The steps taken recently to lower fees at Millfield School are an important, public commitment.
Some will scoff at the move, given that the fees at the boarding school still remain unreachable for most people, and some will point out that many other less well-known schools have been exercising cost and fee restraint for years without fanfare or publicity. Both would be missing the point about a wider dynamic happening in society of which fees in independent schools are just part of the picture.
The schools run by HMC heads are an integral, valued part of the education landscape, one of Britain’s most influential exports and a huge contributor to national and local income.
It is often forgotten that many serve ordinary, middle-class communities where hard-working parents together earn above the mean family income and who choose to spend some of that taxed income buying a different form of education for their children which, they judge, is not available from the state. It’s a huge investment.
A cynic might posture that these parents are buying results, social exclusivity or privilege and a few parents certainly have these criteria in their minds. These are the same parents I used to turn away from my school as a head.
Fortunately, education is not yet entirely transactional. The bulk of parents eyeing private education, including those who cannot afford it, are looking for a rich, positive, broad, deep, supportive and challenging experience which allows the individual development of their child and opens doors to the future.
Just as it is demonstrably unwise and educationally ineffective to surround disadvantaged children with more disadvantaged children in educational ghettos, it is equally unwise and educationally ineffective for independent schools to isolate youngsters in bubbles of privilege.
Every headteacher I speak with recognises this. That’s why they are grappling with the challenge of how to avoid it at the same time as:
- Ensuring there are sufficient pupils from different backgrounds in the school to pay the salaries and other running costs.
- Running a school in an unfavourable financial climate with growing externally-imposed cost pressures such as pension increases, inflation in schools running ahead of general inflation, the uncertainty of supplier costs owing to Brexit, etc.
- Extending the pot of money available to provide fee-assistance to families with some money but not enough fully to afford the fees.
- Building a pot of money to enable more free places for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
- Extending and funding the mutually beneficial collaborations with state schools that already exists.
- Responding to new pressures and priorities coming from UK and national governments or prospective governments such as the threat to impose VAT or remove rates relief for schools that are charities.
- Raising enough money to maintain and develop buildings.
- Holding fees steady or, if possible, reducing them.
It may be obvious, but the activities above are paid for from fees paid to the school by parents. I’ve always thought of this as socialism in action. This means relatively well-off, fee-paying parents are funding the free and assisted places for others as well as the cost of the partnerships with state schools. They do so willingly in the knowledge that it adds to the breadth of experiences and, hence, the understanding their own children gain. Few object.
None of the schools I represent makes a profit for shareholders; most run on extremely tight margins; all are not-for-profit charities with the aim of providing a great education.
Yet, great education is an expensive business, as the government has discovered. During the last decade or so, the funding to state schools has risen by about 100 per cent (excluding capital funding) and is now falling in real terms. The average fee increase in independent schools during a similar period was about 50 per cent (including capital funding) and fees are stable or falling. The financial pressure is on for both independent and state schools.
Of all the activities listed above, two stand out as mission-critical if independent schools are to continue to be an integral, influential and valued part of our society. The first is that they are accessible to as wide a range of children and young people as financially possible.
Independent schools cannot solve the problem of equity in our society just as schools more generally cannot, but we can all help. To be accessible means ensuring fees are kept as low as feasible given other demands.
Secondly, and equally important, is genuine, mutually beneficial collaboration and partnership between schools to share expertise for the benefit of all children and young people. Both will continue to move independent schools to the centre ground of our society, which is their natural, historic place.
The great schools led by my members have always served as a mirror for people to look into to see what might be possible. I have no doubt this will continue. Perhaps they can increasingly act as some of the glue holding our polarised society together.
Mike Buchanan is executive director of the HMC