The plans to expand selective education announced by Theresa May in a recent speech have been written up to death. They provoked outrage from the Left. It has had less to say about another major section of the very same address – her proposal to “consult on how we can amend Charity Commission guidance for independent schools to enact a tougher test on the amount of public benefit required to maintain charitable status”.
One might have thought that it would have cheered the announcement from the rafters. And that the Right would collectively have booed it from the stalls. Instead, silence – or something so close to as to make no difference. Let us leave the Left to its own problems, and turn instead to that quiet on the Right. Five years or so ago, any scheme that might cramp the work of independent schools would provoked Conservative protests. Indeed, one did.
Susie Leather, then Chair of the Charity Commission, wanted to compel independent schools to provide more services to state-educated children or else lose their charitable status. There was a backlash, Leather quit and William Shawcross replaced her. The Prime Minister’s approach is more subtle, but attitudes seem to have changed. What is going on?
Some will point out that about half of the 2015 intake of Tory MPs was educated at state schools. So was half the 2010 tranche. Added together, these two make up more than half of the Parliamentary Party. The fuss about Eton when David Cameron was Prime Minister masked a steady change in the background and culture of Conservative MPs. So the independent schools have a smaller group of former pupils in the Commons to appeal to.
But there is a more profound reason for the lack of resistance, and the Prime Minister touched on it in her speech. “Between 2010 and 2015 their fees rose four times faster than average earnings growth,” she said, “while the percentage of their pupils who come from overseas has gone up by 33 per cent since 2008”. Here is the heart of the matter.
To put it crudely but efficiently, the upper-class-to-better-off-middle class is being priced out of much of the market. As readers of a certain age will remember, Molesworth was unable to get into Eton (“a small paradise on the Thames Valley”), along with his classmates at St Cakes. “But they pass into GRUNTS all right which receive them with open arms”. Today, his grandchildren are unable to get into GRUNTS: foreign pupils have bagged their places.
In its way, this slow change is a compliment to the appeal of Britain’s independent education sector. However, it is eating away at the support that it previously enjoyed among a large swathe of the ruling class. No wonder the Prime Minister could get away with saying that “these schools have become more and more divorced from normal life”: they are becoming more and more divorced even from the abnormal life of the better-off.
The independent schools will object to this characterisation, and indeed to May’s proposals. Some will make a case based on pragmatism, arguing that they are already meeting the public interest test by sponsoring local state schools, or providing school-to-school support, or offering bursaries – the very measures that she suggested in her speech that they now carry out.
Others will make a case from principle, maintaining that education is a work of charity no less when the children concerned come from rich families than from poor ones. This suggests that they believe the public interest test is bunk. This is not the most practicable case to put to a Prime Minister who complains of “the privileged few”, let alone to the mass of voters.
The bulk of new money going into the independent sector is not being spent on its teachers’ salaries – even the heads’. Much of it is being poured what one observer describes as an “educational arms race” – glitzier labs; swish sports facilities: my memorial hall is bigger than your memorial hall. Prospective parents should remember the old saying about size mattering less than what one does with it.
Indeed, given the unhappiness with much of what the state sector is offering, it’s surprising that there aren’t more cheaper-and-cheerful independent schools offering first-class exam results (and a rounded education) amidst third-class facilities. But perhaps perceptions are distorted by the mass of higher-charging institutions being concentrated in the south.
There is a grim logic in the trend to more overseas pupils. If it continues at the same rate, support for the independent sector will wither away. It will risk losing its charitable status. The better-off schools would be able to take the hit, but some of the smaller ones would not. Teachers sometimes tell their pupils that their future is in their own hands. The saying usually holds good for the latter. It certainly applies now to the independent sector itself.