Boarding and the Political Landscape
31st August 2017

The Conservative Party is traditionally less likely to damage independent schools than other political parties. In fact ministers like Lord Nash and Nick Gibb have been keen to use us to help raise standards nationally while maintaining our independence . The new Boarding School Partnerships website in conjunction with BSA and DfE which aims to advertise the opportunities boarding schools local authorities seeking to educate vulnerable children is an example.

With no majority, the Conservatives' election manifesto is now different. The manifesto maintained the promise that a Conservative government would require '100 leading schools' in England to sponsor Academies and, if they did not, there could be tax penalties (the business rates relief all charities receive would be stripped from independent schools).

Following the election however, the new government wishes us to extend partnerships with state schools on a voluntary basis. This is entirely reasonable and we will do what we can. In return the DfE needs to identify geographical areas of greatest need.

We have noted and appreciated comments in the House of Commons on June 27 by the Secretary of State for Education in England, Justine Greening, recognising the good work of the independent sector.

"As part of the Government's commitment to create more good school places, last September we published the consultation document: Schools that work for everyone. This asked how we could harness the resources and expertise of those in our independent schools to work in partnership to lift attainment across the wider school system.

"The Government has welcomed the way that our independent schools have actively considered and proposed what more they could do to raise attainment in state schools, in recognition of their responsibility to their own local communities. Over this Parliament, we intend to build on the positive and constructive conversations we have had with the sector to agree how they could do more to improve attainment for children from all backgrounds, and increase the number of good school places.

"Officials will continue to work with the Independent Schools Council to agree how best to take forward the proposals for more independent schools to support state schools."

The threat posed by VAT on school fees

The Labour Party is greatly strengthened by the results of the election and could win next time, whenever that s. The current shadow cabinet seems determined to damage independent schools and is committed to imposing VAT on school fees in England. Schools could probably reclaim on some of the VAT spent on capital projects, but it might still push up fees by a considerable amount. Some smaller schools might find this an unbearable extra cost and close. Some of these could well be feeder schools to larger boarding schools.

It is possible to believe that if a Labour government was to scrap university tuition fees, some parents might feel they have more money available to spend on schooling.

Why so much Hostility?

Politicians on the left and right in this country have decided that talking about social mobility is a vote winner. That was equally evident in Theresa May's first statement after having been elected leader of the Conservative Party, evident in her subsequent speeches, evident in the September 2016 Green Paper and in the Conservative's manifesto with its claims that she would create a Great Meritocracy. 

We all agree that social mobility is a good thing. People with ability should succeed whatever their background. Where it gets complicated is when this simple proposition gets wrapped up with cynical point-scoring. The Social Mobility Commission does not appear to recognise that income disparities are narrowing not growing in England and social mobility has not stalled as it often claims. The Office for Fair Access seemingly pushes universities to discriminate against independent schools. This fails to understand that a meritocracy entrenches the position of the most able at the top of a social and economic hierarchy. It also cements the position of less able at the bottom, and fails to accept that a high proportion of the difference in outcomes of different children has nothing to do with their school but with the behaviour of their parents and their genetic academic ability.

It seems that most members of the public have inaccurate or unfair perceptions of independent schools, and therefore do not like them- so attacking independent schools is a vote winner.

So what can your school do?

  • We must continue to engage with politicians: please ensure that your local MP comes to your school witnesses a partnership activity with a state school.
  • We must control our fees and maintain or improve bursary provision. There is no point in having  great facilities and great results if no one can afford to come.
  • We must use our parents to tackle their local MPs on the subject.
  • We can all try to develop a great relationship with the local state schools (and BSA is a natural forum for linking state schools with independent school members) and get them to speak up about the work we do.

But I would also say- don't allow these wider considerations to distract you from the main task of running a school successfully. Do well in the reformed GCSEs and A levels, maintain the pastoral excellence of your boarding school, keep reminding parents that success in life goes beyond exam grades- if you do that, you will still attract pupils.

The ISC are going to try to ensure MPs understand that every year the number of state sector partnerships has been growing and if they cannot treat our schools fairly these things are less likely to happen not more likely. We will hold a conference for MPs in September.

We are also going to try to make sure MPs realise that VAT will drive some of our pupils into the state sector at a great cost to the Exchequer and will, by pushing fees up and bursaries down, entrench privilege for the highest earners. Our schools save the treasury £3 billion a year from the educational budget.

We will consider to emphasise that we have under 1,000 schools in ISC with charitable status and the average school has 400 pupils and makes a very, very small surplus each year.

We will continue to make the point that we are charities and are therefore controlled in law by the Charity Commission. We don't expect government to interfere with charities other than through the Charity Commission.

Many of your pupils are children of foreign businessmen and women who have only agreed to come and work in Britain because we have this cadre of very good boarding schools for their children... and post-Brexit this may be even more important. Our schools are central to promoting future trading relationships. American and Chinese business leaders are only going to be happy to come and live and work in the UK if they can send their children to our schools, as many already do. As for our families who live abroad, it is obvious that our boarding schools open up links with other countries which will be important post-Brexit.

We will try to resist government interference with our schools because although the government sometimes does good things- like holding down grade inflation, promoting phonics and making GCSEs more demanding- it often does things which are less good and which don't always lead to the best outcomes for schools as a whole. So our independence from government involvement by central government in the education system, something which before that date was left in good measure to local authorities.

Independent schools have faced political challenges in the past. Once again we have entered a period of uncertainty- not as great as that of the 1970s, perhaps, but still one which requires careful planning and management. Please engage with your local MP over the next academic year.

 Barnaby Lennon,                                                                                                                                                                                                      Chairman, ISC

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