Jonathan Taylor: Class warfare on private schools just cheap politics

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THE trouble with politicians is that they keep on politicking. Tristram Hunt, the Shadow education secretary, is the latest to fall for this occupational hazard. There’s an election coming up, so he needs to send out a political signal: hey, let’s get tough on private schools.

It should be a suitable counterblast to accusations of Labour Party snobbery over the “white van man” flying English flags at his home. Let’s say we’re going to bash independent schools. That’ll pull in a few votes, and show we’re the party of the working class.Trouble is, it’s a silly proposal. Tristram Hunt wants to end the tax relief on business rates afforded to independent schools which are charities, unless the schools enter into partnership arrangements with state sector schools. Presumably, in seeking their collaboration, Mr Hunt feels that independent schools have something to offer the state sector. Could it be that he thinks the education offered by independent schools is better?

In fact, over 90 per cent of independent schools already collaborate in some way with the state sector. In York the Independent State School Partnership (ISSP) which I helped set up in 2007 has seen over 4,000 students across the city benefit from specialist teaching – regular series of master classes, residential courses, examination programmes at GCSE and AS level – provided by state and independent school teachers.

And guess what? It’s not a case of the independents “giving” to the state sector. It’s about all of us learning together and finding strengths and innovations and good practice in state-maintained, academy and independent schools.

The York ISSP is a collaborative model which works because of the personalities involved, and the shared commitment to helping the students of York. I can’t imagine a similarly successful partnership being created by the forced marriage of schools from different traditions. Nor would the same model of partnership working be possible in different communities. I’m sure Mr Hunt knows this, that’s why he hasn’t explained what kind of link will let independent schools off the tax hook.

So, does Mr Hunt want to make use of the independent sector because it offers something valuable, or to find weasel ways of bringing it to an end because it’s the enemy of the working class?

He will know that British independent schools are the envy of the world. They set internationally-high standards in academic education, in pastoral care and in extra-curricular achievement. They are considerable “export earners” for UK PLC, as British independent boarding schools are sought out by students from around the world. If they closed, the state would have to pick up a considerable bill to educate their pupils.

Reducing tax relief sounds like a blow for equality. In the North of England, it might even lead to the closure of some of the hard-pressed independent schools which are not remotely like the stereotypical “public schools”.

Several independent schools in Yorkshire have either closed or become free schools or academies because of the economic pressures in recent years. If Tristram Hunt wants to speed up this trend, then he should come clean and say so: independent schools are wrong, and this is how I’ll end them. But he can’t say that, because it isn’t politically astute enough. Instead, he throws out a soundbite to satisfy the political, but not the educational, pressure on his party.

The independent school sector in the North is varied, with many types and conditions of school. It has survived because it offers parents what they want, at a price they can afford: good, Yorkshire principles. If we weren’t doing something right in the current, tough economic conditions, we would have gone under. As it is, we support our local communities and, where we offer boarding, remain attractive to aspirational parents around the world. Like all independent schools, we support a proportion of our students with bursary help, according to need, and some receive 100 per cent of their fees.

These aren’t the schools of the super-rich, but of parents wanting the best for their children.

Tristram Hunt imagines there’s a “Berlin Wall” in education between state provision and the independent sector. In York, we’re doing our best to demonstrate there is no wall. The government’s responsibility is to foster and encourage collaboration, not bully schools into unhappy collusion.

Independent schools in Yorkshire are less bastions of privilege than providers of something parents want. If our state schools were afforded realistic funding from central government, they too could become the envy of the world. In his analogy of the Berlin Wall, I wonder who Mr Hunt considers occupies the East (the oppressed land of the state?) and the West (the land of freedom and independence?). Which side is he urging to embrace freedom?

Tristram Hunt needs to find proper funding for our state schools. That would be the surest way to end the educational divide. But to do that is really difficult politics, not cheap politicking.

Jonathan Taylor is headmaster of Bootham School in York, an independent school based on Quaker values.