Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow and Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
I went to a private school – Highgate – and was proud to be a student there. My father, an immigrant to this country, worked day and night to give me such an education.
It is probably why I have a view that some of these schools have remarkable histories and old traditions, which is worth recognition as part of our country’s colourful tapestry.
I even smiled when, for a time, some Wikipedia enthusiast put a picture of Highgate School Chapel on my wiki-page, as if this was something I would be embarrassed by – although this particular internet warrior would not have known that, being Jewish, the chapel was the only part of the school I never went to.
So no ‘hangups’ about having been to such a school, nor wishing to prevent students from attending.
But – and here is the but – I do believe that a Conservatism that works for everyone must also ensure that some institutions do not have unfair advantages over others. In short we need to be sure that there is a level playing field for all.
The recent exposé by the Telegraph of exam cheating in some of the top public schools, notably Eton and Winchester, suggests to me that some of these institutions, things have got a little too cosy. Having teachers both employed at school and by the same exam boards setting those exams for the schools seems to be a case of poacher and gamekeeper all in one.
This clearly is untenable and needs to be changed. Moreover, parents who were let down by the teachers in these schools, should have a right to have their fees – or at least a proportion of them – returned.
This episode, made me think of another subject involving private schools: charitable status. It is not clear why private schools, many of whose costs to parents are literally in the stratosphere, should be regarded as charities. To what purpose?
It is true that some private schools provide bursaries, but how much of these are for really low income students, the kind whose parents may be on the living wage or slightly higher? How many of them apply to children from the toughest estates or from some of the most deprived areas of the country?
Through their charitable status, private schools get significant tax breaks, including concessions with VAT and business rates and, of course, no corporation tax if they make a surplus.
Is it fair that these tax advantages are available to public schools, though FE Colleges and public sixth form colleges have to pay VAT on their purchases? Yet these latter institutions really do provide a ladder of opportunity to those students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds.
The private sector make the argument that they deserve charitable status because in the long run it saves the Exchequer money, as these children are not costing the State anything in terms of education (let’s ignore this time the significant number of foreign students that go to some of the most prestigious public schools).
Under this argument, any private good purchased, over a state one, should then be offered charitable benefits in kind. So, should someone who uses private health, or private health insurance companies, be offered charitable status – because the burden on the NHS is less? Would a homeowner be allowed charitable status because he has brought his home rather than lived in social housing, reducing pressure on the council waiting list?
If public schools really want to help those on low incomes have the special advantages that private education can bring, why not set up a national charity, that these schools donate towards (that would have its own tax advantages through gift-aid and the like), which genuinely offers those from really disadvantaged backgrounds the chance to have scholarships and join the educational elite?
But across-the-board charitable status for most private schools is something that should come to an end. The monies saved by Government from these concessions could be used for more teachers for special inner city schools that have outstanding results, such as the wondrous Michaela School set up by Katharine Birbalsingh in North West London.
If we Conservatives are to be able to present and make the case for a moral and fair capitalism, we must not be afraid to take on a few shibboleths – so that a fair-minded public will really believe us when the Government have to take tough decisions on the economy.
How much better would it be if it were Conservatives who counter-intuitively got rid of charitable status rather than leaving it to the left to claim the moral high ground?