An Ed Miliband reference at the beginning of an article by a Conservative MP may seem unconventional. However, what he said as Labour leader about the “squeezed middle” resonated with the electorate and highlights a challenge for the Conservative Party that continues to this day.
As a party of low tax, it is – to say the least – problematic that we have the highest sustained tax burden as a percentage of GDP for seventy years at 34.2 per cent. This, after 11 years of Conservative-led government.
The squeezed middle manifests itself in other ways than just tax, such as in planning. Ostensibly welcome requirements for affordable housing on new developments add costs onto the full market price for the rest of the houses. This means those who were just able to afford one at market rates are therefore priced out.
Without support from government (and certainly for those schools lacking historic endowments) the potential for the “squeezed middle” problem occurs again when it comes to independent school bursaries. The life-changing opportunities for children from low-income backgrounds provided via bursaries is, of course, welcome. Every independent school I know is proud to offer them.
“Most independent schools would continue to fund-raise for bursaries, even if government support was forthcoming.”
However, the risk is run of fees rising to cover bursaries with pressure then put upon those who have worked hard to just about manage to afford to pay them: Often forsaking foreign holidays and new cars, or taking on second or even third jobs to be able to do so. Of course, many schools are expert at fund-raising to cover bursaries, rather than using a levy on fees, and there are some deeply inspiring examples of this in John Claughton’s book “Transforming Young Lives: Fundraising for Bursaries”.
I have no doubt that most independent schools would continue to fund-raise for bursaries, even if government support was forthcoming. Therefore, still more opportunities could be provided. At the moment, though, in the words of Barnaby Lenon, chair of the Independent Schools Council: “… parents are in effect paying three times – they pay for their own child, then they pay through their school fees for a bursary child, and then through income tax they pay for someone else’s child to go to a state school.”
Presently, the Department for Education shuns the idea that if an independent school provides a full bursary to a child then the state should also put in the c.£6,200 it saves by not having to put that child through a state school. That attitude from government should be worked on and changed, because co-funding bursaries is a good idea and has worked in the past. (Even a contribution from the state of less than £6,200 would be a start and at that stage would be saving the state money, rather than merely not costing it more.) Such a scheme would in effect be doing what Direct Grant Schools were doing from 1945 to 1976 and Assisted Places did from 1980 to 1997.
“The Dutch have run their school system this way since, wait for it, 1917.”
The concept is sometimes dismissed as “vouchers” as if that was dismissal enough. But what is wrong with “vouchers”? Or, to use different language, the empowerment of parents and the enhancement of school choice by giving every parent the right to decide to which (inspected and appropriate) school the money for their child’s education goes?
Untested and risky? Would only happen in some unregulated free-for-all society on the fringes of western life? Not so! The Dutch have run their school system this way since, wait for it, 1917. There, something like 70 per cent of schools are independent and the country’s fine PISA scores (the international measurement of quality of learning) attest to its success. Sweden, Denmark and Flemish Belgium also operate in a similar way and indeed the OECD reports that: “… school choice is an increasingly common feature of OECD education systems.”
“Well-run independent schools raise educational achievement even for those not attending them.”
What about those children “left behind”? How is a government-supported bursary system fair to them? Because well-run independent schools raise educational achievement even for those not attending them: By providing a comparator, by taking pupil place pressure off the state school system and by allowing for the development of mutually beneficial state/ independent school partnerships. Indeed, 90 per cent of ISC and 99 per cent of HMC schools are part of such partnerships and numerous research exercises demonstrate the benefits to all those involved.
Despite these huge efforts and the potential for it to contribute even more, it feels to me that the independent sector is one that is under-valued and unfairly vilified in this country.