Why won't the unions defend private-school jobs?

Labour is planning a £1.6 bn tax raid on independent schools. Who's speaking up for their teachers, asks David James

David James

Independent schools: Why aren't the unions speaking out in defence of private-school jobs, asks David James

Would you support a party that wanted to close down your place of work and put you out of a job? I’m guessing probably not. 

Might you be tempted to vote for an MP who, despite your support for many of the policies they have campaigned for, has never stopped attacking the sector you work in? You might pause before making your mark on the ballot sheet with that stubby pencil. 

Such personal considerations might outweigh many issues, including Brexit

We’re not talking here about a profession that has questionable claims about the work it does. No, these are teachers who work every day to help and support young people. These are professionals who, like all teachers, work tirelessly to improve the life chances of the pupils they care for.

But, because these are teachers who work in independent schools, they’re considered a legitimate target in an educational shooting match that has become increasingly politicised and (almost inevitably) careless with facts. 

Abolition of independent schools?

The Telegraph’s recent front page will have confirmed what we already knew: namely, that the Labour Party has moved significantly to the left on all policies, including, now, education.

Little thought is given to the children that such policies will affect if these additional costs were imposed and schools began to close down; nobody cares that many of these young people are vulnerable and need that additional level of support and stability that the maintained sector would give if only it had the funds. Disruption to their schooling is collateral damage for the social-justice warriors now determining policy. There is a new cruel disregard for those who are seen as in any way privileged. 

Abolishing discounted business rates, charging VAT on fees, "integrating" private schools into the maintained sector. Such words and phrases are semantic signposts that point to the same destination: abolition

Jobs and young people's futures at risk

In an age of confusion, futile gestures often have to take the place of considered change, because there isn’t the desire, the patience or the funds to plan something so difficult as addressing real social disadvantage. So, instead, we pick on symbolic targets. 

Attacking independent schools is a lodestar, an article of faith that no reason, no counterclaims, no thoughts about job losses, and certainly no amount of hypocrisy can dislodge from the organising consciousness of political activists. 

If an independent school closes in any community, hundreds of jobs are immediately lost. But countless other dependent businesses are also irreparably damaged. When did we care so little about such things as the welfare of children and the value of employment? 

Those of us in the sector are familiar with these old critics. Indeed, many will have attended the schools they want to impose crippling financial burdens on; others will have sent their children to us, brazenly uncaring about the double standards being applied. Education is an emotional business that cuts across party lines. 

Independent schools will continue to argue that the work we do reaches into many families and communities, transforming thousands of lives for the better, including those who attend the many state schools we work in partnership with. We will continue to stand up for parental choice, arguing that what is being proposed will cost the country dearly, both in financial terms, as well as in educational outcomes, and with no evidence that it will be of any real benefit, not least for the state schools that will have to accept students who leave the bankrupt independents. 

Nobody really believes that the tax raised by VAT on fees will seamlessly negotiate a post-Brexit Treasury and find its way into the pockets of state-school headteachers. 

Teaching unions' silence is shameful

All this noise around the sector eventually makes nuanced debate impossible. Both sides are beginning to suffer from a tinnitus of understanding, each becoming increasingly defensive, rather than seeking ever-greater cooperation. Such tiresome hectoring and wilful suspension of rational thought is the spirit of the age, and it serves those who scream the loudest for longest. Rooms eventually empty; energy saps; the zealots have created an echo chamber that drowns out debate. The last one tweeting wins.

Where, in all this, are those who you would think would stand up for teachers? Where are the Lib Dems and the Conservatives? Where, indeed, are the unions

Only the Association of School and College Leaders, under the principled leadership of Geoff Barton, recognises and supports all its members, irrespective of institution. But the silence emanating from the NEU and the NASUWT is shameful. Remember, both unions have thousands of members from independent schools who pay their fees every month. And both unions should, you would hope, seek to defend these members’ interests. 

To continue to accept their fees but do nothing to defend their interests is bordering on the immoral. But when was the last time you heard any leader of a teaching union defending the work our independent schools do, or campaigning against a political party seeking to make impossible financial demands of them? You’re more likely to read about the NEU’s latest policy on asbestos than the future of a sector that educates over 500,000 pupils.

Why didn’t a teaching union challenge the Labour Party to substantiate the claims made in these leaks, or to explain how these proposals stack up mathematically? 

The answer is simple: our main teaching unions have abandoned their members when they need them most. Standing ovations are clear demonstrations of allegiance to a political ideology, but their current silence can be even more articulate, and our unions are uncharacteristically reticent now. 

Never in my 20 years of being a teacher has my union card weighed so heavily on my conscience, and never has it been so weightless in value. 

David James is deputy head (academic) of Bryanston School, an independent school in Dorset

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