Why “state school fees” are a bad idea

BBC News - State school fees call for parents earning over £80,000

Dr Anthony Seldon, the principal of Wellington College, a well-known independent co-ed day and boarding school in Berkshire, has suggested in a report written for the Social Market Foundation that when parents with a high income send their children to “popular” state schools, that they pay either part or all of the cost of their education, saying that it would break “the middle-class stranglehold on top state schools” and raise money, but also that the UK would be in debt for years to come and that state schools were “the last great bastion holding out against the principle of payment”. This is in fact untrue, as it is only as free as public healthcare, but there are a number of other reasons why this is a bad idea.

To begin with, education is not entirely free: it is true that fees do not have to be paid, but most schools have uniforms, some of which are expensive and have to be bought from a single supplier, a cost which has to be met by parents. Schools also do not provide stationery, and in many parts of the country they do not pay for travelling costs or school meals, except for the least well-off, either. In the same way, although nobody pays for NHS healthcare, they do pay for medication unless they have certain chronic conditions or qualify for free prescriptions on other grounds (except in Scotland and Wales, where the devolved governments abolished prescription charges in the late 1990s).

Initially, the point for when parents start having to pay is when they earn £80,000, with 100% fees being required for parents earning £200,000 or more. This sounds reasonable, but it’s quite conceivable that £80,000 will not go as far in the future as it does now, and may be closer to an average wage, or even less — much as the threshold for inheritance tax was set well before the cost of a modest home in London moved into six figures. The danger is that the threshold will for paying for public education will stay the same, even as the value of that amount of money decreases.

The second is that it opens up the possibility of discrimination in favour of those who pay fees, with the children of fee-payers becoming a sort of elite within the school. Some adults who attended private schools on a scholarship said that it was always known who the scholarship boys (or girls) were and they were implicitly expected to be grateful for the privilege. It’s possible that schools might open up the possibility for those who pay fees to pay a little bit more, and maybe for those who don’t, to pay some, as the other children’s parents do. The upshot is that parents become divided amongst themselves on the basis of who is contributing most, and this filters down to the pupils. Of course, some legislation might be passed to make sure that this doesn’t happen, but schools will find ways of raising extra money from parents, and perhaps more so as the threshold comes down.

Third, the scheme is likely to function as a disincentive for wealthier parents to send their children to state schools, which may perhaps be its intention. The problem is that if richer parents (who are more likely to have more money and time to spend on their children’s education, and to value schooling as they benefited from gaining through it qualifications, connections or both) send their children to state schools, the state schools will have the benefit of having those children there, and it will give those parents (and the upper-middle classes generally) a greater interest in making sure that state funded schools are better, and better-funded. It may save some of the smaller, local private schools from closing down, but the state should not be using punitive school fees for parents who find they can no longer stretch their finances to school fees, to keep these schools afloat. And if the threshold gets lower with inflation, the incentive for more parents to send their children private will grow, and state schooling will come to be seen as only for poor children.

Fourth, the fees would apply to parents who send their children to the “most popular” state schools, but this gap between popular and unpopular schools is most pronounced in the cities and much less so in rural areas where there is a large high-income commuter population. In some places it is not a case of some schools being especially popular, but of some being particularly unpopular. So the scheme might well be unworkable except in the case of a small minority of moderately wealthy inner-city dwellers. Furthermore, many of those with a combined household income of around £80,000 may be people in their 40s and 50s who are advanced in their careers, and most of their children are adults (unless they had children late, or found themselves looking after grandchildren after family break-up or tragedy). So there would be an awful lot of wealthy people unaffected by the scheme, and it would not significantly reduce the cost of state education.

Seldon’s proposal also includes what is effectively a revival of the assisted places scheme abolished by Labour in the 90s, on a much bigger scale with up to a quarter of places at independent schools reserved for “those from the least affluent quartile in the country”. This is likely to have the same disadvantages of the old scheme, namely that it removed talented children from the state system which could have benefited from their talents, and also that parents were still burdened with uniform costs, which at private schools are considerably steeper than at any state schools, because they include eccentric items that can only be bought from a single supplier (a few private schools supply the uniforms free, like Christ’s Hospital in Sussex, but most do not). This will remove even more talent from the state sector, and possibly result in previously good state schools in some urban areas seeing standards decline, with some closing.

The scheme has received the thumbs-down from both the government at Westminster and both of the devolved governments in Wales and Scotland, so there is no immediate possibility of it being implemented any time soon. However, Seldon’s school has produced a number of senior politicians (particularly Tories, but the other two major parties are also represented among Wellington alumni) and now that the idea is “out there”, the chances of it being acted on in some form (particularly by a future Tory government) are that much higher. It’s a self-serving scheme designed to increase the influence of the private sector rather than improve public education, but in any case it is completely unworkable since it will only affect a small subset of the moderately wealthy. There are, of course, easier ways of raising money to pay for the education system, but most have the word “tax” in them somewhere.

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