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Posh UK private schools move farther out of reach

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Height of privilege: Eton College has produced more prime ministers than any school in Britain

Peak inflation pain has not passed for everyone in Britain. The headline rate may finally be falling, but shocks still lie in store for some people. Some of the loudest groans have been emanating from parents opening their private school fee demands for the coming academic year.

I speak from rueful experience. My own bill is rising by well in excess of 10 per cent, once all extras are factored in. Conversations with London-based education consultants that help place children in fee-paying establishments suggest this is not particularly out of the ordinary. Steve Spriggs, managing director of William Clarence Education Group, says he has seen increases of as much as 15 per cent. Johanna Mitchell, founder of Lumos Education, pegs fee growth in the capital at 7 per cent to 9 per cent, but puts the nationwide average at a more modest 4.5 per cent.

The average annual cost of a day school in London already exceeds £20,000 (about $25,700) or £44,000 for boarders. For the captains of British industry or the Russian and Chinese businessfolk who have helped to drive growth in demand for private school places in recent decades, these raises are a rounding error. But for middle-class parents, they are potentially life-changing. Many already live in smaller houses, drive cheaper cars and eschew foreign holidays to afford the fees, judging by posts on parenting website Mumsnet. A further squeeze on this demographic isn’t good news for an economy that is already facing consumer-spending headwinds.

Granted, in many cases the fee hikes are less than or in line with inflation, which averaged 9.9 per cent on the consumer price index in the 12 months through June. Still, they are being levied on a base that, over decades, has inflated by vastly more than the change in the general price level. The average termly day fee rose to £5,552 in 2022-23 from £1,759 in 1999-2000, according to data from the Independent Schools Council. That is a 216 per cent increase, versus an 83 per cent rise in the CPI over the same period.

Higher school fees come on top of surging mortgage costs, while house-price declines are eroding the wealth that many draw on to meet this expense. After a couple of bad years during the pandemic — which caused student numbers to decline and prompted many institutions to freeze fees or offer discounts — schools are back in expansion mode. The average increment last year was 5.6 per cent. A rise of more than 6 per cent this year would be the fastest in two decades. (Private schools have been “working hard to keep fees affordable” and the increase over the past five years has been four percentage points less than wage inflation, said Julie Robinson, chief executive of the ISC, which represents about 1,400 schools covering more than 90 per cent of the sector’s students.) A lot of that money goes to paying salaries.

There’s more. The opposition Labour Party, which has a commanding lead in opinion polls ahead of a likely General Election next year, plans to make private schools pay value-added tax — 20 per cent at present. They are exempt from VAT by virtue of their charitable status, although it is often unclear what “public benefit” these institutions provide in charging lavish prices to educate the country’s future elites¹. If that goes through, it would add a further jolt of upward pressure on fees.

This perfect storm raises the question of whether we are approaching a breaking point for the industry’s less affluent customers. Is there any limit to the amounts that people will pay to give young Johnny or Jemima an edge in the educational rat race? Will parents, out of choice or necessity, start to abandon private education and return to the state sector?

Probably not. Demand in this market is highly inelastic. Even if the fee squeeze is painful, “most parents would fight tooth and nail to keep their children in private school”, said Nathaniel McCullagh, founder of Simply Learning Tuition & Consultancy.

It is not hard to understand why. The best state schools are arguably just as good as top private schools — if you can find a place in one, which is another matter. But parents going private are not buying only educational services; they will continue to pay for the same reason that people shop in Waitrose for groceries that are sold far more cheaply at Aldi. It signifies status and membership of a social caste.

Such investments are not mere vanity. They yield reliable returns. Only 6.5 per cent of Britain’s student population, or 592,000 pupils in the academic year just ending, go to private school. Yet members of this small minority are far more likely than state pupils to attend one of the Russell Group of top universities, and they go on to dominate the upper echelons of British professional and political life. As of 2019, 65 per cent of senior judges were privately educated, 59 per cent of Civil Service permanent secretaries and more than half of the House of Lords, according to the Sutton Trust, a charity that focuses on social mobility. The very top institutions — known, confusingly, in Britain as “public schools”² — are even more dominant: Eton College, alma mater of princes William and Harry, has produced 20 prime ministers, more than any other school.

A knottier question is whether private schools should exist at all. Abolition may seem an unwarranted interference in individual liberty. So it is surprising perhaps that plans to dilute or dismantle the private-school system have a long pedigree in the Conservative Party, for which freedom of choice is a core value, as well as in the more egalitarian-leaning Labour Party. As far back as the wartime 1940s, Winston Churchill, who attended Eton’s great rival Harrow, advocated flooding public schools with state-aided pupils. And ending schools’ VAT exemption was proposed in 2017 by Michael Gove, a partly state-educated former Conservative education secretary, before it became Labour policy under Keir Starmer.

Intuitively, people should have the right to spend their money on what they choose. The issue is that private schools have an impact on social justice and equality of opportunity for everyone else. Sequestering a minority away from their fellow students based only on ability to pay is bad for social cohesion and entrenches privilege across generations. The private education market also deprives state schools of a corps of motivated and aspirational parents who would otherwise devote their energies to improving that system. A country with widening inequality could do with that help.

In effect, this is a clash of liberties — between the negative liberty of not being constrained and the positive liberty of being a full citizen enjoying the same potentialities as all, as Francis Green and David Kynaston write in Engines of Privilege: Britain’s Private School Problem. Other countries, notably the United States, have private schools and rampant fee inflation, but Britain stands out for the degree of positional advantage that they confer. Green and Kynaston call the system “educational apartheid”.

Many parents wrestle with this dilemma, myself among them. Full disclosure: I went to a state grammar school; two grown-up children were educated privately overseas; a stepson is in private school in Britain; and my youngest is in a state primary. For me, private education feels instinctively wrong. Yet parents also have a compulsion to give their children the best start in life they can manage, and it is difficult to overlook the advantages that private schools enjoy in resources — roughly 3:1 greater — and access over the state system.

Finland is the poster child for education. The country went fully comprehensive in the 1970s, in the teeth of some fierce opposition. By the early part of this century, it was outperforming all other nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in the key disciplines of reading, mathematics and science — and has since featured at or near the top of international surveys of the most stable, socially just, best-governed and happiest countries on the planet.

If Britain decided to go down the Finnish route, I would not object. In the meantime, I guess I’ll just keep sucking up the fee increases like the rest.


¹ Private schools do offer bursaries, or grants, to enable less well-off pupils to attend. But only 1 per cent of places were fully funded as of 2017.

² This is a legacy of their founding purpose, as far back as the 14th century, to educate the poor. Elite capture has a long history in Britain.

Matthew Brooker is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business and infrastructure out of London. A former editor and bureau chief for Bloomberg News and deputy business editor for the South China Morning Post, he is a CFA charterholder

Matthew Brooker is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business and infrastructure out of London. A former editor and bureau chief for Bloomberg News and deputy business editor for the South China Morning Post, he is a CFA charterholder

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Published August 15, 2023 at 7:59 am (Updated August 15, 2023 at 7:17 am)

Posh UK private schools move farther out of reach

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