Independent school fees are surely just a matter of business, aren't they? The schools sell a product. If they charge too much, less people will buy and they will go out of business. If they charge too little, they will not be able to sustain their cost base.
What they charge is no one’s business but their own and they can deal with the consequences. True? I believe, as an independent school headmaster educated in the state sector, this is far from true.
The education business is different because education is fundamental to society. Perceived unfair advantage is seen to be socially divisive and so, even if you can fill a school with high fees, there is the possibility it can be argued that the school is full of the wrong people.
Just think – what other business is faced with the accusation that the customers buying its product are the "wrong sort"? Independent schools do have an extra role in being present for their local community and taking a meaningful part in the aspirations of that community.
Difficult though the task may seem, independent school governing bodies do take this seriously. For example, at Bolton School the very clear ethos of the governors is to make the school as accessible as possible, within the decision they made some years ago to be independent.
None regret the decision to be independent and the school and the area are better for it. The local area has well over 2,300 young people being educated, free of charge to the state, at an "outstanding" school. The local area has an academically selective school, providing choice, which it would not have without us. The school, as an employer and customer, contributes significantly to the local economy. The 2014 Oxford Economics Report on the financial impact of independent schools indicated a positive impact for Bolton of around £5 million and a "saving" on state education of well over £10 million. Alongside those figures, discussions about whether or not there should be a business rate concession of around £300k seem somewhat tangential. But the decision to be independent and accessible poses immediate and significant challenges.
A very recent report from the Institute of Education suggests that independent schools have made a reasonable job of maintaining their social base since 1980, during a period of time when fee levels have trebled in real terms. They have done this through very much increased bursary programmes. That does work, but it can lead to a very strongly polarised pupil base. On the one hand, there are those affording the fees, which the survey states might be realistically accessible to the top 5 per cent or wage earners. On the other hand, there are those eligible for bursaries. Between those poles lie the teachers, nurses, managers and journalists, to name but a few possible occupations.
The virtuous cycle of lower fees
If governors really want to be accessible, there needs to be not only a successful bursary programme but also a strong focus on fee levels. Fees are the key driver – keeping fees as low as possible allows much more than the top 5 per cent of the population to consider them affordable. It also, of course, allows bursary support to help more pupils as well. It is a virtuous circle.
Sensing the end of assisted places in the early 1990s (which eventually was so in 1997), the governors at Bolton began active fundraising for an endowed bursary fund. After 20 years of sustained effort and generosity, that fund supports one in five of Bolton School pupils today. Governors have an ambition to support one in three. This helps the social mix of the school, allows academic selection as a main driver rather than simply wealth and maintains the values of the school. A good school can be available without the need to buy an expensive house next to the sought-after state grammar school provision.
Some argue that supporting an individual with a bursary is of little use. That child may have won the golden ticket, but what about the rest? Taking that challenge seriously, we have moved to changing our interviews to do our best to select bursary pupils who have the drive and empathy to not only benefit themselves but also, after leaving, contribute to wider society. That means a bursary leverages benefit in terms of social capital for a much wider section of society than one socially mobile individual. It is the Keynesian multiplier effect for social capital.
But all that effort on bursaries must be accompanied by much greater efforts on fee levels. Keeping a close eye on costs to ensure fees are as reasonable as possible, in the context of providing the type of education that parents wish to see, has also been a long-term passion, in both the economic good times and the bad. It has not been easy, not least as there are always external pressures on fee levels, often from employment costs. Pension changes, national insurance contributions and the apprenticeship levy are all recent examples. We have also been building. Not the famous facilities arms race. Just sensible replacement of older facilities.
Despite that, for seven of the past 10 years, the fee rise has been below the Retail Prices Index measure of inflation. In the three other years, the main issue was those external employment cost changes. An Institute of Fiscal Studies report calculated that fee levels across the sector have risen in real terms by 240 per cent since 1990. For context, state school spending has increased by 180 per cent in the same time. At Bolton School the rise is also 180 per cent, not 240 per cent. Arguably, our fee rises have kept pace with public spending, not rushed ahead of it. In 1990 the fee was 94 per cent of the national average. Today it is 71 per cent.
If we can do it, can others? And if they can, given the moral imperative to make access as open as practical, surely we all should try.
Philip Britton MBE is the headmaster of Bolton School Boys' Division