substitution with private school infrastructure may be the best solution, but how many of the formerly-independent school buildings are in the right place, suitable as classrooms, fed by a good public transport network?

The concept of independent education is far wider than most realise, with the Department for Education listing 2,394 independent schools in England alone. Of these, 351 are members of the Heads’ Conference or HMC, which represents the interests of the best-known private academies. They include the high-profile names in Labour’s gunsights. In uniquely British parlance, they are known as “Public Schools” after an 1868 Act of Parliament legislating their quality of output. They are “public” in the sense of being open to pupils irrespective of locality, denomination, paternal trade or profession; and not run for the profit of a private owner. The HMC schools in turn are part of the wider Independent Schools Council (ISC), whose 1,343 members in England educate most of the 580,000 children attending private colleges. Most are co-educational primary day schools with fewer than 300 pupils. A recent survey of parents by the ISC found some 20 per cent “would definitely” withdraw their children if VAT was added, although Labour think tanks conclude a scarcely credible five per cent.

Additionally, there are around 1,000 other independent centres of education outside the ISC, including 600 Special Schools for children and young people with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND); Islamic, Jewish or Christian faith schools; and those teaching alternative pedagogies, such as IB (International Baccalaureate) programmes and Montessori schools. There will be some proposed exemptions, especially in the SEND category, but most others will be threatened. It’s the smaller independents where most damage and heartache will occur. With very few families in the highest income brackets, most parents are already making sacrifices for their children. Further expenditure to the tune of another 20 per cent will be beyond them.

Apart from endless extra-mural activities to nurture curious minds and stretch growing bodies, independent school fees offer a wider choice of subjects to study and sports to play. I benefited from Ancient History, History of Art and History, as well as English at “A” level. None were remotely useful until I became a professional historian living by the pen in a second career. That deep intellectual capital has since proved invaluable. I learned how to deconstruct Ian Fleming as easily as Thomas Hardy. Appreciating Bohemian Rhapsody and Beethoven, Shostakovich and Supertramp, Tintoretto and Tintin, Shakespeare and Stephen King came as part of the deal. Had I continued in state education, I doubt I’d have had the same opportunities to row or fence; mingle with foreign students; scamper over Welsh hills with tent, map and compass; or visit foreign lands. Responsibility for maintaining all those extra facilities and playing fields, the new theatre and music hall at my old school, would pass to the state. How long before the swimming pool and sports pitches are sold by a cash-strapped local authority, devaluing the “excellence for all” argument?

Self-assurance meant I matured earlier, giving me a head start

Shrewsbury also gave me Charles Darwin’s confidence and self-assurance. It was pastoral care of a different kind from what I would have received had I stayed in state education, based at home in a small provincial town. Instead, I grew wings. A popular argument against sending children away for the boarding experience is the cruelty of splitting the family unit. My brother, who followed in my footsteps, loathed leaving his friends and family; I loved it — I was ready to leave the nest. We are different people. Many parents, if serving overseas in the forces, as diplomats or in industry, have no choice. Are they to be penalised for wanting to educate and board their kids in Blighty whilst away?

In my case, confidence led to the army, whose values Philip Sidney might just still recognise; for others via university to industry, the bar, arts, broadcasting and academia. That’s not to say state educated colleagues were in any way inferior, but self-assurance meant I matured earlier, giving me a head start. It’s that engaging quality of confidence, not arrogance, that often marks out the product of a Darwinian independent education, able to compete in today’s global arena. Far from creating elites, even in my day most parents had to borrow, save or dig deep into inheritances to send their loved ones off to an independent academy. This is echoed in other countries across the world, even in republics such as Germany, the United States and France or socialist paradises such as Cuba, North Korea or Venezuela: superior education is always available for those whose parents, or the state, believe they are worth the extra investment. In every society across the globe, families aspire to bestow on future generations the best education that money can buy. It is a freedom of choice that many consider a hallmark of a liberal democracy.

From their earliest days, most independents have sought to spread the advantages they bestow. First, they offer scholarships and bursaries to those without the means to pay full fees. In my school’s case, during 2020–21 it awarded scholarships worth £3.9m, of which £2.7m were means tested. This equated to 376 pupils out of 820, or 45 per cent, who were supported in some way in the same year. This reflects the national picture that around 34 per cent of private pupils receive some kind of fee assistance such as a bursary or scholarship, totalling around £1bn a year. I doubt many institutions in the state-maintained sector would have been able to step up to the plate as quickly as Shrewsbury, which awarded two immediate scholarships to young Ukrainians when their country was invaded. They study alongside Russians, far away from the enmities of home, and they have learned to respect one another. The ISC notes 8,793 partnerships — sharing teaching, music, drama and sporting facilities, staff and governors, and assisting university applications — with state schools. The same body asserts that each of its independent schools “partners with an average of 11 state schools”. That, surely, is responding to Labour’s aspirations that “excellence must be for everyone”.

The wealthier independent schools have invariably supported missions in deprived areas with money, resources and exchange visits, removing the divide between the two. At its best, such partnering assists the most disadvantaged members of society, particularly young minds facing the most challenging circumstances, like those on the edge of the care system. One of the most rewarding weeks of my time at Shrewsbury was spent at our affiliated club in Everton, “the Shrewsy”. It was an experience I would probably not have sought out myself, but it produced surprising friendships.

Labour will also have to confront another British anomaly, where many confuse the notion of independent education with the concept of the boarding school. The country possesses 40 state-run schools where pupils live and board. They resemble independent colleges and offer many benefits of a private education, but they do not charge for schooling, as this is covered by the state. Invoicing only for boarding fees, their class sizes may be larger than an independent, more in line with state day schools, but they generally mimic private establishments with Saturday lessons and a greater range of extra-curricular activities. For their mimicry, presumably they too are at risk. Amongst the smallest of independents is Ysgol Gymraeg Llundain (the London Welsh school), the only bilingual Welsh language primary school in London. For 65 years it has been teaching Welsh language and culture and taking part in the St. David’s Day service in the House of Commons. It and its much larger cousins are part of the educational fabric of this country. They will likely disappear when caught in the crosshairs of Labour’s current proposals. Please, Keir Starmer, graduate of Reigate Grammar (private) School, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

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