Paying for Education?

by Aquinas education
February 26, 2021

Phil Crompton former Headteacher, CEO of a Multi-Academy Trust and author of “In Search of My Alumni “suspects more and parents will be paying to educate their children over the next 10 years.

In 2010 when I became the Headteacher at Rushcliffe School in West Bridgford on the edge of Nottingham I had a mission. I wanted the school to be so impressive that those living in the catchment would not have any desire to chase places at the neighbouring school – a successful former Grammar School- and neither would they  even consider sending their children to a private school. I had been a Head for 10 years at this stage and was pretty sure I knew which buttons to press in order to ensure Rushcliffe’s reputation would take off. A high-quality free education for all was essential if the country was to have genuine equal opportunity was a belief that ran through me. It still does.

When I retired in 2018 Rushcliffe had been an “outstanding school” for 6 years, had made the short list for the TES Secondary School of the Year award, buildings had been modernised   and it was oversubscribed every year. There were many parents who lived in the area who might previously have paid private school fees of around £15,000 per year but now didn’t feel it was necessary. If things weren’t going so well, they could always spend a little on private tuition. So, mission accomplished?

But I always had a nagging doubt about the future. In 2002 I had attended a conference in Peterborough. One of the speakers was a university lecturer who talked about an education system he admired in India. There was a free state system- but that was pretty basic. And then there was an option for parents to pay something for a higher standard of education. And a third option gave a Premium education, but this was obviously more expensive still. The speaker thought this should be brought to the UK. Most of us thought he was a right-wing isolate.

Years passed. I visited some independent schools. There was supposed to be a programme of sharing ideas and facilities. I have to say that some of their facilities were remarkable. Little wonder that so many sports stars seem to emerge form the private sector. Cricket pitches, all weather surfaces, rugby pitches……. The performing arts   thrived with state-of-the-art theatres and music studios leading to the inevitable arrival of more and more big names in the acting and musical worlds with links to a well-known private school. The teaching I saw was neither worse nor better than what I saw in state schools and the leaders did not seem to be blessed with greater wisdom that their state school equivalents. What they did have was a lot of money to spend on the 7% of the population with which they dealt.

A friend spent some time in Dubai. The UAE seems to have adopted the system that I first heard about in 2002 with Premium Education on offer to those who can afford it and a lesser service for the rest according to what a parent could afford. Increasing numbers of people in the English education system have experience of what is happening in the Middle East. Is it now such a leap to see the UK moving from 93% of the population having a free education to perhaps just 50%?

This could happen in a number of ways. The existing fee-paying sector could expand after the impact of the pandemic as those with some spare cash decide to spend it on the education of their children rather than bigger mortgage payments, overseas holidays and new cars. They see private schools staying open when state schools didn’t. They look at the facilities at private schools, consider the examination results (now with algo rhythms that seem to help achieve better A level results and secure places at the top universities when examinations can’t actually be taken). New private schools could pop up and start to offer places for a few thousand pounds a year. Or could existing state academies freed from local democracy start to charge for a place?  How difficult would it be for a Multi-Academy Trust to offer run free Basic school provision and have a Premium school at the heart of the empire which charged a significant fee for a place? An Act of Parliament to extend the freedoms that some Heads were so keen to acquire and the landscape changes dramatically. 7% in fee paying schools rapidly becomes 50%.

I led Rushcliffe School to become an academy and later set up a multi-academy trust. I’d been wary and had spoken to a senior Labour politician who had told me that resisting the academy movement was pointless. Academies seemed to be the future. The alternative was to run the school with £700,000 less in the school budget than our neighbour whilst also resisting a Conservative led local authority which was keen to off load its schools to independent trust boards. I decided to swim with the tide but always was the nagging memory of the speaker in 2002. Some state schools could charge in the future. Surely not.

In 2010 almost all schools were run by local authorities and democratically elected politicians had a say. A lot has changed since then. In 2020 most are now academies with trustees emerging from who knows where to influence the system? By 2030 will at least some trust boards have been tempted to respond to seriously reduced funding by charging for places at the best state schools.  I have little doubt that if that were the case there would be plenty of parents eager to pay whilst many have no option but to send  their children to a more basic provision with poorer facilities and less well paid teachers. The already wide gap becomes a chasm.

The post-covid period will inevitably see even harsher austerity measures than were experienced after the 2008 financial crash. Schools will not be immune, and the government will be keen to encourage imaginative solutions which don’t burden the taxpayer. Will the landscape stop change over the next 10 years? I fear not. There will, I suspect, be more and more children attending fee paying schools.

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