Great Britain: heading towards a change of status for private schools?

Juliette Perrot Translated by Solweig Ogereau
6 Février 2015

The education specialist and Labour Party member Tristram Hunt announced at the end of No-vember that in the event of a Labour victory at the next elections, the party would tackle the tax incentives that private schools currently enjoy. Analysis.

Credit DR
Credit DR
Considered “public interest”establishments, British private schools benefit from tax incentives. However, this notion, according to Hunt, is problematic. Hunt would like the benefits to concern not only private schools but also state schools, thus proving to be truly of ‘public interest’ and following the example of  the partnerships being developed with state schools. Such partnerships take the form of sending teachers from private to state schools, or the arrangement of shared classes in order to mix pupils from different schools and backgrounds. In Hunt’s opinion, in the absence of such links between private and state schools, private schools’ tax incentives should be cut. 

Hunt’s announcement has caused a stir in the education world. On the one side, opponents to the project from private schools criticise the elitist image which is given of private education and assure that cooperation between private and state schools is already very developed in Britain. On the other side, some state school teachers feel that Hunt is treating them with contempt by declaring he wants private school teachers to intervene in their schools.

Beyond the private-state schools divide

The inequalities of the British school system are not solely linked to the presence of private schools. Indeed, a geographic factor is to be taken into consideration, since in Britain pupils attend state schools depending on their place of residence. State schools with an excellent reputation are generally located in the most privileged areas, and therefore admit students from wealthy families who can afford those neighbourhoods. The question arises as to which pupils are the most privileged: those who attend an excellent state school because their parents can afford to buy a very expensive house in the vicinity, or those who enter a private school whose fees are particularly high. A study conducted in August 2014 by Lloyds Bank showed that some parents were ready to pay up to half a million pounds to live in an area allowing their children to enter a very good state school.

Private schools v. state schools: what are the real differences?

British students take a decisive step at the age of 16, two years before taking their final exams (ALevels). Indeed, it is at that point that they have to decide on the higher studies they want to enlist in, and therefore which university they would like to go to. This choice is crucial because it determines the subjects they will study and and whether or not they will be admitted onto the university course they wish. The more those subjects are requested by students, the harder the selection process. Strategic choices must thus be made, and private schools are fully aware of that. They maintain close ties with the most prestigious British universities and keep abreast of the level demanded of their future students. Teachers from private schools are, as such, more capable of advising their pupils and directing them to the courses or universities where they have the highest chances of success. Statistics reveal that private schools generally present fewer candidates but receive more admissions than state schools.

The notion of “public interest” justified by private schools through the awarding of scholarships

Meritocracy is an important value in the British educational system and it is promoted by numerous private schools through the awarding of scholarships to the worthiest students. These scholarships are highlighted by Hunt’s opponents, who consider them as of stronger “public interest” than the partnerships forged between private and state schools. Allowing for the reduction of school fees (and even, for certain pupils, their cancellation), scholarships would thus be a way of offering real opportunities to students. 

However, according to some teachers, this argument does hold up:  they consider that awarding scholarships is a way for private schools to attract the best pupils in the country. An important number of Britons seem to share this opinion and approve Hunt’s remarks. According to a recent survey conducted by YouGov, 41% would like to seethe tax incentives that private schools currently benefit from  cut. 

Questioning the tax incentives that private schools enjoy can be considered as the first step towards reducing the inequalities created by the British educational system. Nevertheless, social inequalities seem, to be at the core of the issue, since the wealthiest pupils end up in the best schools in the country, whether they are private or state-funded.