The value of independent schools and their charitable roots

As we move back towards life as we knew it before Covid, with all the challenges we have faced as individuals, organisations and nationally, it is a good time to reflect on some of our experiences and the value of a good education.  It turns out, as I look back, that many of the things we have been doing for decades still carry a lot of value - perhaps even more so in a post-pandemic world - with a renewed focus on the importance of community and giving back, of personal development and relationships, of making progress come what may.  And, of course, we have learned a lot about how to operate using technology, and we are embedding that learning into our teaching as we move forward.

Independent schools like Dame Allan’s have been at the forefront of solving the enormous problems faced by education over the last two years, always putting children first, keeping our community together, and sharing what is possible with others.  We have proved ourselves as innovators, resilient and determined to succeed in the interests of the welfare and education of young people. We have continued not only with lessons but also the fullest possible range of sport, co-curricular activities, trips, expeditions and re-imagined events, in order to keep the lives of pupils as full and rich as possible.  We do this because we know how important these things are for the healthy development of young people. 

So I found it frustrating to read the Shadow Education Secretary’s recent Times article reiterating a commitment to ‘ending tax breaks for private schools’, following on from last year’s announcement of a commitment to remove the charitable status of 1,300 UK independent schools, and add VAT to school fees. This seems to me a proposal that is certain to fail in every way.  

If intended to have an impact on ‘elite’ schools, where the wealthiest members of society send their children, then it would fail because it would hit a relatively small school like ours based in the North East the hardest, rendering independent education less accessible than it is today. 

If designed to raise money for state school funding (at a stated £1.7bn a year) then it would fail because it would damage the £14bn annual contribution of independent schools to the UK economy, force closures and drive more pupils into an already under-resourced state sector.  It would also force independent schools to reassess the affordability of bursary support schemes and partnerships which benefit their local communities. 

Possibly worst of all, in the light of our experiences in the pandemic, policies like this would steadily work to silence independent voices on what a good education should be like; inclusive, innovative, traditional, holistic, broad, specialist, physically active, academically stimulating or whatever else our school community believes to be of value.  

Education as a charitable goal is almost as old as charity itself.  We become teachers for different reasons: having an inspiring teacher ourselves when we were young; a love of our subject and desire to share our passion; a vocation to help young people seek and realise their potential.  We do this work not for riches, and nor are schools like Dame Allan’s motivated by profit.  Around the world, the charitable purpose of advancing education, and its widely shared benefits in social and economic development, is understood and highly valued. I hope that our charitable aims and status endure, yes, for the sake of Dame Allan’s families, but also for the sake of the education of every child in Britain.