Will the Tories turn on 'elitist' independent schools?

The Conservatives' electoral success could inspire Boris Johnson to hit out against a sector the party has historically and instinctively backed, writes Ed Dorrell

Independent school elitism

How will the new Downing Street administration play out for independent schools?

Will this new(ish) Johnson government, with its significant parliamentary mandate, hold the sector close, or will it take against it?


Background: Two-thirds of public support independent education

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Obviously, private schools should be relieved that Labour, with its aggressive threat to “integrate” the sector into the comprehensive system, was comfortably batted away by Boris Johnson.

But, as I have written before, that electoral success has left the Conservative government with improbable new electoral masters: voters from socioeconomic and geographical groups who are much less interested in independent schools. Ministers might decide that duffing up the sector for being "elitist" could play well in these areas.

And so we find ourselves in an odd situation in which the Johnson-led Conservatives, who instinctively and historically have been advocates of independent education, might have a potential political reason to turn against them. If they were to do so, they would, in fact, be echoing the threats to the sector issued by Theresa May’s government, which was keen (before its botched election) to force the big public schools to sponsor new academies or even grammar schools. 

The options open to the current crop of education ministers range from holding independent schools in a warm embrace, right up to threatening their very existence.

The former could include some kind of headline-grabbing initiative that resembles the long-dead (but much-discussed) assisted places scheme, which would be welcomed by very many independent heads. The latter could feature using the promise of removing charitable status or of inflicting business rates and VAT on fees as a way of getting schools to widen access to poorer students or widening access to their facilities.

The smart money currently leans towards a strange hybrid of the two. I understand one outcome could be a proposal that both highlights the brilliance of the independent sector, while also more-or-less forcing it to do something to open up admissions to a much wider and economically diverse demographic (albeit subsidised).

Whether that would be welcomed by the private school community or seen as too aggressive an incursion on their cherished independence is as yet unclear.

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