If the Labour Party wins the next general election which looks increasingly likely, one of the few policies in which they appear clear is a commitment to remove the so-called tax breaks from private schools. It estimates this will raise £1.6 billion in revenue. That assumes that removing tax breaks will have no impact on the private sector in terms of the numbers of pupils who attend these schools and that is a fantastically optimistic approach given that the removal of tax breaks will mean a 20% increase through VAT on the fees the pupils pay. Since these fees are already very high and have increased much faster than inflation over many years, I think the policy will have a disastrous outcome. First of all it will mean that the number of pupils that attend these schools will probably be diminished quite sharply. That has two catastrophic effects - the first is that many private schools will struggle to keep up their very high standards and jeopardise one of the few things this country is still good at and which attracts students from all over the world. Secondly by the same effect those students who live in the UK will now be forced to go to the state sector which already cannot cope with the numbers of students it has in its schools. There are some very good state schools but there are a great many that are hopelessly inadequate.
As with a lot of Labour policies this policy is based on prejudice rather than any real desire to see improvements in our schools. The prejudice is that private schools are somehow unfair and give an advantage to the well off, but these prejudices are longstanding and are not informed by the changes that have taken place in many private schools. Let's take Eton College for example, the most famous of them all which was founded by Henry VI In 1440. The initial foundation was for the education of 70 boys at no cost to their families.
Many of the myths and prejudices built up around Eton might have had some basis in truth in the past but are no longer valid. Fagging and flogging are no longer tolerated, and families cannot register their children at birth. The school has appointed a full time dedicated social action mentor to the boys and has tackled toxic masculinity, teaches empathy, has a feminism society and supports “Eton pride” and Black History Month. A recent inspection report praised the school for teaching boys to value diversity and holding debates on morality including gender inequality. Its charitable work includes partnerships with state schools, and it has made an application to open three state sixth forms in Oldham, Middlesbrough and Dudley. It has also created online teaching materials and shares these and cutting-edge research freely with state schools.
Eton is now positioning itself as a charity for the advancement of education. It has a spinoff called EtonX which creates courses on leadership, study skills, getting into university and entrepreneurship, that are sold to other private schools and those abroad. State schools get free access and more than 50,000 pupils have benefited so far. Its fees are £46,000 per annum, no doubt at the head of the market and beyond the reach of even well-off parents. However, 112 families pay no fees substantially up from the position a few years ago. The school will spend nearly £10 million on bursaries this year and about 25% of boys received some financial support. About 50 of its boys go to Oxford or Cambridge each year but that is half the number of 10 years ago.
There have been similar developments at my alma mater Manchester Grammar School (MGS) which when I went there in the 1960s would send around 80 of its 210 annual numbers to Oxford and Cambridge but again that is now less than half of that today. One very good reason for that change has been that back in the 1960s only about 20% of the students in Oxford and Cambridge were female whereas today it's over 50% and so boys’ schools like Eton and MGS were bound to lose some places. While Eton was always a private school MGS was not when I went there and did not want to be. After the Second World War when the direct grant grammar schools were created MGS became one of the leading ones to take that status and what that did was to open up the school to boys of ability from all classes in the area. By taking away that status MGS was forced to reinvent itself and charge fees for the majority of its boys.[i]
But 25 years ago a bursary fund was established and since then 573 bursary recipients have passed through the school nearly all of whom went on to university and 407 took up places at elite Russell Group universities with many gaining access to the most competitive courses. The most popular subject for these bursar recipients has been medicine and 70 bursary recipients are currently studying that either working for the NHS or in medical research.
The pupils of the school now make substantial charitable fund-raising efforts and in the last year they chose to support UNICEF to address the humanitarian crisis faced by those displaced by wars. The junior school also raised money for the NSPCC and the Royal Manchester Children's Hospital. The school currently supports just under 200 pupils out of a total of 1400 who are diagnosed with specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD and also some pupils who are on the autistic spectrum. There has been a significant increase in the recent past in pupils with social and emotional problems, no doubt because of the effects of COVID. Some years ago the then High Master, realising the problems caused by having to charge fees, set out to effectively refound the school setting a target to raise sufficient money so that no boy who had the ability would ever be turned away by the school because his parents lacked the means to pay. He set a target of raising £20 million and that has now been achieved. The present High Master has raised the target to £100 million, the largest such fund in the country and it is largely supported by old boys including myself.
These two examples of two very well-established schools that show leadership in a wide variety of ways are quite different in their histories in the way they approach the challenge. Both of them would be severely compromised if the Labour Party got its wish and it would be a great loss not only to the boys and their families involved but also to the nation as a whole. These two great schools set examples for all the others but also offer help to many others in different sectors. They are not driven by ideology. They are driven by the desire to find the best way to educate boys to make the greatest contribution to society that they can.
Sources: ‘If we’d stayed the same since 1440, Eton would have closed years ago’