Do independent schools need to justify their existence?

Principal of Dame Allan's Schools, Dr John R. Hind, makes the case for private education's benefit to society at large

I suppose, having worked in the independent education sector for longer than I care to remember, I should not be too surprised at the consistent pressure to justify the very existence of schools such as ours.

In some ways, this is a good thing: thinking about our rationale helps to sharpen a sense of purpose and direction. There remains, however, some residual disenchantment. The chief executive of Marks and Spencer, for example, may have to defend the company’s commercial performance: they would rarely find themselves defending the company’s right to exist. More pertinently, it is rare to find cases of doctors or dentists in private practice arguing that their work is not detrimental to the wider good of society. In private education, however, this is by no means uncommon.

Of course, the counter arguments are well-rehearsed. The sector allows parents – who are themselves supporting the state education system through their taxes – to exercise freedom of choice. Whilst one still cannot claim that our schools are entirely needs-blind (the plans recently announced by Westminster School are especially interesting in this regard), the efforts made by many schools to increase the provision of means-tested bursaries has made independent schools a better reflection of wider society as a whole. The fact that our schools provide higher level bursaries’(defined as offering fee reductions of over 90%) for many of our senior school students is a matter of particular pride for me: it means we are working to meet the intentions of our founder.

The provision of independent education eases the burden on the state sector. Were all pupils in ISC schools suddenly to join state schools, it’s estimated that the cost to the taxpayer would be £2.99 billion per annum

Cooperation with maintained sector schools – evident for us in the CCF partnership with St Thomas More School and in the masterclass programme run in association with local state-maintained primary schools – allows the independent sector to play its collaborative part in the national education system. At a national level, the work done by associations like HMC (the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference) in raising issues surrounding the marking of public examinations and promoting children’s mental health has contributed much to the national conversation on educational matters.

Now the Independent Schools Council (ISC) has added to these arguments with its publication of a report on the economic benefits of independent schools, produced by Oxford Economics and RS Academics. Representing 1,317 schools – which cater for 525,000 pupils and employ over 147,000 teaching and non-teaching staff – ISC schools brought in £7.83 billion of income in 2017 (excluding trading, fundraising, and other financing activities), £1.78 billion of which was used to purchase goods and services from other organisations. The remaining £6.05 billion—comprising employment costs, capital costs, and a small net surplus — represents the ISC schools’ “direct” contribution to the nation’s GDP in 2017. It also generated annual tax revenues of £1.59 billion.

It is rare to find cases of doctors or dentists in private practice arguing that their work is not detrimental to the wider good of society”

Beyond these direct benefits, ISC schools stimulated a further “indirect” contribution to GDP by the purchase of goods and services along their UK supply chain of £1.15 billion, which in turn supported 26,000 more jobs, and generated a further £270 million in tax revenues. Furthermore, the wage-funded expenditure of staff working both in the schools and along their UK supply chain is found to have supported £4.42 billion of “induced” GDP, 84,000 jobs, and £1.65 billion in tax revenues in 2017. In total, therefore, schools that are members of the ISC’s constituent associations contributed £11.63 billion to the UK economy in 2017, supporting some 257,000 jobs and £3.5 billion of annual tax revenues in the process (sufficient to fund the wages of around 108,000 nurses).

And, of course, the provision of independent education eases the burden on the state sector. Were all pupils in ISC schools suddenly to join state schools, the report estimates that the cost to the taxpayer would be £2.99 billion per annum, taking into account teaching and other recurrent costs, and capital costs associated with the use of land, construction of school buildings and property maintenance.

These are powerful figures: they make a clear case for the value of the independent sector. They are not, however, weapons to be deployed in a battle between maintained and independent sector provision. Rather, the significant contribution made by independent schools to the greater UK economy might help the sector to justify its existence and allow it to continue to play its vital part in the mixed economy of national education provision.

Dame Allan’s Schools: dameallans.co.uk