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Independent Schools

Volume 837: debated on Monday 18 March 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government whether they have made any assessment of the contribution of independent schools to the education sector.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare my interest as chairman of governors at Brentwood School.

My Lords, independent schools are a small but incredibly important part of our school system. The independent sector is extremely diverse: it includes large, prestigious schools which are household names, but also many settings that serve dedicated faith communities and special schools that provide much-needed support to some of our most vulnerable pupils. The sector also brings valuable international investment to the UK, with over 25,000 pupils whose parents live abroad and who attend UK schools.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. I agree with her that independent schools play a vital role, both in our education and in our economy. More than 600,000 children attend them, saving hard-pressed UK taxpayers more than £4 billion each year, because those pupils are not in the state sector. They are modern, diverse and inclusive, with a quarter of them, including many faith schools, being small schools educating fewer than 155 pupils, often with special educational needs.

Is my noble friend aware that 75% of independent schools, including schools such as Brentwood, are engaged in fantastic partnerships with the state sector and with their local communities, covering everything from well-being and sports to teacher training, and that more than 8,700 projects were delivered in the last academic year? Would she agree that imposing new tax burdens on independent schools would simply undermine such partnerships, to the detriment of thousands of children, and threaten hundreds of small schools delivering specialist provision to vulnerable pupils?

I absolutely agree with my noble friend, and I thank Brentwood School and other schools involved in the types of partnerships that he described. We have such an asset in our independent schools, and this Government are focusing on encouraging more partnership work and understanding how all our pupils can benefit from that.

My Lords, following on from the previous question, does the Minister agree that, in the perceived ideological tussle between state and private, it is sometimes education itself that is forgotten? The currently less restricted independent sector can be an incubator for forward-looking educational ideas; for instance, those of Rethinking Assessment, which submitted valuable evidence to the Education for 11-16 Year Olds Committee that school education as a whole can profit from such thinking.

I agree with the noble Earl. Independent schools have shown themselves to be areas of great innovation, but we also see important innovation in our state sector. Particularly where the two come together, we see some of the best results.

Over nine in 10 students study at state-funded schools. Teacher recruitment is in crisis, there is poor mental health support for pupils and school buildings are collapsing. If the Government will not support Labour’s pledge to end tax breaks for private schools, can the Minister tell the House how they intend to fund solving the multitude of problems facing the state school sector?

I remind the noble Baroness that teacher numbers are at an all-time high. I do not deny that there are recruitment challenges, but it is important to be fair about the context. I also remind her that pupil funding next year will be at an all-time high in per-pupil terms. I refer her to the recent results of our pupils in the international leagues tables for both reading and maths, and the dramatic improvement in their performance over the last 14 years.

My Lords, I draw attention to my interest as president of the Woodard Corporation, one of the largest Christian education charities in the country. The noble Lord, Lord Black, drew attention to the partnership between Brentwood School and other schools in the area. That is built into the very DNA of the Woodard Corporation, with 12 private schools, six academies, 12 affiliated maintained schools and overseas schools, as schools work well together. Does the Minister agree that this mixed model, which values co-operation between different providers, is a very good one that benefits all children? Does she agree that it would be good to encourage such a model?

I absolutely agree with the right reverend Prelate. I know of a number of independent schools and their local state schools that are considering just the sort of arrangement that he described.

My Lords, many independent schools host the Combined Cadet Force, and 70 independent schools share cadet forces with local state schools. I declare an interest as a former chair of the cadet health check team. The cadets is an excellent way of teaching self-confidence, leadership, resilience and life skills. If the proposed VAT policy sees schools close and lose resources, we may lose those vital collaborations. What can be done to ensure that independent schools can continue to support these excellent cadet programmes?

As my noble friend behind me said, vote for a Conservative Government—but the noble Baroness might not entirely agree with that, and she is obviously entitled to her views. I absolutely agree with her on the importance of schemes such as the cadets. I was in a school on Friday, where I met a number of cadets, and was very struck by the value of a programme such as that.

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that, should Labour enter government and introduce the 20% VAT on private school fees which was mentioned earlier, it would have a massive knock-on impact on local government, specifically for local authorities that have children in care who are supported by local independent schools?

I think my noble friend is referring to children with special educational needs and disabilities. My understanding of the Opposition’s proposed policy is that children with an education, health and care plan would be exempt from the fees. However, my noble friend is right: there are almost 100,000 children in independent schools with special educational needs and without an education, health and care plan. This will push those parents into seeking an EHCP, with all the knock-on effects on local authority finances that we can see around the country.

My Lords, what are the Government doing to try to close what seems to be an alarmingly growing gap between independent and state schools in the teaching of arts and creative subjects?

There are a number of ways in which the Government are thinking about this. A number of your Lordships, including my noble friend Lord Black, have pointed to the partnerships, and I know that many independent schools work closely with their state school neighbours to ensure that facilities can be shared and giant performances are put on. Our focus on a knowledge-rich curriculum, with breadth, and on our cultural education plan will contribute to this.

My Lords, one thing is quite striking in listening to the answers in this Question. The thing that most independent schools have in common has barely been mentioned, with the possible exemption of one of the Minister’s noble friends who touched on it: almost all of them charge fees. The charging of fees is necessarily discriminatory. While I entirely applaud the efforts that independent schools are making to make available to some maintained schools some of what they have available, would the Minister agree that, none the less, the vast majority of maintained schools do not have access, particularly in arts and music but in other subjects as well, to the range, diversity and richness that are available to people who are able to pay?

Of course independent schools charge fees, which parents pay for out of income that has already been taxed. The question here is why pick on independent schools to charge VAT, rather than other forms of education such as tutoring, for example.

My Lords, the noble Baroness made the point that the surpluses that were going to be created by raising VAT on private schools would be spent in the state sector. Does my noble friend agree that if too many independent schools close and pupils are transferred to the state sector, there will not be any surplus whatever?

That is a real risk. Your Lordships may have seen recent research published by the Adam Smith Institute that pointed this out.

Noble Lords opposite can heckle from the Front Bench, but there is a serious question about how many parents will decide that they can no longer afford the fees. Given how a school’s cost structure works, it takes only a few parents, particularly in a smaller school, for that school to have to close for all pupils.